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Bold makeover pitched for Victoria's Harris Green neighbourhood

The profile of two blocks of the Harris Green neighbourhood will be completely changed if a Toronto-based developer’s plans get the green light next year.
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Current site of London Drugs on the 900 block of Yates Street would be transformed with three residential towers, commercial space and courtyard.

The profile of two blocks of the Harris Green neighbourhood will be completely changed if a Toronto-based developer’s plans get the green light next year.

Starlight Investments, which over the last few years pieced together land parcels in the 900 and 1000-blocks of Yates and View streets, intends to tear down all of the existing commercial buildings to make way for a massive mixed-use project that will include residential towers, more than 100,000 square feet of commercial buildings and green space.

“We can’t feasibly maintain the existing buildings,” said Mark Chemij, Starlight’s senior development manager, noting they intend to offer substantial underground parking along with the mixed-use project. “It’s difficult to work with what is here now and provide any substantial change.”

The company controls 4.9 acres over two sites. It owns all of the 900-block, which is bordered by Yates, View, Quadra and Vancouver streets. It also owns the land under the Harris Victoria Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram dealership that is bordered by Cook, Yates and View.

While Chemij said they were open to all possibilities when they first started engaging with the community about the project this year, they have decided it was better to start from scratch and build new rather than try and renovate a collection of older commercial buildings.

The company unveiled early-stage plans and concepts to a community group this week, outlining there will be 1,500 rental residential units in five towers ranging in height from 15 to 25 storeys, a large community plaza and green space.

“It will be completely different than what is there right now, which is a primarily commercial plaza, a small number of residential units and some green space along Yates Street,” he said.

Chemij said the community liked the addition of a half acre of green space and a village plaza with cafes and stores facing Yates, while the overall project design seemed to “get people excited.”

But he stressed it is early days and these are concepts rather than concrete plans that they hope to submit to the city for approval in early 2020. Chemij also noted because they need the approval of the City of Victoria, they have no idea when they will be able to start demolition or where they will begin that work.

“It will be a multi-phase and multi-year project,” Chemij said. Because they will be building in stages, anchor tenants who want to remain in the complex and the neighbourhood may be able to move into a new building before their existing spaces are torn down, he said.

Some of the commercial tenants affected include London Drugs, The Market on Yates, Frontrunners, Bin 4 Burger Lounge, Pizza Hut and Cobs Bread. A London Drugs official said they are aware of the plans and are “exploring a variety of options at this time.”

Rob Reid, founder of Frontrunners, has been a tenant in the development near London Drugs for 31 years, and in 2000 moved into its existing building and 3,300 square feet of space on the site.

He said they are in wait-and-see mode as it’s too early to say whether they would consider moving to an entirely new location or be willing to move into new space near their current spot when Starlight completes an early stage of the rebuild.

“It’s great to have been in business for 31 years, it doesn’t get easier ... you have to work at it, but it really helps if you have a location for your store,” he said.

Reid said it’s now just another challenge to determine if they stay in a location that has worked well for the company or have to find a new spot that could jeopardize the business.

“We are evaluating options,” he said, adding they would be better placed to make a decision when they know how long they have until their building is torn down.

Darryl Hein, retail operations manager for Market Stores, said they are upbeat about Starlight’s plans and plan on being a long-term grocery tenant in the neighbourhood.

“Starlight has been great to work with so far,” said Hein.

“We have an agreement with them that they will build us a new store and that we will not be closed for one day between the old store closing and the new store opening,” he said.