Victoria councillors have approved a proposal to rehabilitate the long-vacant Northern Junk warehouses, near the Johnson Street Bridge, and build additional storeys above them.
On Thursday night, Victoria councillors voted 5-4 to approve the project.
The project has faced opposition from heritage advocates concerned that adding five storeys on top of the warehouses, among the oldest buildings in the city, would overwhelm the one-storey heritage buildings.
City heritage staff do not believe there’s a solution to rehabilitate the warehouses, which have been vacant for 43 years, that would not involve some compromise, councillors were told before their vote.
Senior heritage planner John O’Reilly said many people feel that an ideal solution to rehabilitate the buildings will materialize.
“But having reviewed the file, and 11 years of attempts to redevelop the site, and beyond that — it’s not just Reliance [Properties] that’s tried to develop the site — there’s attempts going back to 2004. Staff are not convinced that there’s an ideal solution out there that involves no compromise,” he said.
Reliance plans to retain the exterior walls of the buildings and restore the front of both warehouses, which have been covered over by stucco.
The interiors of the 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.
Coun. Stephen Andrew asked staff to address concerns raised by heritage advocates that the proposal to add five storeys on the one-storey 1860s-era warehouses does not meet heritage guidelines, could set a precedent for future heritage projects and could jeopardize an opportunity to apply for UNESCO world heritage status for the city’s Old Town.
O’Reilly said approval of the project would not affect consideration of future proposals, which are all considered on their own merits. He said application for UNESCO status is a grassroots effort that has not been endorsed by the city and was not part of city staff’s analysis to recommend the project.
He said staff believe the proposal meets the city’s heritage guidelines to a degree, including conserving the whole buildings apart from rotted roofs and ensuring original stonework remains visible, but it does “challenge” a guideline that says additions should be “subordinate” to the original building and distinguishable.
The addition “looms” over the original and is clearly not smaller than the original building, however, the requirement to be subordinate is not simply a question of size, he said.
“It’s really a question of heritage value and in staff’s mind, the 43-year vacancy in the site has diminished the value and that has to be reckoned with,” O’Reilly said.
Reliance has proposed rehabilitating the warehouses, which were built during a construction boom sparked by the Gold Rush, and incorporate them into a mixed-use building with commercial space — likely a restaurant or bar — and 47 rental residential units, an internal alleyway and a waterfront walkway.
Victoria councillors heard from about 60 speakers during a public hearing last Thursday with mixed views on whether the project should move ahead.
While many heritage advocates expressed concern that the heritage buildings would disappear under additional storeys, support came from commercial and non-profit neighbours, as well as residents, who welcomed the rental units and hoped the project would bring life to a neglected area of the city.
Mayor Lisa Helps said she was struck by the unanimous support from neighbours during last week’s public hearing.
“The adjacent neighbours found this to be very supportable to enhance their neighbourhood, to provide new opportunities. And to me that is definitely something to weigh,” she said.
Coun. Sarah Potts said the city needs to breathe new life into the heritage buildings.
“A speaker last week noted that preserving a two-storey building is a luxury in 2021 and beyond, and it’s a luxury we can’t afford,” she said.
Coun. Geoff Young called the project “a bad example of how not to have a heritage program,” saying it would make a mockery of the city’s heritage work.
Councillors Charlayne Thornton-Joe, Ben Isitt, Sharmarke Dubow and Young voted against the project.