The Peninsula Paradox: Sidney is growing, but losing its young families
Can the seaside town make room for everyone?
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Can the seaside town make room for everyone?
Can the seaside town make room for everyone?
Can the seaside town make room for everyone?
Tristan Fetherston is a tinkerer. Steal a glance at the taproom wall at his Beacon Brewing microbrewery in Sidney, and you’ll see libations boasting everything from Mini Eggs to beets and coriander as core ingredients. As an amateur homebrewer, he once built his own all-grain brewing system—“basically a turkey fryer with add-ons,” he says—and he’s spent five years alone working on a lager recipe he willingly admits isn’t finished.
“I’ll probably slightly change it over and over and over again,” he says.
Born and raised on Salt Spring Island, it was a week-long road trip with his wife, Alexa, that sparked the idea of starting a brewery on the Saanich Peninsula. It was 2018. They’d been driving through Oregon, visiting sixteen breweries in seven days. On their last night in Astoria, they were sipping pints at a brewpub on the edge of the Columbia River and reflecting on how much the city reminded them of home.
“Alexa said to me, ‘We could do this: Quit our jobs and open a brewery,’” Fetherston recalls.
“I basically said, ‘You can’t take that back.’ [And] we’ve been full-tilt since.”
The co-owners of Beacon Brewing (along with Alexa’s brother, Steven Hardy) represent a new wave of business owners planting roots in the once-sleepy Sidney. In a ground-floor unit on Third Street, two blocks from the pebbled shores of Glass Beach and the seagull caws of the Sidney Pier, they’re betting on the seaside town’s continued growth—but also facing their share of pressure. After opening in October 2021 beneath the newly built Oceanna Apartments, their small-batch brewery finds itself caught between a council-led push to shed Sidney’s quiet reputation and the neighbours who wish to preserve it.
“We love [Sidney],” says Fetherston. “It has that small-town feel of Salt Spring, but you’re still close enough to the city… The problem is, there’s nothing here for a younger generation. And there’s not much after a certain hour at night.”
During a late April happy hour, a retired couple chats quietly at a table. A 30-something father arrives, baby stroller in tow, for the brewery’s latest take-home batch. Seals & Croft’s “Summer Breeze” whispers over the stereo, and on the wall-mounted television, the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox are opening their second inning.
It is not, suffice it to say, a den of howling wolves.
“In no way are we trying to become like a nightclub,” Alexa says. “We created it because we saw a need for another gathering space.”
The Fetherstons have sought—and received—a liquor license amendment to serve alcohol past their business’s current weekday closing time of 8 pm, but it hasn’t come without opposition. In late March, the matter spilled over into Sidney’s council meeting as neighbours voiced concerns ranging from late-night noise to a potential loss of parking.
“For a quiet town like Sidney, 11 pm closing seems awfully late,” wrote resident Thora Illing in a letter to council. “I am uneasy when entrepreneurs get the permissions they need to launch a business and then try to change the rules.”
Of 22 letters submitted to council, 12 opposed the Fetherstons’ wishes to extend their business hours, citing “Sidney’s reputation,” its location in a “residential neighbourhood,” ongoing construction noise, and a “shocking disregard for the rights of the existing residents.”
The comments come as a surprise to Alexa, who says she’s heard nothing but compliments from neighbours who’ve visited the brewery. “We have quite a few regulars from the building,” she says, and adds she went to great lengths during the brewery’s opening to ensure noise wouldn’t be an issue.
“The building is a concrete building,” she stresses. “And after speaking with engineers, and the building landlords and everything, no one had any concerns that there would be a lot of noise traveling out of the brewery, especially because we don't [make] a lot of noise here—our stereo is not cranked to the max every day.”
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, you’re inclined to believe her.
“I think [any neighbours’ concerns are] not what they've experienced so far from us, but what they maybe imagine we could become,” Alexa adds.
The question of what Sidney itself might become—or is already becoming—is at the core of the Fetherstons’ predicament. To stroll through Sidney in April is to embark on a tour of Tyvek wrap and orange construction fencing. New condos and townhomes, either complete or still under construction, spill out from the streets adjoining Beacon Ave., mere blocks from the quiet, tree-lined neighbourhoods filled with post-war homes that have defined the town for decades.
But while the town is growing—in the last five years alone, Sidney’s population has risen by 5.5% to 12,318 in 2021, and is projected to reach 14,045 by 2038—it is also losing its younger residents and families. In 2006, according to Statistics Canada, more than 20% of the town’s population was aged 20-44. In newly released 2021 data, the number had declined to roughly 18.5%.
Among kids, the numbers are even starker, with 300 fewer people under 15 than there were in 2006, even while the population climbed overall, amounting to a three percentage point drop.
Meanwhile, Sidney’s median age of 62 is a full 20 years older than the average in BC, and eight years older, even, than famously autumnal Oak Bay.
