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Editorial: Colwood project looks promising

It’s good to dream big, but big dreams can turn into huge nightmares when they outstrip reality. That’s what happened to the Capital City Centre project at Colwood Corners, a $1.

It’s good to dream big, but big dreams can turn into huge nightmares when they outstrip reality. That’s what happened to the Capital City Centre project at Colwood Corners, a $1.2-billion proposal that turned into a large hole in the ground and massive losses for investors.

A more modest proposal for the site came before Colwood city council Monday. While it comes too late for those who lost money on the original project, the new plan is a positive development, more in keeping with the community and the economy.

Capital City Centre was to be Vancouver Island’s largest development, consisting of residential high-rise towers, four office towers, four-storey, wood-framed residential buildings with commercial components, two-storey townhomes, multi-storey office buildings and a public plaza with various amenities.

The project was to be built in phases over 20 years at a cost of $1.2 billion.

The plan was far too ambitious. Although the developer, League Assets, had $418 million in assets, it also had $233 million in liabilities, owed $369 million to investors and had serious cash-flow problems.

When the project stalled in 2013 for lack of financing, it comprised a huge hole in the ground, a partly built parkade and the strip mall that was already on the site when it was purchased. Bankruptcy proceedings started.

In 2014, Onni Group, an experienced Vancouver developer, took over the Colwood project for $17.5 million. On Monday, it presented its scaled-down concept for the site to Colwood council.

The project promises to be a good fit for Colwood. It will consist of six new residential and retail/commercial buildings, and would take 15 to 18 months to build once all permits are in place.

The region’s history abounds with ambitious projects that never made it out of the planning stage, says Dorothy Mindenhall, architectural historian and author of Unbuilt Victoria, a book on ideas that never progressed much beyond the drafting table.

“The ideas were there, the grand plans were there,” she said, “but there was very little money for anything.”

In the case of public projects, it was difficult to get buy-in from the provincial government.

“The province was not into spending in Victoria,” she said. “It would rather spend in Vancouver.”

Had all those ambitious plans come to fruition, Victoria would look quite different today, perhaps with a bank of high-rise buildings on the waterfront. Whether that’s good or bad depends on the project.

“There were all sorts of plans for city hall, which was falling down in the early part of the 20th century,” she said. Plans were formed to build a huge, multi-government complex on Yates Street, but that needed provincial co-operation, which didn’t happen. Thus, Victoria still has a historic city hall.

Mindenhall said she’s sad some of the plans came to naught, such as a downtown market similar to Vancouver’s Granville Street.

“That would have fit in with the small-town ethos of Victoria,” she said. “But it didn’t come to pass, and we still have parking lots on one of the finest waterfronts in the world.”

She said developers should always consider the neighbourhood when they build, particularly when it comes to heritage and ambience.

Modern is good, she said, if it is good quality and respects the neighbourhood.

The Onni project promises to do that, and will brighten the Island Highway corridor, largely characterized by generic North American commercial development.

The failure of the Capital City Centre has meant painful losses for investors and frustration for Colwood. It will be good to see construction resume.

The new project promises less than the original proposal, but it should deliver more.

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