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Victoria’s trepidation over bridge land sell-off forces Northern Junk proposal to slim down, nix condos in favour of rentals

An artist's rendering of Reliance Properties' sixth design revision of the Johnson Street Gateway project on Wharf Street at Johnson Street. The eight-storey building depicted in the image above has been nixed in favour of a shorter and smaller as yet un-released design on a significantly smaller development site. Reliance Properties

Victoria’s trepidation over bridge land sell-off forces Northern Junk proposal to slim down, nix condos in favour of rentals
MIKE KOZAKOWSKI, CITIFIED.CA
The City of Victoria’s about-face over the sale of excess Johnson Street Bridge lands has forced a decade-long harbourfront development proposal to drastically alter its design and scope, Citified has learned.
 
Sources at the City of Victoria tell Citified that Reliance Properties’ plans for Johnson Street Gateway, a mixed-use condominium and retail project that would simultaneously restore the historic Northern Junk buildings at 1314-1324 Wharf Street, have been shelved in favour of a purpose-built rental complex with fewer floors, a significant reduction in residences and zero on-site parking.
 
Since 2010, Vancouver-based Reliance Properties – the firm which restored the historic Janion Hotel and built its oceanfront addition overlooking the northwest corner of the new Johnson Street Bridge – has been pursuing municipal approvals for a mid-rise project that from the outset was expected to absorb excess City-owned land made available through a re-alignment of the bridge’s eastern approaches.
 
Despite Reliance’s plans to spend significant sums of money on the heritage restoration of the Northern Junk buildings and undertake a costly remediation of the City-owned lands in addition to their purchase, sustained critical feedback from City Hall saw Johnson Street Gateway’s design change six times between 2011 and 2018, with the seventh (as yet un-revealed) revision now making its way through the approvals process.
 
Proceeds from the land sale were once touted as a buffer between rising bridge costs and strained municipal coffers while remediated land with an up-market landmark residence were considered a net benefit to the community.
 
However, in the wake of the last municipal election the City’s penchant for absolving its real-estate assets suddenly whittled, sources say, leaving Reliance Properties with no choice but to alter its design and re-approach officials with a new plan.
 
As a result, gone is the eight-storey all-concrete design with 57 parking stalls, 103 condominiums above high-quality retail spaces and free-standing, fully restored Northern Junk buildings. In is a brick-clad six-storey woodframe rental (five-storeys as viewed from Wharf Street) that will rise over the Northern Junk buildings with a ground floor retail component that will sheath them behind glass as part of the project’s first floor treatment. 
 
The unit mix under the new proposal will be heavily focused on studio and one-bedroom apartments, with some 15-to-20 suites per floor over four floors.
 
An extension of the David Foster Harbour Pathway will be built as part of the project, but only along the harbour frontage owned by Reliance. A gap in the pathway will exist between the Johnson Street Bridge and Reliance's portion.
 
The Victoria Downtown Residents Association (DRA) is expected to review plans this week and issue a statement regarding the latest vision.
 
Last fall the organization submitted a letter to the City objecting to the sixth design concept which lead to Reliance nixing its appearance before a Committee of the Whole meeting scheduled for the morning of October 4. Reliance president Jon Stovell cited an inconsistency with the DRA’s earlier feedback and its written statement to the City as the reason for the sudden pull-back.
 
In its letter, the DRA was critical of the handling of the project in light of Old Town’s design guidelines, and called for a greater focus on public spaces in the downtown core.
 
Design seven will be vetted by Victoria’s Advisory Design Panel later this spring prior to advancing to Committee of the Whole and a subsequent public hearing. City staff, reportedly, are in favour of Reliance’s seventh revision.
 
Reliance Properties did not respond to a request for comment prior to this article's publication deadline. C
 
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