It is the peninsula paradox: a seaside town that is both growing and shrinking simultaneously. And now, the town has to decide what it wants to be.
Kara Mudry and her partner, Brendon Nielsen, are outliers in the demographic shift. After living in Victoria for 11 and 15 years, respectively, they sold their Rockland condo and bought a house in West Sidney in 2020. At the time, Nielsen, 37, was already commuting to a job near the Victoria International Airport. They’d also recently had their second child, and space was at a premium.
“We knew that we couldn't afford anything in Victoria that wasn't another condo. And with two kids, there's not even a lot of options for condos that are three bedrooms… so already, really, our choices were Sidney or Sooke,” she says.
Despite initial reservations—“I really thought it was a retirement town,” says Mudry—it didn’t take long for the family to fall in love with their new surroundings. There were forests to wander. Shops to browse. An ocean within walking distance. Plus, as she soon noticed, “There were families everywhere. I was shocked.
“I feel like everybody is so neighbourly and chatty, and kind to one another. We've lived in our house for a year and a half, and four times, we've had people come and ring our doorbell, because either the lights are on in the car and they just want to let you know, or they see a dog and think it might be yours.”
If Mudry and Nielsen are outliers, they are also the very people Sidney needs to attract, and keep, if it wishes to bolster its workforce. In a largely retired community, they are the ones filling classrooms, staffing cafes and bookstores, doctors’ offices, grocery stores, and warehouses.
But they are outliers in other ways, too: the rare millennials who have managed to buy a home in Greater Victoria.
“I have friends who grew up [in Sidney] and now live in Victoria, and they would like to move back when they can, and try to afford a house or a townhouse, but the reality is, like anywhere in [Greater] Victoria… it seems so impractical or impossible to buy anything,” Kara says.
According to the Victoria Real Estate Board, the benchmark price of a single-family home in Sidney reached $1.03 million in March 2022; twelve months earlier, it was $769,400. In 2019, it was $660,000.
But condo prices—the primary form of new housing in Sidney—haven’t proven much more affordable. The benchmark condo price, $604,600, was the fifth-highest in the entire region—more than Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt, and Langford, and less than only Vic West, North Saanich, Oak Bay, and View Royal.
Tyson Elder has seen Sidney’s slow transformation since arriving as a high-schooler in the early 2000s.
“A few years ago, we got a Canadian Tire. That would have been unheard of ten, fifteen years ago in Sidney,” he jokes.
A longtime renter in the Saanich Peninsula, the 35-year-old operations manager for the Saanich Peninsula Lions Food Bank has a different outlook on the housing market’s recent upward swing. Last year, he was renovicted from the 1920s-era North Saanich farm home he’d been renting on the edge of Sidney for nearly 10 years.
“My rent went from $650 to over $1,500 a month,” he says.
It’s a frustrating scenario, but not altogether surprising given the demand for housing in Greater Victoria—and in turn, the scarcity of available supply. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Greater Victoria’s vacancy rate for private apartments was 1% in 2021. (In the same year, the national average across Canada’s 17 largest municipalities was 3.3%.) Meanwhile, in a three-year span, Greater Victoria saw its availability of active listings for sale plummet from 2,435 in March 2019 to 1,063 in March 2022—a 56.3% drop in supply.
“The houses [around me] were going for, you know, $1.3 and $1.7 million, and you could see the dollar signs in people's eyes going, ‘Well, if they can get that for that house, I wonder what we can get for ours,’” Elder says.
For the young Sidney homeowners that Elder knows, they all share one thing in common: “They’re working two, three jobs,” he says.
“Some of them are working really well-paying jobs, and then bartending or working in a coffee shop just to keep up with [their] mortgage payments.”
In this, Elder is no different; he works as the founder and CEO of Rocktographers, a Victoria-based concert photography and album review outlet on top of his work at the food bank.
But there, too, Elder says he’s noticed a change in demographics; of the 350 households the food bank serves a month, he’s seen more young families—even those with steady employment—seeking assistance.
“Especially with the amount that food has gone up recently… everybody seems to be a paycheque or a bad bill or a car payment or an injury away from struggling.”
Tasked with cracking the housing puzzle, while also finding a vision for Sidney’s future, is a man who, 21 years ago, moved to Sidney with a young family of his own.
Elected as mayor in 2018, Cliff McNeil-Smith has been a bookstore owner (he owns Tanner’s Books, at the corner of Beacon Ave. and Fourth St.), a director of the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, a board member of the Capital Region Housing Commission, and the first-ever president of the Sidney Business Improvement Area. “Housing has long been a challenge,” he admits.
This, he argues, is in part a factor of Sidney’s size—or to be more specific, its diminutiveness.
“We're the smallest municipality, geographically, in the region—only 5.1 [square] kilometres,” he says.
And while other Greater Victoria municipalities, Langford, in particular, have tackled the housing problem by clearing new ground for development at a blistering pace, McNeil-Smith says that isn’t an option in Sidney, where vacant lands are nearly nonexistent.
