Much of capital region’s growth will happen on the West Shore

It will be older, bigger, taller and a little broader, but don’t expect Greater Victoria to be fundamentally different over the next few decades.

Barring the development of any big game-changers — hover car, anyone? — current trends are likely to continue, experts say: the population is going to grow, it will also get older, and increased demand from normal growth and migration will force densification in the urban centre and suburban spread outside the core.

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“The change will be gradual but still highly significant,” says consultant and futurist Ken Stratford, the former chief executive of Business Victoria. “The big issue is capacity demand. People want to live here, and our capacity to absorb that will be limited.”

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Welcome to retirement city

A recent report by the Bank of Montreal suggests 15 per cent of Canadian baby boomers plan to retire in Victoria. Add that into the mix with a population that is healthier and living longer, continued migration from other regions, a student population that may decide to stay after university and over time you get a significant growth in population.

According to B.C. Stats, 423,743 people are expected to be living in the capital region by 2025 and 456,377 by 2035, increases of 11.0 and 19.6 per cent, respectively, from the 381,743 estimated to be living here now.

While the numbers look impressive, B.C. Stats says the growth rate for the region is 0.9 per cent a year while the provincial average will be 1.3 per cent.

While the numbers alone provide pressure, University of Victoria economics professor Brock Smith said they contain a bigger challenge: “The interesting thing about that population growth is that it skews older.”

According to figures from B.C. Stats, people over 65 make up 20 per cent of the capital region’s population. By 2035, it’s expected to be nearly 30 per cent.

Growth in that segment is considered high, though other regions will see similar increases.

Currently, 14 per cent of the Greater Vancouver population is 65 or older. That will be 22 per cent in 20 years. In the Fraser Valley, the percentage will go from 16 per cent to 21 per cent. In the Central Okanagan, it goes from 19 to 25 per cent.

“That has some implications for housing,” says Smith. “With a number of fairly wealthy retirees, housing prices may go up, and it may make it increasingly more difficult for young people and families to work here. If we don’t have the workforce, businesses go away.”

The West Shore is what's left

The trend will likely continue pushing families looking for detached homes to the West Shore.

Stratford says it comes with a warning. “The West Shore is what’s left, where there’s opportunity for development — but that window won’t be open for very long,” he says. “Given a restoration of significant economic growth, I think we’ll find the carrying capacity of the West Shore is maybe 15 years.”

Matthew Baldwin, director of planning for the City of Langford, says the area is pretty much spoken for, with large parcels of developable land already zoned for development and subdivision.

“How quickly they get developed is a matter of demand, but [Bear Mountain, Skirt Mountain, Olympic View and Westhills] represent the reservoir of developable urban land. If Metchosin remains rural forever, what you see in currently zoned Langford and Colwood is kind of it,” Baldwin says, noting the focus would then turn to redevelopment and replacement, like what is seen in the core municipalities.

That could come more quickly than people think.

According to the Capital Regional District, Colwood’s population will more than double to 33,553 and Langford’s will grow by 90 per cent to 55,554 by 2038. At the same time, Metchosin is looking at a 25 per cent growth in population, while Highlands faces 42 per cent and Sooke eyes 52 per cent.

The West Shore is also facing an aging population, which could make future developments more dense than they have been, Baldwin says. “A change of demographics will drive a change toward higher-density, multi-family developments, largely because an older population will want to be living in closer community with others and closer to shops, services and transportation opportunities.”

Growing old together

The aging population will also lead to physical changes — better transportation, wider sidewalks, improved accessibility and lighting. But the alterations are expected to be subtle.

Michael Hayes, a professor at the University of Victoria’s school of public health, said the region “has an incredible sensitivity toward that already — access for people with issues in moving around, the older people and disabled.”

“That’s not only true for Victoria, but that will be situated against a larger backdrop where universal design will become more the norm,” says Hayes. “I think it’s happening now.”

Baldwin agrees, noting the region crossed that hurdle years ago. The needs of an aging population are similar to those for people with disabilities. “There is such a small incremental cost in making a sidewalk wider at the time of first construction that we have gone to that different standard,” he says.

Building up, not out

That’s very much the thinking already in Victoria, where there is little developable land left.

Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin says the next 20 to 30 years will “see the city preserve strong residential communities, enhance our vibrant urban villages.” Significant growth and development will be concentrated in the downtown.

“We intend it to be thoughtful development that reflects the charm and character of the city, but we recognize we need to grow the tax base and provide economic opportunities, and we realize people want the density in downtown,” Fortin says.

That means building up and continuing with the well-established trend of condominium towers with mixed-use opportunities.

“We know we will see 20,000 more residents downtown by 2041, but frankly, my personal goal is to see 30,000,” he says. Growth will be largely in the city centre, followed by village centres such as Quadra and Cook Street.

Minimal growth is expected in the city’s neighbourhoods.

