Public gets say Thursday on redeveloping two of Victoria’s oldest buildings

After 11 years and about $1 million, a Vancouver developer is days away from a public hearing to decide the future of two of Victoria’s oldest buildings, which have been sitting vacant on the waterfront for more than 40 years.

Reliance Properties wants to rehabilitate the Northern Junk (or Gold Rush) warehouses, near the Johnson Street Bridge, and incorporate them into a six-storey mixed-use building with commercial space — likely food or beverage outlets — 47 rental residential units, an internal alleyway and a waterfront walkway. No parking is included in the project, which is on a protected bike lane and at the start of the Galloping Goose trail.

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The Caire & Grancini Warehouse, built in 1860, was designed by San Francisco-based architect John Wright, while the Fraser Warehouse, built in 1864, was designed by Thomas Trounce, who arrived in Victoria during the Fraser River gold rush era.

Reliance has spent $1 million over 11 years trying to win approval to develop the landmark property, in the face of opposition from heritage advocates concerned the buildings will be dwarfed by the additional five storeys.

At a public hearing Thursday evening, Victoria residents will have a chance to provide input on the plans before councillors vote on whether to move the project forward.

The company plans to keep the buildings’ outer walls and an inner wall, all made of a mix of brick and stone rubble, while replacing the rotted floors and ceilings. The walls would be reinforced and seismically upgraded to support additional storeys.

“Really, all that’s left in these buildings is the structure. And that’s the part that we’re proposing to hopefully retain,” said Reliance president Jon Stovell.

Stovell gave a tour of the buildings to media members on Monday.

The front of both buildings was covered in stucco over the years. Reliance plans to reproduce what the facades are believed to have looked like originally, based on the advice of heritage consultants and photographs of a neighbouring building thought to be in the same style, Stovell said.

The interiors of the one-storey buildings are largely empty, aside from debris, and in poor condition, with sloping, uneven floors that give way to large holes, and broken windows boarded up.

Reliance plans to build a waterfront walkway that would connect to a path to the south. A remaining short section on city property to the north would create a continuous waterfront path from about the legislature to Swift Street.

Restaurant groups interested in operating out of the ground-floor waterfront space have already contacted Reliance, Stovell said.

If the project moves ahead after Thursday’s public hearing, it would take about three years to complete, he said.

He hopes city councillors will see value in bringing housing and a commercial space to a property that has been sitting vacant for more than four decades.

“There’s no no-compromise options for this property. Compromises have to be made for it to move ahead. I mean, that’s evident by the fact that it’s been vacant for 43 years. If it was easy, it would have been done by now,” he said.

The proposal has the support of the Downtown Victoria Business Association. Executive director Jeff Bray said the waterfront space has been “languishing” and redevelopment would bring vibrancy and vitality to the area. He said any new housing downtown is welcomed, as it means more people shopping and dining.

Heritage advocate and former city councillor Pam Madoff is one of many involved in heritage preservation who have written to the city urging councillors to decline the proposal. Madoff said adding storeys on top of the one-storey warehouses will overwhelm the heritage buildings.

She said she’s concerned that moving forward would make it difficult for council to decline other similar projects, calling it “a watershed moment.”

“It really could have a tremendously lasting legacy, where we will just lose that form of character of old town,” she said.

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