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The lowdown on Uptown
Geoff Nagle is one of the brains behind the largest construction project on the South Island. Uptown is an urban mixed-use neighbourhood – a catalyst for what’s to come in the future of Victoria, he says.
As the director of development for Western Canada with Morguard Investments, Nagle has been working on the project for more than 11 years. He sat down with the News to talk about the ever-changing project, its regional impact and the biggest flaws of Uptown.
Saanich News: What do people see right now when they look at Uptown?
Geoff Nagle: Half the site is an up-and-operating, mixed-use centre, and half of it is an excavation site. So what they see is the future arriving – a neighbourhood emerging in Saanich. We’re operating a centre in the midst of constructing the balance of it. After opening Phase 1, we were passing the public through a construction zone – at least now the public and the major construction activities are separated.
SN: Did that prove to be a challenge when you opened Phase 1?
GN: There were, no question, growing pains. There were a couple days around Christmas when some drivers saw 45-minute waits getting out of the parking lot. But we continue to make improvements. And customer knowledge about where else they can park and access, and improved signage has helped already.
SN: Is the first phase performing to where you thought it would?
GN: Given where we sit in this current environment, we’re very pleased with the leasing. There’s no question the retail success at Uptown has been apparent, but we have more retail leasing to do for this phase, as well as for Phase 2.
SN: What should people expect as part of Phase 2?
GN: That phase will see the further half of Uptown boulevard completed, with retail on the ground level, restaurants on second levels and more office. You’ll also see the completion of the central plaza, which is completely different than what it looks like today. There’ll be landscaping, artwork, kiosks. As well, there is a five-level parkade.
SN: The landscaping is something you’ve said previously you are unhappy with. So have a lot of Saanich residents, including councillors.
GN: I see the execution of our streetscape, in terms of landscaping, as our biggest flaw, because that has led to negative responses from the community. We have to break down what, for operational purposes, have to be very large walls because they’re enclosing very large spaces. We do that with landscaping, detail work, artwork, the creation of greenspace, to soften and make it more welcoming. It’s not been executed properly.
SN: How much convincing is required to tell people that what it looks like now, both on the inside and outside, is not how you envision it to look when complete?
GN: Some people are very comfortable looking forward and seeing what something’s going to become, and some react to the immediacy: ‘Well that is what it is today, so that is what it’s going to be going forward.’ I’m proud of the uptake and recognition from the community, because I know how much better it’s going to be.
SN: Uptown’s located at the junction of many different transportation networks (driving, transit, cycling). How do you plan on taking advantage of that?
GN: The location advantages of this site are dramatic. It’s really a North American concept to separate uses and put them into designated zones. And it’s been driven by a traffic-oriented, vehicle-oriented planning mindset. We’re driven by this idea of density and a mixed-use environment. Being in close proximity to transit, being in close proximity to bicycle access, being able to walk to the restaurant or store you want to go to without having to drive 40 minutes is important. If you can lay out the options and the alternatives in the consumer’s hands, they can make those rational decisions of how to get here.
SN: Where does the future of Phase 3, a residential component, currently stand?
GN: We are still actively looking for a residential partner. We consider residential a key component of a mixed-use environment – it adds all kinds of life and activity to the site. The vision for Uptown is that it’s not only a commercial node, it is a true mixed-use urban neighbourhood. If there isn’t a return in the residential market, we can look at more commercial or some other use that fits.
SN: Being that Uptown is the largest construction project in recent memory anywhere on the South Island, how do you see it impacting the region?
GN: You won’t see many projects of this scale executed, but you’ll see lots of smaller projects as catalysts from this project, and ones that pick up on the concepts and the abilities. If you look at any urban mixed-use environment, like Manhattan, it’s got office, hotel, restaurant, retail, residential all in very close proximity, if not in the same building. This, or some form of it, is absolutely going to be the standard in the region.