Economic futures: serving students and seniors

As for future economic growth, UVic’s Smith says that’s likely to come from within.

“I don’t really see large corporations relocating headquarters here,” he says. That leads to the problem of retaining the young talent going through Victoria’s post-secondary institutions. “Once they get here, they often don’t want to leave, but sometimes they have to because the jobs just aren’t here,” he says.

“One key driver is to maintain and enhance our entrepreneurial culture. The ability to commercialize innovation is a skill set we all need to work on.”

All of those retirees will also drive economic growth in health care, says Pedro Marquez, dean of Royal Roads University’s faculty of management. Renewed growth in the tourism sector and international students coming here to study will also have an impact. Marquez, who is involved in the Vancouver Island 2065 initiative that is looking to balance economic and sustainable growth, says the ripple effect of schools attracting international students is huge.

“They rent suites and apartments, buy cars, eat at restaurants, see movies and their relatives visit several times a year,” Marquez says, adding many of those students want to establish themselves here either by working for local firms or buying their own businesses.

In terms of health care, Marquez believes there’s an opportunity for business to fill in the gaps with services and products that are not currently being offered.

“And tourism is a wonderful and not well-told secret,” he says. The tight budgets of destination marketing organizations have cut back the splash they can make when selling the city to the world. “Despite the fact Tourism Victoria has formed and built a strategy, we could still do a better job of telling the rest of the world about where we are.”

Game changers

Looking at who and what will shape Victoria’s future is all well and good, but even the most conservative and bet-hedging prognosticator’s expectations are likely to get tossed into the recycling if there’s fundamental change to the Island way of life. And who would bet against there being huge change over the next 20 to 30 years? “When you’re crystal-balling 30 years ahead, you have to recognize that technological advances can change things,” says Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, noting if it’s big enough all bets are off. Three game-changers in particular could transform the landscape of southern Vancouver Island in the next 30 years.

1. A FIXED LINK: According to futurist and business consultant Ken Stratford a fixed link with the mainland as an alternative to taking a ferry is a done deal. “I believe a fixed link with the mainland is absolutely inevitable,” he says, noting B.C. Ferries’ operating costs continue to rise while its revenue stream is fixed. “At some point there will be no alternative.”

One argument against the fixed link has been that it will forever alter the character and quality of life on Gulf Islands that could be used as stepping stones for any link to reach the mainland.

There is also the cost, pegged at a staggering $12 billion even a decade ago — and likely much more in the future — and the difficulty in creating a submerged section through the Strait of Georgia.

There is also the spectre of parts of Vancouver Island turning into bedroom communities for Greater Vancouver.

Stratford says while that would be likely in places like Nanaimo, it won’t have much impact on Victoria as anyone commuting would face a 3.5 hour commute each way and the cost of tolls and fuel.

2. AGRICULTURAL LAND RESERVE: Recent allegations of political interference in the workings of the Agricultural Land Commission and the spectre of the commission being restrained have had some wondering what the future of the 40-year-old institution could be and what that could mean for tracts of farmland around the province.

“Right now there is land being used for one designated purpose. What if that changed? That could lead to significant changes,” says Michael Hayes, a professor at the University of Victoria’s school of public health. “It really could alter the course of events — I mean how many more Langfords and big-box-store opportunities could there be?”

While the province has said the reserve will not be dismantled, its supporters are worried farmland will be lost as B.C. drives further down the road into oil and gas production.

The Agricultural Land Reserve was created in 1974 by Dave Barrett’s NDP government to preserve prime agricultural land for farming and food production. Up until then, 6,000 hectares of prime agricultural land was being lost each year to urban encroachment and other uses.

3. THE BIG ONE: Most game-changers you can see coming. Whether it be through evolutionary innovation or the stroke of a pen in a cabinet office, there’s usually a head’s-up before there’s a significant change in the landscape.

But not where Mother Nature is concerned.

It really is anyone’s guess what southern Vancouver Island, which sits in what’s known as the “ring of fire” — the Cascadia subduction zone — will look like if the “big one” does finally come and shake the foundations.

A study prepared by AIRWorldwide, a catastrophic risk modelling firm, suggests the region is unprepared for a major earthquake and that such a disaster would wreak havoc on the landscape and economy.

The study notes a magnitude 9.0 earthquake in B.C. would cause almost $74.7 billion in damage — $62 billion in property damage and $12.7 billion in indirect economic impact. Only $20.4 billion of those losses would be insured.

If a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hits 75 kilometres off the west coast of the Island, AIRWorldwide expects it would trigger a tsunami, landslides and fires with the southwest area of the Island dealing with the most damage.

Poorly built structures and heritage buildings in downtown Victoria and Duncan would crumble. Victoria would be ravaged by fires and homes in Esquimalt, Gordon Head and Cordova Bay would be destroyed by a tsunami or landslides. Sea ports in Victoria, Port Alberni and Nanaimo would be incapacitated for months.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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