Architecture - Urban Design

Fan Tan Alley, September, 2011: The Alamo of Victoria Heritage?

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Fan Tan Alley, Victoria, British Columbia. Photo © 2009 Michael Miller.
Fan Tan Alley, Victoria, British Columbia. Photo © 2009 Michael Miller.

Perhaps as a graduate architectural historian, who had the advantage of critical thinking applied to the subject of appropriate heritage preservation under the strict protocols of first Pierre du Prey, special advisor to Phyllis Lambert, creator and philanthropic founder of the CCA (Centre for Canadian Architecture) at Queen’s University, and then by Professor Martin Weaver from Columbia University through continuing education studies at U Vic, I am either advantaged in my thinking on this subject or perhaps disadvantaged, but I definitely am out of step with our mayor and council on appropriate heritage renovation policy. And our Mayor is quite happy to quote on record that he is in step with The Hallmark Society, The City of Victoria Heritage Committee, City Heritage Planning Staff and in fact in his view, all the heritage bodies who the city should attend to, are in favour of his view of heritage policy.

You see the thing is; I can’t in anyway understand how densification including extra height and heritage preservation can collage together. These are two wonderful urban ideals: because densification, leading to increased mass transit use, less car use, revitalization of the urban core or wherever increased density occurs is a model urban planning concept.

Heritage preservation, particularly for cities where tourism is established and important to the economy, and where an adequately sized district that is largely intact, exists , like we have in the Old Town District of Victoria, is another ideal urban planning model. Our problem in Victoria is that someone has decided that pickles and ice cream make a perfect desert. Who’s pregnant here?

In other words, am I the only person with an interest in heritage preservation who sees that a 15 meter allowable density envelope will eventually sentence the Old Town District of our city to moderate to intense densification destroying heritage character as it goes? The parapets, cornices and details which frame the sky in heritage buildings form a huge part of their character. My colour schemes done for Michael Williams on Lower Johnson Street are photographed excessively at the cornice level. Tourism Victoria uses that image extensively in promotions of our city. Is the extra story built with Hardy Plank siding on top of the building on Waddington Avenue just off Lower Johnson now to be our future embrace of the sky for all of Old Town? Will this policy attract more tourists seeking authentic heritage experience or does it simply provide more downtown space for developers and renters and a bigger tax base? Another building by the same developer has plans for extra height with modern materials, changing the heritage roof line forever, this time the new roofline will be built over Government Street.

I need to be clear on this fact, the developer of both properties I have mentioned is a good developer and he is not the problem, he has in fact been our only developer since Michael Williams to address Old Town in any significant way and I respect him greatly for that work. However as a developer he must ask for the greatest allowable use for his properties and it is the city and those responsible for local heritage protection that will set the rules that he builds out to in terms of height and density. Would he get extra height in Old Montreal, would he get extra height around the square in Krakow Poland, or on any canal in Venice, a street in Old Quebec City, or Budapest? Intact heritage precincts particularly on the West Coast of North America are extremely rare. Cruise ships full of Visitors (intentionally capitalized) come here to experience what we have. Why risk destruction of any of this long lasting value out of our current tax greed or misplaced densification planning?

I hear arguments such as, ‘You won’t see the extra height because of setbacks.’ This may well be true that from some places, at certain angles, with the sun shining in your eyes etc… but, the harsh reality is that we do see extra stories from many angles and we feel them above us even when we don’t see them, and that extra building height casts longer shadows and extra height reduces more valuable natural light from all the nearby properties. No neighbour of the recent proposal in Chinatown for example is for the extra height, even the adjoining landlords who could benefit by copying this example. The Chinese by a vast majority prefer to maintain Chinatown as is in terms of height. They like what they have now, it is working well.

Adaptive reuse does not by nature imply any resizing, and seismic work has been done without additional height on other heritage properties in Old Town and even in Chinatown. Hollow economic arguments which have not been supported by actual studies for extra height are only strengthened by allowing extra height even where it is inappropriate as in Chinatown. How will our council in future, turn down any request for build out up to 15 or perhaps 18 meters now that they have allowed 18 meters in Chinatown, which is a nationally recognized heritage district? Is this new form of heritage stewardship supported by all the local committees and experts as our mayor claims? If so I am ashamed of my field of study because none of our texts nor any of my professors would have responded with anything but shock to what Victoria now sees as appropriate and I have been told that this densified extra height heritage model is even worthy of heritage grants and public funds. At least 3,000 people disagree and have shown that disagreement with the extra height policy by signing an unsolicited petition in Fan Tan Alley. Who will speak for them and for appropriate heritage preservation?

I feel very strongly that our heritage bird is soiling its own nest today and is not even noticing the damage being done with misguided policies until it will be too late to reverse. As someone who works with heritage renovation, who has had a studio in Chinatown for over thirty years and who knows that this extra height in Fan Tan Alley is unwanted by my neighbourhood, all I can feel at this point is frustration with my city.

Entrance to J C Scott Design Associates, Fan Tan Alley, Victoria, BC. Photo © 2009 Michael Miller.
Entrance to J C Scott Design Associates, Fan Tan Alley, Victoria, BC. Photo © 2009 Michael Miller.



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