Housing
Explainer
Provides context or background, definition and detail on a specific topic.

Outstanding hazards belie Victoria council’s approval of Bayview project

Bayview project developer hoping to recover a gem from the rough

Housing
Explainer
Provides context or background, definition and detail on a specific topic.

Outstanding hazards belie Victoria council’s approval of Bayview project

Bayview project developer hoping to recover a gem from the rough

The Roundhouse project envisioned. Rendering courtesy Focus Equities
The Roundhouse project envisioned. Rendering courtesy Focus Equities
Housing
Explainer
Provides context or background, definition and detail on a specific topic.

Outstanding hazards belie Victoria council’s approval of Bayview project

Bayview project developer hoping to recover a gem from the rough

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Outstanding hazards belie Victoria council’s approval of Bayview project
The Roundhouse project envisioned. Rendering courtesy Focus Equities

A preliminary re-zoning application was submitted to the council in 2008. 

More deliberations in 2014 and a resubmission in 2021.

Fifteen years after its initial application and three nights of public hearings later on the most recent iteration, the so-called Roundhouse at Bayview Place development finally received the green light from the City of Victoria. On Thursday, the council voted 7 to 2 in favour of allowing the multi-towered heritage revitalization project to proceed. Couns. Marg Gardiner and Stephen Hammond voted against it.

This new plan by developer Focus Equities will see nine additional towers 10 to 32 storeys high, built on a 20-acre (8ha) piece of pickle-shaped land between Catherine, Esquimalt, and Kitma roads in Vic West. Other proposed amenities include retail, a 5,200-square-foot daycare, shops, a hotel, and eateries.

“This is one of the biggest decisions that we faced as a council so far,” said Coun. Dave Thompson. “If I'm not mistaken, it’s the largest development in Victoria's recent history and perhaps of all time.”

The Bayview is larger than Starlight’s London Drugs rezoning, Vic West waterfront’s Dockside Green, and the Hudson District. The E&N Roundhouse proposal includes more new towers than any one of those. 

Public opinion on the project is divided. Council heard from hundreds of residents both for and against over the phone and in person at public hearings and from others who sent videos to depict how they imagine the development will impact their community. 

“We need the right development in the right places,” Thompson said. “And one of the biggest things that a city can do is to approve development in the right places.”

A decade-plus in limbo for a 'difficult project'

The Bayview site, which some Victorians would have called the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ up until a few decades ago, was once home to oil tanks, sawmills, trains, and logs—and a ship-building yard. Ken Mariash, who has been trying for almost two decades to build there, once described the property he bought in 2005 as a “hideous piece of land.” Since then, Phase I of the project has been built on the parcel’s least problematic side. 

The heritage buildings on the undeveloped half have been edging toward dereliction for 20 years since he bought it. In an interview with Douglas Magazine in 2012, Mariash was asked about what at the time was a seven-year delay in developing it, and argued “I would have to say [Bayview] falls into the top 10 of [his] most “difficult projects.”  Even then, Mariash said, the property was either “a $500-million deal or a $50-million disaster.” The price tag for that potential disaster now sits at $2 billion. 

What makes it perhaps less of a potential disaster now is the council-approved density creep of 4.0 to 4.75 FSR (floor space ratio–which dictates the amount of square feet that a property is allowed to be built in relation to the size of the lot) for its nine residential towers. And that may be reflected in the fact that the first building scheduled to go up will be its tallest tower. “You don’t make any money on the ground, the lower floors, Mariash told the council. “You make it on floors 6, 7 and above. Everyone wants the views,” he said.

Mariash is banking on the hope the price of the housing units will offset the costs to revitalize the heritage buildings; the site and soil remediation and clean-up; and the realignment of the railway. His company, Focus Equity-Bayview, has agreed to that realignment with the Island Corridor Foundation to ensure possibilities for its developability.

Concerns and challenges remain

Other potential roadblocks yet to be resolved include Transport Canada height restrictions on buildings near the harbour airport. Jessica Dunn, spokeswoman for Harbour Air, told the Jan. 12 public hearing the airline has concerns about “the lack of prior consultation with the Victoria Harbour airport operator, Transport Canada, Harbour Air, and other float plane operators ­regarding the evolving developments could affect our ability to safely operate at the Victoria Harbour airport.”

Mariash was hotly criticized in comments made by members of the StopBayviewRezoning Facebook group who question the developers’ heft in lobbying for the project, including, taking out a four-page ad in the Times Colonist, his donation of a canoe to the Songhees Nation whose approval Mariash told the council, he gets “every day” and for holding several cocktail parties to drum up support for the project.

With many hurdles remaining in its way to practical viability, the enthusiasm of many council members for the Bayview project may appear to be lopsided. On the plus side of the ledger is the creation of much-needed housing, construction jobs, a netting of shoppers for downtown retailers and employees for its business. 

Building the city of the future

And then there is the will to demonstrate that a multi-tower project like such as this one could propel Victoria into the big-city club.

"We're building for the future, we're not building for the past," Thompson said in his closing remarks to the council. "We're not looking 20 to 30 years in the past and saying, I wish the city looked like that now. The reality is that the decisions we make now affect future generations of Victorians.”

Coun. Matt Dell thanked all those participating in the process and expressed the solemnity of his decision.

“My time with this council table will come and go,” he said, “but decisions like this will have a generational impact on the direction of our city. Many decisions that I'm making to this council are done with the thoughts of my two kids [and] the city they'll inherit one day.”

In a media scrum outside Victoria City Hall Friday, Mayor Marianne Alto called the proposal "an example of what's possible when we were thinking holistically about what the city can and should look like in 10 years. It is transformational,” she said.

But what if Bayview is an Emerald City and Mariash, is a very convincing wizard? What then, Dorothy? 

Despite his approval of the project, Caradonna raised the spectre himself in the meeting when he asked, “What do they care if the turntable or car shop or roundhouse are restored, they're there to make money off the condo?” And then asked the developer directly “Who is really taking responsibility for especially the heritage assets? If this all gets divided up in two weeks from now or six months from now, we're dealing with the nine [different] proponents. The money is obviously made on the condos,  it's not made on the roundhouse.”

And he’d be right, except towers 4,5, and 6 can’t be built until the heritage components are rehabilitated. “Is there any chance,” Caradonna then asked, “that we're sitting here in 15 years and nothing has been built and the proponent is back asking us for an 8.0 FSR and if so, what prevents that outcome from occurring?” 

Capital Daily put that very question to Alto, who said, “When we do approve applications like Bayview and other large and small ones, we do so in a way which provides as much support and enabling policies that encourage them to get going.”

Can those supports and policies safeguard against risk? No. But it’s a chance the council appears to be willing to take.

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