Old Town hotel project hits the pause button

Victoria city council has hit pause on a proposal to demolish all but three walls of two late-19th-century heritage buildings in Old Town to make way for a 139-room hotel.

Councillors were on the verge of sending the project to a public hearing, but balked at the last minute Thursday night and referred the matter back to committee of the whole.

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Coun. Jeremy Loveday said he wants to hear directly from a representative of the heritage advisory panel that signed off on the development.

He also wants to know how the developer intends to respond to the loss of eight rental units if the project goes ahead. Possible options include making a contribution to the city’s housing reserve fund or replacing the units within the proposed hotel or, more likely, another project.

“For me, sending an application to public hearing without knowing the response on the affordable-housing piece in the context of a housing crisis is something that I have a lot of trouble doing,” Loveday said.

The two buildings — the 127-year-old Duck’s Building and the adjacent Duck’s Carriage Factory, also known as the Canada Hotel — are among the properties bequeathed to the University of Victoria by the late Michael Williams, a businessman and developer, and the man behind Swans Hotel and Brew Pub.

UVic Properties has partnered with Chard Development on a plan to demolish everything but the front and back walls of the Duck’s Building at 1314-1324 Broad St., and all but a 145-year-old rock wall of the former Duck’s Carriage Factory at 615-625 Johnson St.

In their place, the developer proposes to build a hotel that will include two infill buildings on either side of the Duck’s Building, which will have its front and rear walls restored.

The rock wall will be rehabilitated as well, becoming the centrepiece of a rejuvenated Duck’s Alley, the developer says.

Leon Plett of RJC Engineers, the project’s engineer, told council the new building code makes it difficult to preserve the Duck’s Building and still ensure its occupants’ safety in the event of a major earthquake.

“In this case, almost none of the existing beams, joists or floor systems and sheathing are structurally adequate to support the new loads,” he said. “So we have a real challenge with regard to the Duck’s Building.”

Dave Chard of Chard Development urged council to send the project to public hearing. He said the hotel will revitalize Old Town and noted that city staff, the heritage and design panels, and friends and the estate of Michael Williams have all voiced support.

“To clear the air, both buildings will remain on the heritage registry,” he said.

Mayor Lisa Helps opposed sending the matter back to committee of the whole, arguing that, after four years and multiple revisions, it was time to hear from the public.

“It’s an opportunity for all of us to learn more by sending it forward,” Helps said.

Councillors Geoff Young, Marianne Alto and Charlayne Thornton-Joe agreed.

But Loveday, Ben Isitt, Sharmarke Dubow and Sarah Potts all expressed reservations

“I absolutely support a hotel here, but I am concerned about what this proposal means for the integrity of Old Town and really concerned about voting in favour of the first demolition of a heritage-registry building in Old Town since the ’80s,” Potts said.

Isitt, meanwhile, objected to claims that the development will preserve the buildings.

“I guess, just a quick question to staff, are any of the buildings proposed for preservation or is it confined to preserving the walls?”

“It’s just the walls,” a staff member replied.

“Yeah, some of the comments we heard in the delegations from the public smack, to be honest, of Orwellian doublespeak,” Isitt said. “It made it sound like buildings were being preserved. At least we should be transparent with the public, and in this chamber, about what’s proposed.

“The accurate description of what’s intended for the buildings is demolition, not preservation. And there may be valid arguments in support of demolition, but I personally haven’t seen them.”

Young countered that the project’s opponents are taking contradictory positions of their own.

“I would never refer to a comment of the public as being Orwellian doublespeak, but I would say there is a certain lack of consistency.”

He noted, for instance, that some of those in opposition complain about the “Disneyesque” preservation of building façades, while at the same time calling for the restoration of the Carriage Factory/Canada Hotel building.

The Canada Hotel building, he argued, would require the complete reconstruction of its façade.

“In other words, pure Disneyland,” he said. “It’s a brand-new façade.”

Young said he supports protecting the heritage buildings in Old Town as much as possible.

“At the same time, what is more important about downtown Victoria, which is unusual also in North America, is that it is a vital, thriving, vibrant place, where there’s lots of activity at all hours of the day and night, where people live and where they want to walk around the streets,” he said. “That is, I would say, of even more importance than the preservation of our heritage buildings.”

lkines@timescolonist.com .

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