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Selkirk: From mill to modern community

Twenty years later, last piece of development puzzle on track
The Selkirk site today includes condominiums, offices and commercial space. The last building is going along the water, above left, over a parking lot.

Two decades after the Jawl family bought a 25-acre former sawmill site on Gorge Road, the final project is going up on the Selkirk Waterfront.

Heavy equipment is preparing the last piece of the mill site for a six-storey, $17-million building that will be ready for B.C. Investment Management Corp. in 2015, said Robert Jawl of Jawl Properties. Already based at Selkirk, the agency will consolidate operations in the building, which is designed by D'Ambrosio Architecture and Urbanism.

The building will have 51,000 square feet of offices on its upper four floors, 3,000 square feet of retail-commercial and eight higher-end condominiums facing the water, Jawl said.

Walkways on two office levels will link it with the adjacent building, where B.C.

Investment Management staff already work.

Heavy industry was once the norm around Victoria's waterways. But tough times in the forest industry saw the mill - owned by B.C.

Forest Products and later Fletcher Challenge - close in the summer of 1989.

The City of Victoria wanted something special on the high-profile property and discouraged a warehouse proposal from Price Club. The Jawls purchased the land in 1991 and set out with a seven-year plan that stretched nearly three times longer.

"We bought the property because ... we thought it had potential for improvement," Mohan Jawl said.

Jawl worked at the mill in high school. He worked nights in the planer mill hauling wood with his three brothers with little idea at the time he would help to reinvent the property.

"We didn't know exactly what sort of development would be appropriate for the site or what sort of development would be approved."

The Jawls worked with a trio of young architects - Peter de Hoog, Christopher Rowe and Franc D'Ambro-sio (who still is based at Selkirk) - as well as the Burnside Gorge Community Association, various engineers and the City of Victoria. Together, they crafted an award-winning development that set an example on how to create a place to work and play, with housing, parks and commercial space.

The last project will bring to 20 the number of buildings on the site.

"In terms of architecture and design, [Selkirk Waterfront] has really been first-rate," said Victoria Coun.

Pamela Madoff. Its development plan was called "new urbanism," she said, noting the three architects "put their hearts and souls into it."

The Jawls "do what they say they are going to do," Madoff said. "Obviously it's a business, but I think they really understand and support community."

This site brought a new challenge to its owners. "It was a leap for us in that the type of development was something we had not done before," Jawl said.

Ground-breaking features such as brick paving and traffic circles all needed city approval, he said. "They showed a lot of confidence in us and we felt a lot of responsibly as a consequence."

"It turned out to be something very close to what we had hoped to do on the site," Jawl said. "That really is a sign of a community when you have so many different uses coming together and working reasonably well."

Most buildings are owned by the developer, other than one office complex and condos, always intended to be sold. "One of the commitments we made was not only to undertake the development but to see it through," Jawl said.

Selkirk's build-out took longer than the seven years originally expected. "It's a lesson we learned during the course of that project, that time lines are very tenuous and really are driven by market conditions," Jawl said.

Today the site again plays an important economic role. A conservative estimate puts 2,000 office and retail workers at Selkirk, said Robert Jawl.

Restaurants, a chiropractor, salon, gym, rowing club and festivals are part of its makeup. Maple trees with bright orange, red and gold leaves are planted throughout. Viewpoint stations, a boardwalk, public art and benches invite visitors.

Linette Abbot walks SPCA dogs through the property, linked to the Selkirk Trestle and the Galloping Goose. "I love the bird life, especially this time of year. There are a lot of migratory birds," she said this week.

Among its contemporary style buildings and infrastructure, physical reminders of the lumber business remain in old machinery now used as art. During recess this week, Grade 1 and 2 students raced happily into one of its parks to climb on huge concrete forms once used for loading.