The COVID-19 era has flipped the script on downtown Victoria’s economic health and social vitality model from one overly dependent on a daily influx of workers and visitors, to hinging largely on diverse and plentiful residential density, according to the head of the city centre’s business advocacy group.
As community, industry and political leaders work towards a post-COVID recovery while implementing strategies to safeguard the core from future downswings, Jeff Bray, Executive Director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA), believes now is the time to act on rapid densification efforts that have shown to be critical to weathering future economic uncertainties from market turbulence or roving restrictions of future pandemic events.
“For downtown to be successful it has to be diverse and inclusive, and we realize we really need the density, and most importantly diverse density, to sustain the downtown core long-term,” Bray said.
“We need to build lots of low-income housing, lots of purpose-built rentals, high-end condos, housing for workers. But really it’s the purpose-built rental housing that is so critical, as it brings in the young professionals, the downtown workers, and ensures our employers operate in a community that provides attainable housing for their employees, and through this diversity our businesses can be more resilient to withstand any future downturn in the economy.”
At the height of the pandemic Victoria offices large and small reportedly shed up to 95% of full-time on-site workers, according to multiple office managers and business owners who recently spoke to Citified on the challenges and opportunities facing the south Island’s workforce.
This dearth of employees numbering into the thousands was felt hard by the downtown business community struggling under the weight of pandemic-related restrictions that converged with a near-collapse of the tourism trade, an overall decrease in traffic from south Island residents, and a central business district suddenly reliant on the relatively small pockets of residential density in downtown-proper, Harris Green, and periphery areas.
The experiences gleaned from the height of the pandemic have cemented the need for more housing in the downtown area, and in particular the eastern portion where heritage assets will not be impacted through redevelopment, where higher densities are already being accommodated, and where higher volume in-demand retail services can be sustained through thousands of residents residing in towers above or a short stroll away.
“We’ve seen in the last 15 years a real shift among people looking for that urban lifestyle, and there is strong demand for that lifestyle in the downtown area that we should address,” Bray says. “And coupled with that, we have amazing heritage architecture in Old Town and in Chinatown that if as a region and as a city we want to protect, then we have to expect more density in other parts of downtown like Harris Green. If we want to protect our important heritage assets, we need to accept greater density where it makes more sense to build it. And certainly east of Blanshard Street it makes logical sense where we can add significant population density without necessarily adding significant car traffic, so to speak.”
In keeping with its calls for building up the downtown core, Bray says the DVBA is highly supportive of a redevelopment effort that could deliver not only the tallest residential tower on Vancouver Island (proposed at up to 32-storeys), but also more than 1,500 purpose-built rental apartments to Harris Green on lands currently occupied by an automotive dealership and a strip mall home to several high-profile retailers (such as The Market on Yates and London Drugs).
Envisioned with five residential towers spanning the 900 and 1045-blocks of Yates and View streets (between Quadra and Cook streets) at heights of 20 to 32-floors, the proposal from Starlight Developments, if approved, will deliver rental housing to where it is needed most, along with almost 100,000 square feet of modern street-level retail space.
Speaking to Citified last spring, Mark Chemij, Director of Development for Toronto-based Starlight, says public input since the plan’s fall 2019 unveiling has helped shape a comprehensive application that is now considered finalized and approaching its formal presention before Victoria council this Thursday.
“We recognize this is an important area of the city as a gateway to downtown and a place that is well used by the community. We have been able to gather the community’s thoughts and ideas for these sites over the past two years to help us inform this application,” Chemij said in May, while adding that City staff assisted with "refining the project to ensure it is the best possible proposal going forward.”
The DVBA’s formal support for proposals like the Harris Green redevelopment goes a long way to helping overcome political reservations over Victoria’s built form, namely the ‘growing up’ of a Capital City that historically has had a low-key relationship with the high-rise built form as its population slowly reached 300,000. But a grown up Victoria now on the cusp of 400,000 residents with 450,000 expected by the mid-century faces big city challenges, and stakeholders agree the logical direction for City Hall to take is promotion of building up as suburban communities grapple with an urban containment boundary restricting opportunities to build out.
|A rendering of Starlight Developments' Harris Green mixed-use rental housing and retail proposal at 1045 Yates Street, looking west from Cook Street. Starlight Developments |
“The idea that we can accommodate the Agricultural Land Reserve and work within the confines of the urban containment boundary means we have to build up, and that’s a reality that we cannot escape,” Bray said. “Historically speaking, in terms of the downtown we’ve had many artificial limits, like floor height limits, and for many years those limits were fine because most people were not searching for an urban lifestyle in great numbers. Today, though, people are looking for an urban lifestyle as a lifestyle choice, and we as a city need to recognize the positives of this lifestyle.”
Highlighting downtown’s need for long-term and multi-pronged resiliency that only a localized, full-time population can provide, Citified’s conversations with several office mangers employed within the downtown office market confirmed that no immediate, near-term solution to the big office question exists, at least not yet.
A manager at one of the Capital’s largest public-sector offices, who requested anonymity due to not being authorized to speak on behalf of his organization, told Citified his office complex with a capacity for a thousand-plus workers was reduced to a near-complete remote workforce since the early days of the pandemic, and this fall fewer than 50% of workers are expected to return.
“About 10% is the current in-person work split, and it is likely to rise up to 40% in September, and I’m not sure where we’ll go after that,” the source said. The individual also noted that of the workers he oversees, remote work productivity remained at or above pre-pandemic levels giving rise to the concept of long-term split-work schedules between the home.
Another manager told Citified, also under the condition of anonymity, that his private industry office comprised of over one hundred individuals was preparing for three-quarters of its workers to work full time or part-time from home come September.
“By fall we estimate three quarters of our employees will work from home all or part of the time, which is up from a nearly empty office at the start of the year,” the individual said. “25% are committed to returning to the office full-time after summer, and if no further restrictions are announced we could see as many as half of our employees working from the office by winter of 2022, but it’s going to be a day-by-day assessment, I think.”
The feedback Bray has collected on behalf of the DVBA identifies limited sub-leasing scenarios where tenants are looking to move or close down offices, and sources tell Bray office vacancy rates have remained largely static relative to 2019. This is all good news for a city re-entering normalcy, despite near-term suppressed levels of in-person staffing.
“Whatever happens in Victoria I feel will be more muted than it would otherwise be in markets like Vancouver or Toronto. With so many of Victoria’s offices being in tech and its collegial type of work environment, we’re more likely to see a return to the office faster than elsewhere,” Bray said.
“But it is the housing density that we know is one of the keys to a resilient sub-economy in downtown Victoria. It is what the downtown core needs.” C
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