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, May 14, 2008

Our Main Street

It has witnessed the motorcades of visiting royalty, and funeral processions for dead premiers. It’s been the site of V-E and V-J celebrations, and – as it will be again this Monday – Victoria Day parades. End to end, it’s probably the most valuable stretch of real estate in Greater Victoria; when Parker Brothers issued the first Canadian version of Monopoly in 1982, it was the equivalent of Boardwalk, the most expensive address in the game. But Douglas Street, our main drag, never seems to get the respect it deserves.

It did not show up on the first maps of Joseph Despard Pemberton, the surveyor general for the colony of Vancouver Island, when he laid out the city in 1852. As Victoria boomed, however, Pemberton quickly sketched the grid of downtown, wisely naming its longest north-south street after his employer, governor James Douglas. By 1863, maps showed Douglas Street stretching off to the north as the principal road to Saanich – and included its notorious five-way crossroads with Government and Hillside, which annoys drivers to this day. (A 2005 survey of motorists rated it the “most hated” intersection on Vancouver Island.)

Soon, Douglas Street also became identified as the best possible gateway to Beacon Hill Park. By 1905, the city had pushed the road across the mud flats of James Bay and all the way to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, paving over the western edge of the park in the process. Governor Douglas probably would have approved of the Mile Zero marker placed at the end of his street in anticipation of the Trans-Canada Highway’s completion in 1962: historians say he discussed the idea of a road across Canada as early as 1859.

But it was downtown that Douglas Street grew to prominence. The city repeatedly expropriated land until the roadway was 100 feet across, permitting streetcars, carriages, wagons and automobiles. It became home to the city’s grandest buildings, such as the 1,000-seat Victoria Theater, built in 1885 at the corner of Douglas and View, perhaps the largest playhouse north of San Francisco until it was damaged by fire in 1910. Douglas was the city’s place of business, and its first “skyscrapers”, such as the eight-storey Campbell Building constructed in 1912 (the site of today’s Royal Bank) and the 10-storey B.C. Permanent Loan Company building, visible in the 1920s photo above. In the 1940s, Yates and Douglas was known as “Pusser’s Corner” (pusser is naval slang for purser, the officer who handles the money) where sailors would hang out in dress uniform. So many stylish women were on the sidewalks that a photographer did a good business taking their portraits (example at left) out front of the Bank of Montreal.

Alas, this Swing-era glamour faded as cars grew to dominate the city, especially north of downtown, where Douglas Street became overgrown with drive-ins, muffler shops, and motels. (A few nice details survived, such as the 1910 prefabricated wooden bank at 2420 Douglas, and the 1912-built Baptist church that’s now the Ukranian Cultural Centre.) By 1960, the street’s traffic was increasing at the alarming rate of seven percent annually, and the province wanted faster connections to the nearly-completed Trans-Canada Highway and BC Ferries terminal at Swartz Bay. Something needed to be done. As a director of the Capital Region Planning Board declared in a report that year, on Douglas north of Hillside, “the street scene is one of utter chaos.”

It got worse when the Town and Country mall opened in 1961, and Mayfair mall in 1963. The Capital Improvement District Commission put up $1.2 million in today’s money to fix Douglas, on the conditions that Victoria and Saanich eliminate swaths of on-street parking and left-turn lanes, drawing screams of outrage from merchants. (A 1963 front-page headline, “Left-Turn Restriction ‘Death Blow’ to Shops”, shows how little has changed.) The municipalities did it anyway, but continued to fight over management of the road (the Saanich-Victoria boundary is at Tolmie Avenue), which is why north Douglas remains a crazy quilt of rules and streetscapes today.

Gradually, some things did improve. In the 1960s Saanich outlawed billboards and planted oak trees along both sides of the street to conceal its gaudier storefronts. A 1967 beautification project removed the old wooden poles and overhead wires. In 1978, after 20 years of intergovernmental bickering and stop-and-go construction, the province finally completed its highway connections to Blanshard and Douglas. (We should be grateful that the NDP never got a chance to dig a tunnel under the Town and Country mall, as it proposed in 1973, to connect Blanshard to Highway 1.) In 1999, Victoria spent $2.8 million repaving Douglas downtown, widening the sidewalks, and installing benches and bike racks.

And yet, Douglas Street still feels like Gertrude Stein’s Oakland: there’s no "there" there. Perhaps, for too long, it has been viewed mainly as a thoroughfare, and not as a destination in itself – a problem not likely solved by the installation of the much-discussed high-speed busway. But there is hope. Condo developments such as The Falls and The Hudson, and the radically overhauled Town and Country (now Uptown) mall should bring more life to the street. On May 1, Victoria planners presented their updated blueprint for downtown, calling for greater density along the “North Douglas Spine” of the city. With some political and economic backbone, Douglas Street just might return to its former grandeur.

(Many thanks to the Saanich Archives and Gamester for the photographs.)

PS (November 3, 2008): Interesting interview with Saanich councillor Vic Derman on CFAX today, talking about his Natural City concept. What caught my ear was his assertion that the Douglas Street corridor already provides 33% of all the employment in the capital region. So it's a good candidate for a streetcar, yes?


At 4:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good article. Prior to WW2, Douglas Street was a showcase of grand architecture. Bit by bit, the grandeur was demolished, covered over, or otherwise eliminated. The average Douglas Street building was taller back then than it is today! Many Victorians today have no idea what a magnificent street it was, which is a shame. Here's hoping we embrace it once again and return it to its former glory. The Falls is a start, but there are many other sites that need to be dealt with: the building that houses Shopper's Drug Mart, the strip across from City Hall, Centennial Square...there are also several heritage buildings that are just begging for some TLC. I thought Victorians were supposed to care about their urban heritage? It seems like very selective concern.

At 10:05 AM, Blogger Benjamin Madison said...

Yes, a very interesting article. Douglas street is Victoria's equivalent of Vancouver's Granville street and though it has its faults, it has never degenerated into the porn video shops/hustler hotels etc of the latter. Douglas may be a little dry but it always feels safe and productively busy.

What's also interesting to me is how dead Market Square is despite all sorts of interesting artistic initiatives. What's the problem there?


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