Northern Junk proposal advances to public hearing

Residents will soon get a chance to weigh in on a proposal to develop the Northern Junk (also known as Gold Rush) warehouses near the Johnson Street Bridge.

Victoria city councillors voted 5-4 Thursday to send the proposal to develop two of the city’s oldest buildings to a public hearing, expected to take place in about a month. A date has not been set.

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Reliance Properties wants to rehabilitate the two warehouses, which date to the 1860s, and incorporate them into a six-storey mixed-use building with commercial space, 47 residential rental units, an internal alleyway and waterfront walkway.

Council voted against sending the project to a public hearing last June, but agreed in the fall to move it forward with conditions that needed to be met before setting a date for a public hearing.

Since going before council in September, the developer has offered improvements on Wharf Street that go beyond bylaw standards, such as additional street furniture, decorative paving and street lighting, and the location of an electrical transformer in a nearby park that will include enhancements to the area. Those include a public bench, vegetation, a new retaining wall and a sidewalk connection to the park.

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.

Coun. Sarah Potts, who voted in support, called the proposal exciting. “What we have in front of us, I feel, is a very elegant elevation of some heritage warehouse buildings and in a prominent location in our city that is sorely in need of rehabilitation,” she said.

Several councillors expressed continued concerns that the project overwhelms the heritage buildings, which have sat vacant for 43 years.

Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe opposed the proposal, saying she’s worried the heritage aspects of the buildings are not prominent enough on the Wharf Street side.

“I do think that there are folks out there that are are willing to rehabilitate this building without such changes to it. So I have trouble sending it to public hearing at this point,” she said.

In voting against, Coun. Ben Isitt said the proposal “overreaches” and needs further revision to adequately respect the heritage property.

“I think it needs to be taken back to the drawing board to develop a proposal that’s more consistent with municipal policy,” he said.

Former city councillor and heritage advocate Pam Madoff said she is still worried the warehouses cannot handle additional storeys, and that the project may set a precedent leading to more developments that build on top of heritage properties.

“I really do see it as a watershed moment. I think it is so out of keeping with anything that’s happened in Old Town,” she said.

Jon Stovell, president of Reliance Properties, said he is happy to see the project continuing to move forward after spending more than $1 million over 11 years trying to develop the property.

“I don’t think anybody else is going to come in and offer to fix the buildings up without doing anything, or creating any additional density on the site,” he said.

— With a file from Lindsay Kines

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