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Comment: Northern Junk: After 43 years, the time is now

A commentary by the president and CEO of Reliance Properties, owner of the Northern Junk buildings. Downtown Victoria has seen significant changes in the past decade, many for the better.

A commentary by the president and CEO of Reliance Properties, owner of the Northern Junk buildings.

Downtown Victoria has seen significant changes in the past decade, many for the better. The ongoing revitalization of Old Town coupled with the new Johnson Street Bridge are among the many projects that have made for a more vibrant and appealing urban centre.

But there are also parts of the waterfront that time forgot.

The so-called Northern Junk buildings were built in 1860 and 1864, two of the original commercial buildings when the city’s waterfront was experiencing growth due to the Fraser River gold rush. Built for Caire and Grancini as a hardware store, one building is a rare example of work by John Wright, a San Francisco-based architect. The other building was designed by Thomas Trounce who arrived in Victoria during the gold rush.

Today, the warehouses are derelict historical fragments that have been vacant for 43 years.

When Reliance Properties bought the Northern Junk site in 2010, it surprised and saddened us to know that the buildings had languished under the previous ownership since 1978.

We have more than 60 years of dedication and leadership in heritage revitalization, including winning multiple awards for adaptive reuse of cherished old buildings, and we have the pride of owning Western Canada’s largest heritage portfolio, including notable buildings in Victoria, such as Capital Iron and The Janion, which we ­redeveloped in 2013.

We knew that we were the best company to turn Northern Junk into a waterfront gem once again. What we didn’t know is that it would be such a battle to achieve a vision that satisfies everyone.

Over the past 10-plus years, we drafted a dozen proposals — two in the past year alone — at a cost to us of more than $1 million.

We did years of community consultation, including hosting public open houses. We did significant redesigns. We changed course from proposing market condominiums to all-rental homes with retail at the base.

On Thursday, Victoria city council and the community have a chance to support a relevant future for this site. This iteration of our proposal once again responds to the concerns of planners, interest groups and the community.

It is a proposal that calls for significantly lower density than what the city allows, and it satisfies all concerns and ensures the development fits at the nexus of Old Town, the waterfront and downtown, including:

• A six-storey form (five storeys from Wharf Street) in keeping with the Official Community Plan, historic skyline of the city, particularly Old Town

• 47 secured rental homes that meet the urgent need for additional rental housing in downtown

• Density within the Official Community Plan limits

• 9,000 square feet of ­commercial/restaurant space with additional space for outdoor patios

• Public access via elevator from Wharf Street to the waterfront

• Retention and stabilization of the original facades, interior and structural walls, plus integration of the site with public access to the waterfront and an extension of David Foster Way

• More than 4,500 square feet of open area (about 35 per cent of the site), including public dedication of more than 2,500 square feet for the pathway connection and the continuation of the pedestrian walkway

• An opportunity for an Indigenous art mural facing the Johnson Street Bridge to recognize the site’s pre- and post-colonial history

• A pedestrian-oriented street frontage revitalizing the Old Wharf Street

• “Eyes on the street” from the south elevation for improved safety of Reeson Park and the neighbourhood

Getting a date for a public hearing didn’t have to take so long. Put into context, in 2012 we acquired The Janion, another derelict Victoria heritage property that sat vacant on the opposite side of the Johnson Street Bridge for nearly 50 years.

We completed that project four years after purchasing it. Our restoration protected The Janion’s heritage and added 122 homes, plus new plaza retail. We won multiple regional and national heritage awards.

We have completed three other heritage projects in Victoria within a few years of purchasing the sites, including the award-winning Fairfield Block.

For every Victoria project, we preserved the heritage value and character of the original structure while revitalizing and converting the buildings to usable forms once again. We essentially saved these historic buildings.

For too long, critics of the revitalization and restoration of Northern Junk have opposed every effort to bring it back to life.

We have long feared that a small earthquake could destroy the two buildings. This would be a tragedy for the community.

After facing risk and ruin for more than four decades, our collective chance to save Northern Junk is now.