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Bylaw battles: Surrounded on all sides, the nonprofit Point Ellice House fights for survival

The challenges of running a national historical site within one of Victoria’s few remaining industrial zones

By Michael John Lo
April 29, 2022
Business
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Bylaw battles: Surrounded on all sides, the nonprofit Point Ellice House fights for survival

The challenges of running a national historical site within one of Victoria’s few remaining industrial zones

By Michael John Lo
Apr 29, 2022
Capital Daily is part of the Trust Project
Business
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Bylaw battles: Surrounded on all sides, the nonprofit Point Ellice House fights for survival

The challenges of running a national historical site within one of Victoria’s few remaining industrial zones

By Michael John Lo
April 29, 2022
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Bylaw battles: Surrounded on all sides, the nonprofit Point Ellice House fights for survival
Point Ellice House executive director Kelly Black has tried asking for bylaw enforcement of street trash, but has been told it's not a priority. Photo: Michael John Lo / Capital Daily

You can’t pick your neighbours, especially if your historical site is located inside an industrial zone. The path to Point Ellice House—which also boasts a smattering of old growth and the largest natural shoreline in the Gorge—is to go through three dusty industrial blocks bustling with businesses like breweries, signmakers, and tire shops, one the few remaining industrial zones within Victoria’s city boundaries.

Point Ellice House doesn’t deny that it’s surrounded by businesses whose prerogative is industry and waste transfer.

Its current feature exhibition delves into the history of Victoria’s water and sewage system, a subtle nod to its current surroundings. “We’re the only business that’s not like the others in this part of town,” said Kelly Black, the museum’s executive director.

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It would be impossible to ignore, anyway: the business is bookended on three sides by a gravel yard, a steel junkyard, and a recycling company, Emterra.

But trying to shift the narratives around Victoria’s colonial history at an underfunded museum is a lot harder when you also have to pick up garbage blown into the grounds from the recycling warehouse.

“Monday to Friday in particular is very hectic on the streets. Trucks coming and going,” Black said. “Our Visitor Centre building? The whole building shakes when they dump bins on the streets.” It is quieter on the weekends, when industry winds down and Point Ellice House is open to the public. But the streets leading to Point Ellice House are usually still messy from the weekday’s activities.

“We have this city street where people can just do whatever they want,” said Black, standing on the junction of Hillside Avenue and Pleasant Street.

An industrial zone with few residents and light bylaw enforcement has led to what Black describes as a free-for-all, with neighbouring businesses parking their trucks on the street and city residents dumping used mattresses and broken toilets. When Black asks for bylaw enforcement of street trash and the ad-hoc car salvage operations that he regularly sees in front of the museum, he’s been told that it’s not a priority.

Emterra group is the contractor for the Capital Regional District’s recycling operations. Their warehouse on 304 John St., located opposite to Point Ellice House, is their main base of operations for the region.

Black points across the street to Emterra’s recycling centre. “All these bins and this truck—this is all city street property from the chain-link fence over. These guys use the public realm for their business,” Black said. 

Frustrated, Black told Capital Daily that he recently called up one of Emterra’s vice presidents in Ontario to complain about the situation. Emterra did not respond to interview requests for this story.

So Black turned to the City for support. He began contacting bylaw in 2019 about the garbage on the street, both from illegal dumping and from Emterra to limited success. “Eventually, [the garbage] makes its way into Point Ellice House, or into the water,” Black said.

Last April, Black made a presentation to the Council of Victoria asking for solutions “to this forgotten corner of the city.” City staff came out to look at the situation. But a year later, the situation is largely unchanged, despite fines and pressure from bylaw officers.

The historic Point Ellice House is surrounded on three sides by a gravel yard, a steel junkyard, and a recycling company. Photo: Michael John Lo / Capital Daily

“They’re sympathetic, but what’s missing is that it’s not a priority for them,” said Black of the city staff. He believes that local politicians need to get involved so that visitors can come to Point Ellice House safely via land. 

As part of a provincial initiative, in 2012 a water-taxi dock was built on the grounds to encourage more visitors. It’s the most expensive way to get to Point Ellice House—the water-taxi fare is $10—But approaching from the harbour means visitors bypass the situation on the street.

Victoria City Councillor Marianne Alto, the council liaison for the Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood, acknowledges that Emterra’s bylaw violations are a known factor at the city and that it’s an “ongoing challenge” to balance the uniqueness of Point Ellice House with the needs of the neighbourhood and the city. 

Alto says bylaw and public works employees have come by “many times” over the past year. Emterra is currently being investigated under the nuisance business bylaw and has been issued a number of fines for bylaw infractions, though Alto couldn’t provide specific figures at the time of interview. Requests for clarification from city staff went unacknowledged. 

Emterra currently has three recycling bins placed outside its property fence on Hillside Avenue, and they have been there for a year at least. 

Garbage beside the recycling bins placed outside of Emterra's property fence. Photo: Michael John Lo / Capital Daily

“They are claiming a use that is not uncommon—particularly in industrial areas, where [businesses] have to park the machinery next to their warehouses,” said Alto. But she acknowledges that in Emterra’s case, it’s gone further than that. “Emterra is without a doubt the most consistent abuser of the use of public space.”

