Reliance Properties is taking another crack at trying to get Victoria city council to approve its redevelopment plans for the historic Northern Junk buildings near the Johnson Street Bridge, but heritage experts are still divided on the project’s merits.
The developer wants to rehabilitate the two warehouses, which date to the 1860s, and incorporate them into a six-storey mixed-use building with commercial space, rental units, an internal alleyway and waterfront walkway.
Victoria city councillors declined to send the project to a public hearing in June and referred it back to staff for refinements.
One of the concerns from council and some heritage advocates at the time was that the project “dwarfed” the low-slung heritage buildings that have sat empty for the past 42 years.
The Caire & Grancini Warehouse, built in 1860, is considered a rare example of work 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 president Jon Stovell said the developers have tried to address council’s concerns by making a number of changes that further highlight the heritage buildings by increasing front and rear setbacks and removing a glass enclosure to fully expose the rear of the Caire & Grancini Warehouse.
As well, the developer moved an electrical transformer that was blocking one of the buildings, and has reduced the size of a waterfront pathway to reveal more of the natural shoreline.
Technically, the project has increased in height from five storeys to six because a new rooftop amenity space will be accessed by an elevator, and the elevator enclosure counts as a storey, staff say in a report going to committee of the whole on Thursday.
City staff are recommending that council send the project to public hearing, saying the changes bring the development more in line with design guidelines and heritage policies.
But former Victoria councillor and heritage advocate Pam Madoff continues to express concerns about the project, despite the developer’s changes.
She says the heritage buildings are “completely lost” in the new structure, contrary to the design guidelines for Victoria’s Old Town district.
“What they’re proposing is not a rooftop addition,” said Madoff, who stressed that she was offering her personal opinion rather than speaking in her role as chair of the city’s heritage advisory panel. “It’s basically putting a new building on top of a heritage building.”
Steve Barber, the city’s former senior heritage planner, agreed and says the developer’s refinements fail to fix the main problem with the project.
“It’s the size of the addition,” he said. “It just overwhelms the existing modest scale of the two buildings and really, I think, irrevocably damages their heritage character.”
Some of Barber’s successors, however, are supporting the project. John O’Reilly, the city’s current senior heritage planner, is among those recommending that council consider advancing the project to public hearing.
And Merinda Conley, who was the city’s senior heritage planner from 2016 to 2019, has written a letter in support of the project.
Unlike Madoff and Barber, Conley believes the modern addition will emphasize rather than diminish the historic buildings.
“I think that focusing on the buildings and emphasizing the foundation of those buildings through the vertical addition really helps to strengthen the heritage value of these warehouses,” she said in an interview.
Conley, who has her own consulting business in Calgary, said Victoria needs to allow the buildings “to rise up and become part of a living street and become part of a vital and vibrant downtown.
“The longer the city continues to allow these buildings to sit in disrepair, we are going to lose that opportunity,” she said.
Stovell said it’s time heritage advocates stood back and looked at the big picture.
“Continuing to say ‘No’ to every single option that comes forward out of some sort of pursuit of a kind of a puritanical idealism to heritage restoration is only resulting in what’s there being threatened to be lost completely,” he said.