Plan for Saanich’s University Heights includes 600-plus rental units, public plaza

A redeveloped plan for University Heights shopping centre features 600-plus rental units, new commercial space, a daycare and a public plaza with a “bird’s nest” style playground.

Plans allow for the opportunity to close off areas to provide space for food trucks, farmers markets and special events to create a “community centre” environment, said Bentley Harris, director of development for Wesbild, owner of the property.

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“It’s kind of like a comprehensive master plan community that’s all coming out of the ground at once,” he said Tuesday.

The proposal has been submitted to the District of Saanich for consideration.

Wesbild is hoping that a public hearing will be held this year on the mixed-use project. If approved, construction will start in spring 2021. Retail shops will open in spring 2024 and residents could move in that winter.

The development is to include an anchor grocery store, pharmacy, retail shops, restaurants, medical professionals and health services, an 11,000-square-foot daycare, an internal street, electric vehicle charging stations, a car-share vehicle, multiple bike racks, and bike lanes on Shelbourne Street, McKenzie Avenue and Cedar Hill Road. An art walk along Cedar Hill Road is also proposed.

It takes a sustainable approach — a development where people can live, shop and use on-site services, Harris said. It is close to UVic and is transit-oriented, with a three-bay bus pullout.

Wesbild purchased the site facing Shelbourne Street and McKenzie Avenue in 2015 for about $50 million. It developed a plan but put it on hold in spring 2019 to seek ways that make better financial sense. The new design includes an additional 90 rental units, Harris said.

The latest proposal comes out of additional community and tenant consultation last year that more closely aligns with the Shelbourne Valley action plan.

Changes include adding residential units and more affordable housing, consolidating two buildings into one, adding a second-level parkade to create another 141 parking stalls for residents, and decreased commercial density to reduce traffic on Cedar Hill Road.

The majority of the shopping centre was built in the 1970s and 1980s. Those buildings are to be dismantled. The existing Home Depot building, constructed in 2005, will remain, bringing the total commercial area to 196,821 square feet.

Each of the five new six-storey buildings will have commercial on the ground floor (with one having the daycare on its second floor) topped by residential. Residential levels will be constructed using prefabricated, cross-laminated mass timber, a type of material growing in popularity in the construction sector.

Rental units are pet-friendly and a fenced off-leash dog park is part of the design, Harris said.

Some of the lower-priced units will be micro-suites at 315 square feet, with others as large as three bedrooms.

Greater Victoria’s rental market is traditionally tight. The new University Heights housing will be rental in perpetuity and 62 units will be designated as affordable, Harris said. The design includes 396 parking stalls for residents and another 726 for the commercial portion of the site.

A commemoration to the First World War will be installed in collaboration with the Memorial Avenue Committee. London plane trees were planted along Shelbourne in honour of soldiers who died in the First World War. Wesbild is proposing a contribution to the plane tree fund.

It is also offering a contribution to a Saanich-led study to improve safety and visibility on the crosswalk at Cedar Hill Road and Arrow Road.

Construction, deemed an essential service, has helped underpin Greater Victoria’s economy through the COVID-19 pandemic while some sectors were forced to shut down temporarily and some continue to face an uncertain future.

Wesbild said this project will deliver an economic impact of $410 million, creating 309 jobs during the construction phase and another 209 permanent positions.

Saanich is in line to receive $2 million annually in property taxes and another $700,000 in development cost charges for Saanich infrastructure.

Wesbild is also proposing to contribute $500,000 to Saanich toward an affordable housing fund.

The property does not include ownership of the existing service station at the corner of Shelbourne Street and McKenzie Avenue.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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