“We were largely built out several years ago… and quite frankly, we don’t have a lot of significant rezoning [options]. We’ve established our commercial areas, we’ve established our multifamily residential areas near the downtown, our single family areas, and so on,” he says.
“What’s [left] is densifying in the downtown… but also in many ways, we're densifying in the neighbourhoods.”
And therein lies the rub for McNeil-Smith and his fellow councillors: as the town grows, its neighbourhoods must change, whether converting large-lot single-family homes into rowhouses and condos, or making space for or a newly-renovated downtown movie theatre, or allowing a ground-floor brewery to move in.
Even the Fetherstons aren’t immune to the impacts of densification: in a matter of months, another brewery is slated to open two doors down from theirs, with a larger indoor capacity and a patio space. Sidney’s council has already signalled its support for the project.
These challenges, and others, are what council is looking to address in their newest Official Community Plan (OCP)—a shared vision for the town that hasn’t been updated since 2007. The current draft, which has been in the works since 2020 and will return to council on May 5, 2022, spells out a vision for the next 20 years in Sidney: one that supports a “diverse and balanced community” with a “vibrant downtown and a thriving local economy,” with housing options and amenities “that emphasize health, happiness and prosperity at all stages of life.”
To that effect, the newest OCP considers allowing developers to add a fifth storey to apartments and condos where “a significant portion of units” are set aside as deep affordable or below-market residential housing—but only west of Fifth St., and largely reserved for the streets surrounding Beacon Ave., on which the plan proposes capping developments at three storeys.
The draft plan also calls for council to seek out potential pilot projects with local developers and BC Housing, as well as consider opportunities for affordable units with any future municipal redevelopment projects. (A new library, for instance.)
“We want to balance these converging challenges—to keep our community vibrant, welcoming, and inclusive of all demographics… [from] young folks and families, as well as the older demographic,” McNeil-Smith says.
Still, given the opposition Beacon Brewing has faced in extending its hours, one wonders: how will Sidney’s growth and densification sit with its residents who came for quiet?
Diane MacKinnon lives in the apartment complex above Beacon Brewing. A retired lawyer, she moved with her husband from Vancouver to Sidney in August 2021.
At the corner of Third St. and Sidney Ave., her six-storey building sits at the nexus between old and new Sidney: half a block from the downtown stretch of Beacon Ave., with its cafes and consignment stores, and a block removed from the tree-lined townhomes of Mt. Baker Ave. Across the street, another six-storey condo building, Cameo, boasting of “culture and cuisine at your doorstep” is midway through construction. Down the road, the four-storey Aura Residences just finished construction last year.
Unlike some of her neighbours, MacKinnon doesn’t mind the construction—nor the prospect of her downstairs neighbour extending its business hours.
“I find it all kind of funny, given that we're on a flight path, and noise is a part of living in Sidney. You know, we have a plane app on our phone, and when we hear the roar, we say, ‘Oh, I wonder what that one is,’” she says.
And while she’s enjoyed her new surroundings—“the friendliness was unquestionably a huge change” after 22 years on Robson St.—she also doesn’t hold any sympathy for those resistant to Sidney’s efforts to densify its core.
“All services can't be geared towards the selfish needs of people who were lucky enough to purchase, inherit, or otherwise acquire large pieces of property where they and their spouse can walk around and enjoy, you know, 2,500 square feet on their own,” MacKinnon says.
And if densifying means extended hours downstairs, or the opening of a second microbrewery next door, it’s something MacKinnon sees as part of a greater whole in the name of community building.
“They're trying to enrich the neighbourhood; they're trying to bring people into their establishment. And they're going to employ people, and they're going to employ artists, and they’ve sunk their money into this,” she says.
“I mean, there has to be a give and take to allow them to succeed. And we're all going to benefit from it, as far as I see. Even if it means we only go and have a local beer, you know, once every two months, just to have the opportunity to have that is a benefit to us residents.”
Downstairs, another rainy evening offers a glimpse of what MacKinnon is talking about. As showers fall across the Saanich Peninsula, the brewery is aglow with incandescent light, and the hardwood tables brim with conversation. A group of friends has overtaken the centre table, where a game of Snakes and Ladders has broken out. Tristan is flitting in and out from behind the bar, collecting glasses, taking orders, and polishing countertops.
“One of the reasons why we landed in Sidney and have stayed here is because it feels like home. For small town people, the Peninsula feels like home, and supporting your neighbours is part of that,” he says.
Alexa offers a more bullish view of Sidney’s future:
“I just want to see it continue to grow and thrive and prosper. I think it's been really growing and changing in the last three to five years. And honestly, I don't see that stopping. There's a lot of young entrepreneurs that seem to be coming in with a lot of great, fun, new ideas, and I think that's honestly what the town needs.
“There's no way that it'll survive without change. Nothing survives without change.”