The Customs House development encompasses a full restoration of the historic Customs House building at Wharf and Courtney streets into luxury condominiums. A seven-storey new-build wing will replace a 1959 addition fronting onto Government Street.
16,000 square feet of ground floor commercial space will front onto thoroughfares surrounding the project.
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While I certainly do appreciate heritage as much as the next person provided it doesn't just sit in a bubble and is maintained and upgraded periodically as needed - and as long as its the real deal and not that ludicrous 'faux heritage' crap (cough, cough the original Songhees condos from the 80's which were and are a steaming pile of hot garbage) - those of us raised and born here well remember Old Town for what it was in 1970 - a festering pile of poo that had been allowed to rot and fall into disrepair and disuse for the most part for the previous half century.
Buildings were literally allowed to sag and buckle and fall apart largely because groups like the heritage people, and by extension various city councils, were so paranoid about anything "new" it was apparently believed (even) old 'falling apart heritage' s*** was preferable to modern touch ups. "World class" my butt - it was an awful semi-industrial eyesore, the entire area. I'll take Chris LeFevre's vision of Old Town circa 2023 over that crapulent nightmare any day.
I well remember that place and time and the only thing missing in Old Town by the early 70's were 1) the coyotes and 2) tumbleweeds. No one lived there, the entire area was bereft of life, energy or any form of urban vibrancy whatsoever, unless Capital Iron was considered to be those things. I highly doubt however that millions of tourists couldn't wait to jump on a plane to see that place at that time. Why would they when they see any similar junky, creaking old neighborhood in their own cities?
And really what could you expect when you are so paralysed by fear of 'change' - that awful despicable c- word that haunts so many Victoria heritage people - that the city sat idly by literally for decades staring at its collective shoes, doing nothing while the area fell to pieces?
At the same time the same process was happening across the harbour on the Vic West waterfront; after the rail tracks were largely torn up by 1968-9 the entire area looked like a poster child for a USAF bombing range. Literally the only structure of note left standing was the old Princess Mary restaurant which stood lonely vigil amongst a sea of busted up disused shacks left over from the rail era, concrete parking and weed choked lots. To call that entire area on both sides of the harbour ugly beyond belief would have been an insult to truly ugly things.
I'm making a differentiation here between whether or not a building exhibits certain identifiable attributes and whether or not we personally "like" the building. The Customs House building nails many of the old town attributes. I like the Customs House building. I also like the Reef in James Bay. The Reef in James Bay doesn't nail any old town attributes, except maybe the overall height. I like the Wedge on Johnson Street near Vancouver Street. The Wedge doesn't nail any old town attributes, except maybe for the minimal setback along the sidewalk.
We went through all of this before with the myriad Northern Junk concepts. Some of those concepts nailed the old town guidelines almost to the letter. But there were many iterations and the overall appearance varied significantly from one iteration to the next. No design is going to please everyone, and I don't even think we should aspire to that goal because it tends to mean you're going more in the direction of blandly inoffensive fast food than flavourful fine dining.
To ASE's point, I think the Janion, the Customs House, and the final approved concept for Northern Junk represent a very good approach for refreshing and reviving things. Many Victorians still want to play the stubborn stinker against any kind of positive action, but these projects have addressed so many of the longstanding concerns re: new buildings being too tall (these buildings aren't), or architectural styles being too radically modern (these buildings aren't), or etc.
Methinks if we're still being stubborn stinkers even after seeing these results then we're just being stubborn stinkers for the sake of being stubborn stinkers.
Nope, I'm talking about the attributes. Believe me, for decades I've been talking about the attributes, but few people bother to listen.
There's a common theme in the controversies around projects like this one or Northern Junk: even though many Victorians claim they like the attributes of "old town" buildings, in practice they really don't seem to like those attributes. They claim they want the same kind of heights, massing, ground floor design, cladding materials, window styles, and ornamentation as the old building stock, but then they complain whenever a developer follows through on these attributes. "It's all wrong!"
It's really no wonder the governments are pushing massive and/or bulky buildings with plain cladding, blank walls, small windows, and unengaging ground floors. They'll give the people what they really want.
I get you. There are some residential/mixed-use buildings in Oakville, Ontario that look like a blast from the past, but they are actually relatively new buildings. Would love to see some of these in Victoria, especially for the newer ones used to replace some of the horrible one-to-two storey structures in Old Town:
Some single family homes in James Bay can be replaced by these, also in Oakville:
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