Development aims to bring new heart to Esquimalt’s core

Esquimalt streets are lined with historic character homes set amid mature landscaping. Its waterfront has some of the most scenic views in the region. It’s home to Canada’s Pacific naval base and it’s minutes from downtown Victoria.

But until now, it has lacked a central gathering place and venue for special events.

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Across the street from Esquimalt’s Memorial Park, a massive construction project is rising out of the former public works yard to fill that gap, with the creation of a multi-purpose town square for the community of more than 17,000. The square will be surrounded by offices, condominiums, rental housing, a new library, a coffee shop and a bistro-pub.

A plaza and outdoor art walk will enliven the open space. There will be 215 parking stalls, below ground and in a smaller surface lot on the east side of the site, bordered by Esquimalt Road, Park Place and Carlisle Avenue.

Construction began in the spring of 2017.

Vancouver’s Aragon Properties bought the city-owned land for $4.613 million to develop the Esquimalt Town Square next to the town hall at 1229 Esquimalt Rd.

Aragon is contributing $300,000 worth of public art, including local art mounted on six plinths along an art walk through the site. Artist Bill Porteous has created a design for the façade of the building facing Esquimalt Road.

Aragon, which earlier purchased the English Inn on Lampson Road, and other developers are paying attention to Esquimalt.

Other projects in the township include Avenir Senior Living’s 11-storey building at 622 Admirals Rd. Construction began this year on the $80-million Vista, which will have 181 units in a seniors residence, plus 5,000 square feet for the Esquimalt Dockyard branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.

The municipality recently approved third reading for a 10-storey mixed-use project at 899 Esquimalt Rd. by Lexi Group of Vancouver. As well, Lampson Corner Nominee Ltd. has submitted a rezoning proposal to develop 102 condominiums and townhouses in a six-storey proposal for the corner of Esquimalt Road and Lampson Street.

At the same time, Esquimalt is in the midst of allocating $17 million it received from the Capital Regional District in return for allowing a sewage treatment plant at McLoughlin Point. This includes $5 million dedicated to downtown recreational facilities.

At Esquimalt Town Square, the first condo residents are expected to move in by the spring.

“It has been a long time coming, but it is a project that we are extremely proud of and can’t wait for,” said Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins. “The interest in it and the excitement in town is pretty amazing.”

Desjardins announced in the spring of 2016 that a memorandum of understanding had been signed with Aragon, calling the project a catalyst for development in Esquimalt for years to come.

She pointed out that the square is close to other services, such as the Esquimalt Recreation Centre and shopping. Nearby businesses, including restaurants, are looking forward to more walk-in patrons. “The economic benefit to the businesses in the area is going to be really significant.”

Desjardins anticipates the 68 condominiums and 34 rental units will attract both current residents and newcomers to the municipality. Rental units will help assist with the shortage of rental housing, she said.

The township will be a strata owner for the library, paying $3.5 million for the shell of the library’s portion of the building. Another $2.4 million is anticipated to cover interior and furnishing costs, municipal staff said.

Doug Fraser, whose father founded Len Fraser Barber Stylist on Esquimalt Road in 1976, predicts the new town square will “make a big difference for everyone” and bring more business to Esquimalt.

“That’s great news. We need some new infrastructure,” he said, adding Esquimalt’s existing stock of higher-density buildings is old and new ones are needed. “We’ve watched a lot of other communities around us develop and we’ve missed the boat — and it’s finally here.”

He compared Esquimalt with Vancouver’s Kitsilano many years ago. “We’ve got such great history, parks, all our infrastructure is in, we’ve got sidewalks, streetlights, great people, recreation. We’ve got all these things and people are starting to discover it.”

Luke Ramsay, Aragon development manager, said construction costs total about $40 million. Three buildings are six storeys tall, with the office and library building at five storeys. The four buildings will total about 162,000 square feet.

Aragon will retain ownership of the office space and of the rental-commercial building.

The goal is to appeal to a range of residents, from young families to downsizers. “We just see this as a place for community and that community, in a lot of ways, starts with young families, and it is sort of rounded out by multi-generational [residents].”

Ramsay expects that between 180 and 200 residents will live on site.

Condo prices are expected to range from $529,900 for one bedrooms to $675,000 for two bedrooms and $808,900 for three bedrooms. Rental rates have not been set yet.

Environmentally friendly features include a shared geothermal system for heating and cooling. Commercial space will produce heat through the winter to go back into the central system so that it can be used in residential buildings. The library building is using sustainable mass-timber construction.

Stormwater will be managed under plans drawn up by landscape architect Murdoch de Greeff Inc. Rain gardens will recycle water and reduce the amount of water going into the stormwater system.

Each condo unit has a parking stall with an electric car-charging plug already installed. “We were one of the first developers to do it in Vancouver and we had a lot of success in launching it in our first project,” Ramsay said.

Additional electric-car-charging outlets are planned, but details are still being worked out.

The Esquimalt Roasting Company is taking one of the commercial spots. Talks are underway with potential operators of a bistro-restaurant and occupants of the office space.

A shortage of available trades workers has affected the project, as it has others in the region — Ramsay said development is a few months behind.

Aragon does its own construction management and this is its first project on Vancouver Island. Forming relationships with sub-trades has been a key part of the project, Ramsay said.

In the next couple of months, a public call for expressions of interest for artwork will be issued for four of the six plinths planned. Those selected will receive a stipend to submit proposals. Two plinths will hold art dedicated to reconciliation.

Architect Franc D’Ambrosio, of D’Ambrosio architecture + urbanism, which is part of the town square project team, said the Esquimalt Town Square project is “really creating a centre of town, giving the town hall a pride of place, creating a public square and then defining that square with major uses and mixed use.”

Tenants will bring animation and life to that part of Esquimalt, he said. “I think it is really creating a kind of nucleus, a downtown. It is kind of scattered now.”

The square will be available for local markets and performances. It will have electricity and custom-designed lighting, a performance space and casual sitting areas, D’Ambrosio said, noting the trees have been preserved. “It will create an identifiable civic place while it accommodates a lot of residents, both condominiums and rental,” as well as the library, offices and commercial space, he said.

Ty Whittaker, executive vice-president at Colliers International’s Victoria office, said Esquimalt has done a good job of creating a master plan for its downtown core and providing density to attract developers to the community.

Noting that it’s just five minutes from Victoria’s downtown core, Whittaker anticipates more density in the area in future. “Esquimalt is becoming more and more central as the West Shore continues to expand.”

Graham Smith, a vice-president at Colliers who is handling office and commercial leasing at the town square, said the development is a “huge benefit” to Esquimalt because it solidifies the municipality’s downtown core. The library will be a “wonderful anchor that will pull residents from the community to that location,” he said.

Office leasing in Esquimalt is more attractive because parking is available and the space is less expensive than in downtown Victoria, he said.

“It’s close to downtown, but not in downtown. It’s easy to get to for people, either on their bikes or in their cars or on transit. So there’s a lot of benefits to the location.”

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