Opinion: A four-part plan to revive downtown Victoria

From housing to supporting small businesses, there are concrete and simple steps we can take to bring downtown Victoria back
By Jeremy Caradonna

Originally published April 25, 2022 - Capital Daily

The pandemic dramatically changed downtown Victoria. The number of visitors to the capital suddenly collapsed and the Clipper, Coho, and cruise ships stopped running. Government and knowledge workers retreated to their homes, leaving offices empty and sidewalks bare. It's unclear whether the number of unhoused people actually increased during the pandemic (as we still lack the data), but homelessness certainly became much more visible, as health orders forced shelters to close or operate at half capacity, and the city allowed camping in parks. Two years later, tourism has been slow to recover and hundreds of businesses have closed, including many beloved local restaurants and music venues.

Compounding these challenges, or perhaps due to them, there is now a pervasive feeling in the greater Victoria area that the streets are unsafe. In a recent survey, the percentage of people who rated Victoria as “safe” declined from 74% in 2013 to 38% in 2021. (It was 67% in 2020.) No doubt some of these feelings are attributable to a generalized anxiety from the pandemic, but there are other factors at play.

What's behind the decline in Victoria's safe-city rating? Victoria’s crime severity index (CSI), which is based on StatsCan data, did go up in 2020, but crime rates were basically flat in Victoria from 2010 to 2019, and are still significantly lower than they were two decades ago. Further, and diving into the police data, Victoria witnessed only a very slight increase in violent crime in 2020, and well below the national average, but police calls related to drug possession, mental health, and toxic drugs went way up—which provides a better clue about what’s really going on in this city.

Restoring a feeling of safety within Victoria and reviving our urban core to benefit locals, tourists and businesses alike is critical to the city's post-pandemic recovery and our economic and cultural future. What follows is a brief, four-part plan for reviving downtown Victoria, reimagining its urban space, and fostering a new vision of a vibrant and livable urban core.

1: It’s time to create new public spaces

The temporary street closures on Broad Street and Government Street represent some of the best ways that public space was reimagined during the pandemic. My wife and I, and our kids, rarely spend time together downtown as a family, because there isn’t much to do for local families. There are exceptions, such as the boardgame cafés and the Royal BC Museum, but Victoria is noticeably lacking in family-friendly options, especially ones that are free to public users. One of the few times we spent time downtown during the pandemic was on Broad Street, where a live band played on the street, a ping pong table was set up, and we could enjoy patio seating at Pagliacci’s. Brilliant. These changes should be made permanent and more streets should be closed to traffic—with the exception of delivery vehicles—and lined with patios and food carts.

Beyond the street closures, Victoria is badly in need of new public cultural assets. Three ideas immediately come to mind.

First, with the downtown library searching for a new home, I propose demolishing the parkade in Centennial Square, relocating the few businesses adjacent to it, and building an architecturally stunning and world-class public library right next to city hall (with underground parking). Further, I would reserve the ground floor as a café that would add patio seating across the square, creating an outdoor gathering space akin to a bustling European-style plaza.

Second, Victoria should support the development of a new waterfront building north of Capital Iron to house the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, which could become Canada’s leading platform for Indigenous art, and also a gathering place for families and travelers. That plan is already in the works for the area, and the city should do everything it can to see it through.

Third, I propose the creation of a new public pier that would increase tourism and make use of the now-abandoned concrete pylons left behind by the Blue Bridge (RIP). My interactions with the city suggest that this concept is entirely viable, as the city owns the assets and there are relatively few barriers to creating a new public pier (which would technically become a park). The pier would become an iconic waterfront destination for date nights, tourists, and families, replete with a great wheel, carnival games, and food trucks like Seattle’s Pier 57. A particularly lovely gesture would be for the city to offer right-of-first-refusal to the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations for food trucks or kiosks on the pier, as the Nations have been actively looking for tourism-related economic opportunities. In this way, the pier could support reconciliation in a substantive way.

The best way to restore a sense of safety within the city is to bring people back downtown, from travelers and suburbanites to families and couples. Creating new and enticing public spaces aligns with one of the central conclusions of Jane Jacobs’ timeless work on urban revival, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she argued that the most effective way to make people feel safe in an urban core is to fill the streets with people and a vibrant street culture of commerce, pedestrians, cyclists, and performers. The bustle creates a sense of collective safety and group coherence.

2: Shelter every unhoused person in Victoria

A society as rich as ours should have zero people sleeping on the streets, and yet 100-200 people in Victoria are currently sleeping rough. One of the main sources of insecurity amongst Victorians is Pandora Street, which has become a neighborhood of concentrated instability. As Jane Jacobs showed decades ago, such urban zones rarely happen organically but are rather the result of poor planning and a purposeful concentration of poverty and social problems.

To reverse the trends on Pandora requires sheltering as many unhoused people as possible. The best approach would be to franchise the “tiny town” model piloted in North Park—which has sheltered 36 unhoused people, at minimal cost, and with very little drama—and create 5-6 decentralized villages, with full support services and security, to serve as a pipeline into social and supportive housing. Further, the city could expand a current program to hire marginally housed Victorians to work as high-visibility street maintenance crews.

This sheltering strategy would also free up the Victoria Police Department and Bylaw, both of which are overwhelmed with mental health-, drug-, and homelessness-related calls.

3: Revive the small business community

Last year, an astounding 49% of Victorians “lost some work” or “lost some income from work” in Victoria, and about half of those losses were attributed directly to the pandemic according to the Victoria Foundation’s 2021 Vital Signs Report. Small businesses are the heartbeat of Old Town and the urban core as a whole, and they have struggled mightily during the pandemic.

The revival of downtown must involve plans to meet the needs of business owners, many of whom operate perpetually in the red. In BC, municipalities have limited ability to support businesses directly, but one policy mechanism over which cities have near-complete discretion is property taxes. One idea would be to exempt businesses dedicated principally to the arts, culture, and musical performance from paying property taxes. The steep tax rate is often the difference between losing money and turning a profit, and we don’t want Hermann’s Jazz Club to go the way of Logan’s and the Copper Owl.

4: A livable city is an affordable city

Victoria was recently ranked the 16th least affordable city in the world. The high cost of living is a result of grand forces that transcend municipal politics, but local governments have at least some ability to mitigate unaffordability. For starters, by creating a dense and walkable city—a 15-minute city—we can increase overall affordability by reducing transportation costs.

In terms of housing, the downtown core should clearly be a place of residence, but not at the expense of the character and scale of the city. The core doesn’t need more Starlight skyscraper developments, but rather human-scale, mixed-use development. To maintain its charm and a human scale means that new housing in Victoria—and especially gently densified missing middle—should also occur outside of downtown and within Victoria’s residential neighbourhoods, from Fernwood to Cook Street Village. Victoria might aspire to look more like Montreal—which happens to be the most vibrant (opinion) and affordable (fact) city in North America—and less like Vancouver.

We can treat the pandemic as an opportunity to reimagine the city as a place where locals and businesses can thrive, where tourists can discover the natural and cultural wonders of the capital and where all who live, work, and play here can have a sense of safety and optimism for our future – a livable Victoria.