Unknown Victoria

Victoria: The Unknown City is a guidebook to an eccentric town on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the author's blog. Look here for Victoria lore, updates and additions to the book, and hate mail.


Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Mystery Properties Sold

(For breaking news about the Roundhouse project, see the updates at the bottom of the page.)

Nobody else is reporting it, so I might as well do so here: two of downtown's mysteriously undeveloped properties have changed hands. First and foremost is the E&N Roundhouse, on the Songhees land just south of Esquimalt Road. For decades Canadian Pacific neglected this 1912 structure (despite its designation as a national heritage site) and let it rot, largely empty. But a few weeks ago I was speaking with Patti Mariash, the wife of Bayview Properties kingpin Ken Mariash, who's building the controversial (neighbours say it's too tall) Bayview condo tower on the Songhees hilltop. I mentioned the roundhouse next door, and she said, "Oh, we bought that."

This is big news, and not just because Canadian Pacific – the corporation that built Victoria, along with the Hudson's Bay Company – has sold off its last significant property in the city. I spoke with Ms. Mariash further, and she said they're looking at turning the roundhouse into a public market/gallery/community centre much like one in Vancouver. The idiotic Songhees district, consisting of atomized 1980s condo towers devoid of retail or public space, desperately requires such an amenity. Bayview has already started discussing its plans, and they're holding an open house/BBQ at the Roundhouse on Wednesday, April 12, from 5 to 8pm, so you can tell them what to do with it.

The other mystery property with a new owner is the large vacant lot across from the Coast Guard station in James Bay. Once the site of the federal immigration hall (1908-1978), for the past two decades it's belonged to the kids of shipbuilder Harold Husband. They could never come to an agreement about what to do with it, until now. A lawyer told me the Husbands sold it to developer Fraser McColl, who flipped it to Three Point Properties, currently condofying the huge Bamberton cement works. The James Bay land is already zoned for townhouses, so presumably that's what will appear there eventually.

Now if we could only get someone to fix up the Janion Hotel and the Carnegie Library ....

UPDATE (April 13, 2006): The public forum at the E&N Roundhouse yesterday was interesting. The Times Colonist (finally) reported the Roundhouse deal on its front page, and there was a huge turnout by curious Vic West residents. While gnawing on skewers of salmon, they examined architect’s renderings of possible developments, such as the open-air market concept below right (what’s a “beer can folly”?) or the nightmarish scenario of four giant condo towers. In the interests of “consultation,” everyone was given pens and Post-it notes to sketch their own ideas – although the fate of the property will really be determined by the developers and the votes of Victoria’s city councillors.

As it turns out, Bayview Properties only has an option to purchase the Roundhouse; Canadian Pacific is still obligated to repair the buildings, and the city has a right-of-way for the tracks through the property, currently used for VIA Rail service. The nonprofit Island Corridor Foundation said this week that it’s lined up a new operator that may provide commuter rail to the capital region – at long last! – and boosting Langford mayor Stew Young’s dream for the "green" 5,000-home Westhills community along the tracks. But will the rail service end at the Roundhouse, or in downtown Victoria? This could shape up to be the most important and complicated planning debate the region’s faced in decades.

UPDATE (April 19, 2006): The TC reported today that Three Point received permission from the city to build 19 townhouses on the former site of the Immigration Hall (photo left), and that construction will start in a few weeks. The brick-clad townhouses will be built around a central court, and should be finished by the spring of 2007. The old hall's only remnant, its concrete-and-iron wall, will be preserved, said Dave Craig, the development manager. "For us, saving the wall was an absolute must – it really adds to the project."

UPDATE (July 26, 2008): After nearly two years of consultations, Victoria's city council has approved the E&N Roundhouse development. According to today's Times Colonist, the $250-million project will refurbish the historic railway buildings and include a 180-unit hotel and 460-unit condominium towers, while retaining the rail corridor for railway or transit use. The whole thing will take a decade to complete. You can get an idea of what it'll look like at the Roundhouse website.

If you're thinking of visiting the Roundhouse, a good time is the weekend of August 16 and 17. That's time for the annual E&N Days, celebrating the old railway – and what's to come. On the Saturday a train shuttle will run between the Roundhouse and Langford, to whet visitors' appetites for commuter rail.

Congratulations to the Mariashes for their perseverance, and their foresight. Not everyone is impressed, however – as you can read in the chat about this project on the Vibrant Victoria forum.

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