James Bay: Fifth in a series on Victoria’s neighbourhoods

In the 1970s, James Bay was both a neighbourhood to avoid, but also one where commitment to community spawned several service groups out of basements. The neighbourhood’s profile has radically transformed, but many of the grassroots initiatives still flourish thanks largely to an army of volunteers. A culture of protest also has deep roots, which today takes aim at cruise ships.

Any newcomer to Victoria looking to invest in a home in James Bay would be hard-pressed to imagine it was once a place to escape.

Decades ago, people who grew up in the ‘hood bragged about moving up, geographically and economically, to Gordon Head.

How things have changed.

At almost $460,000, the value of the average condo in James Bay is the city’s most expensive.

Single-family homes are pricier in Rockland and Fairfield, but the ranking is deceptive, according to Tim Van Alstine, chair of the neighbourhood association. Because the lot sizes are smaller in James Bay, he suspects the price per square foot is highest in the neighbourhood.

At the same time, James Bay has Canada’s second highest concentration of seniors, and Canada’s highest concentration of seniors living on low incomes.

As executive director of James Bay New Horizons, Kim Dixon sees many of the old timers using the services at her seniors’ drop-in centre.

“Some of our members have lived in the same apartment building for 22, 25 years,” she said. Over that time, rent has risen from $150 a month to more than $700, while fixed government incomes provide $1,069.

For that reason, Dixon keeps costs low. Coffee still sells for one dollar and programs are offered at significantly reduced rates because instructors are volunteers.

Volunteerism is flourishing in James Bay. They help to run not one or two community organizations, but six.

New Horizons runs on two paid staff and 300 volunteers. Its sister organizations, the James Bay Community Project, offering health programs, and the James Bay Community School Centre, also rely on volunteers.

The community school is the only one to hold the designation in Victoria. Like many community centres, it offers recreation programming, events and a spectrum of childcare, but it’s more than that, says co-ordinator Darcy Topinka.

“Community schools are really active in bringing outside resources into the school and also figuring out ways to introduce kids into the community,” he said. In turn,  “we have a lot of support from community members.”

And then there’s the Beacon, the non-profit community newspaper. With a circulation of 7,500, its writers and production team are unpaid.

“I’m so impressed with the quality of volunteers,” said the paper’s administrator Deborah Antonsen.

This community spirit is perhaps due to James Bay’s isolated geography.

Dixon, however, has another theory.

“Seniors have a different perspective,” she said. “They’ve always participated in the (Parent Advisory Committees) at school… the Brownie leaders were moms who stayed at home. They’re used to volunteering.”

In the last few years, she has seen a new trend in membership at New Horizons seniors’ centre. Numbers are up to about 600, and some of the newbies include retirees with money from the prairies and the U.S. who have bought property in James Bay.

Keeping housing affordable despite the demand is a priority for the neighbourhood association. “We always have to be mindful of displacing people,” said Van Alstine.

James Bay is Victoria’s most dense neighbourhood, and home to a large portion of the city’s renters.

It boasts some of the Victoria’s most stunning assets, including Beacon Hill Park, Dallas Road and the Inner Harbour. But there’s a downfall to living in one of the best places on earth.

Traffic from the cruise ships and float planes touches or transects its borders. Tour bus exhaust, conversation-stopping noise generated by float planes, speeding taxis, and sulphur dioxide from cruise ships have board members of the neighbourhood association up in arms.

By conducting their own studies, they have kept their issues present in the media and at City Hall.

While some on city council have questioned whether these concerns represent widespread community sentiment, or the grumblings of a few in leadership positions, Van Alstine dismisses the notion.

An angry stalemate with the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority has last about a decade, but he now sees new hope.

“We’re not trying to kill the industry,” said Van Alstine. Instead, he’s advocating for a number of small measures to reduce impact, such as encouraging cruise passengers to walk downtown, bans on highway-compatible tour buses not destined for the highway, and a restriction on SO2-burning cruise fuel.

He’s found a sympathetic ear in the GVHA’s new CEO. Dialogue has been renewed, said Van Alstine. “We’re trying to create a new relationship.”



War-time houses under threat

Over the last six years, Victoria has seen a net loss of almost 200 single-family houses.

Of those, James Bay lost the most – about 34 according to data by B.C. Assessment.

“A lot of the houses that were built are war-time houses on fairly large lots,” said James Bay Neighbourhood Association chair Tim Van Alstine.

“You’re seeing them all converted to duplexes, which is the default zoning.”

Densification is an inevitable trend in a growing city, but one that creates mixed feelings.

“On one hand, it’s nice to see the homes being upgraded to a nicer, safer standard. On the other hand the most affordable housing we have is the housing that already exists.”

Redevelopment also changes the character of the neighbourhood, he added.

Rockland was the only neighbourhood in Victoria to see an increase in single family homes; 17 homes were added within its borders since 2005.

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