Alto suggests that the city’s authority is limited with usage of private property as long as the property is used for its proper usage—in this case, industrial—beyond city cleanup crews and bylaw enforcement.

“Hopefully over time Emterra will realize that they have social responsibility to be good neighbours,” Alto said.

***

Point Ellice House is one of Victoria’s oldest homes, and the only one to be fully furnished with its original inhabitant’s possession in situ, or in their original context. When the original inhabitants, the O’Reilly family, sold the buildings and grounds to the Province, transforming their former home into a museum, they turned the house over with almost all of its original objects. The O’Reillys  never threw everything out: there are old magazines, three decades’ worth of letter correspondence, even some receipts from household purchases.

It’s a time capsule of 19th century settler life in early colonial Victoria.

When Point Ellice House was built, Rock Bay was a semi-rural area, dotted with stately Victorian estates, replete with pastures and gardens. Built in 1862, it wouldn’t even fall within the city boundaries of Victoria for another thirty years. 

But its industrial history goes back just as far: the same year Point Ellice House was built, a coal gasification plant started up next door, where the steel yard is now. That plant dumped waste coal directly into Rock Bay, eventually contaminating the area so badly that it eventually cost more than $130 million to remediate.

Industry took more of a foothold in the 1910s, beginning with sawmills along the Gorge. In the 1930s, the families in Rock Bay, unable to pay back taxes, began giving up parcels of land to the city. City rezoning turned former houses and pastures into further sites of industry: lumber storage, railway tie making. Industry ramped up in the 1960s and has stayed. 

As of 2011, Burnside-Gorge hosts nearly 20% of the city’s jobs, with the majority of those concentrated in Rock Bay and the surrounding blocks. The only relics that mark Rock Bay’s residential past are the plum trees dotting the neighborhood, each denoting a long-demolished residential house, and Point Ellice House Museum.

***

Not every business is like Emterra. Some are more responsive than others. They fix holes in shared fences, put up signage, and pay attention to the garbage situation. Black has tried to nurture relationships with neighbouring businesses, but high staff turnover makes it difficult. “I’m always dealing with a new manager,” Black said. Emterra’s current Victoria manager is Nevil Davies, an interim manager from Vancouver.

“We need help to make sure it’s safe for people to get here,” Black said, “And that it’s not a disgusting, dirty mess when people visit.”

Photo: Michael John Lo / Capital Daily

With the pandemic and changes in the museum sector, almost 10% of museums across North America are expected to close permanently, according to a report by the International Council of Museums. An additional 20% are unsure if they will continue to survive. 

Point Ellice House isn’t a place that runs a profit, said Black. It requires a mix of provincial and local support for a museum in a neighborhood with little foot traffic to survive. The non-profit running Point Ellice House rents out the old carriage home to a tenant as a way of guaranteeing steady income. Every little bit of support counts.

Alto agrees with Black on this point. She suggests that the province should play a bigger role in maintaining the site and solving its current issues. “The city can continue and will continue to do what it’s doing, which is to issue [Emterra] tickets and to periodically come by with public works and clean it up,” said Alto. “But the reality is that … Emterra is being a crappy neighbour.” 

If the city is doing its best to correct the issues and to support the museum, its efforts aren’t being communicated to the Point Ellice House. Oftentimes, months pass before Black receives replies from city staff. Improvements, such as installations of wayfinding signs, are more likely to be measured in years rather than months.

Since Capital Daily began asking about Point Ellice House’s troubles, the City of Victoria has told Black that they have allocated additional resources to the area. One year and 10 days after Black’s presentation to the city council, Black received the news that Emterra was being investigated under the city’s nuisance business bylaw. 

One of the solutions proposed from the city after that presentation to improve the area around Point Ellice House was to encourage Black to apply for a grant to maintain a row of planters for street improvements. He declined to apply.

“I already have a two-acre heritage site with two heritage buildings and 12,000 objects to care for. I don’t need to also care for the public realm, which is the city’s responsibility,” Black said. 

The application would be “fairly straightforward” and “very well-supported” by the Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood association, said Alto. But she doesn’t have a solution to Black’s point about the city delegating the maintenance of beautification initiatives to already overworked non-profits.

Alto says she is open to the idea of adding street markings on the roads leading to Point Ellice House, another one of Black’s requests. But Victoria’s public works department plans out its street upgrades years in advance: Rock Bay isn’t scheduled for this year. Rather, she believes the solution is dialogue between everyone: the provincial government, the city of Victoria, industry in the neighborhood, and Point Ellice House.

“We know that industry will stay. We know that Point Ellice House is here to stay. So let’s talk about how they can live together in a way which allows both to be the best they can be,” said Alto.  

Black knows that his neighbours are going to remain industrial. With the proposed redevelopment of the formerly industrial-heavy Capital Iron lands between Chatham street and Discovery street into an arts and innovation district, there is very little land left in the city dedicated to industry. 

Rock Bay—as defined in the latest Burnside-Gorge local area plan—will continue to place the needs of industry first. 

Planned improvements that would benefit Point Ellice House, such as a potential pedestrian-bike path along the Gorge shoreline, are low priority and a decade (or more) away. In the meantime, Point Ellice House will have to continue to find a way to live with its noisier, messier neighbours.

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