A proposal to redevelop a downtown block has historic conservation advocate Stuart Stark concerned for the future of Victoria’s Old Town. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)

Victoria hotel proposal threatens Old Town conservation, advocates say

Height requests defy historic district’s guidelines

The future of a downtown block in Victoria’s Old Town could set an adverse precedent, say local heritage advocates.

A 134-room hotel proposed for a space that spans portions of Broad, Johnson and Yates streets would see one heritage building lose its interior, and another demolished, save for one masonry wall.

The land, gifted to the University of Victoria in 2001 by the late Michael Williams, spans 1306-1330 Broad St., 615-625 Johnson St. and parts of 622 and 630 Yates St. – space that includes the 1892-built Ducks Building and the adjacent “Canada Hotel.”

The nearby building housing The Old Hat Hair Shoppe would also be destroyed.

RELATED: New downtown Victoria hotel slated to replace two heritage buildings

In November, Victoria council voted four-to-two in favour of hosting a public hearing with the proposed designs. The proposal could still be denied after the hearing, but Stuart Stark, recently retired heritage consultant and former chair of the City of Victoria’s heritage panel, says the proposal – if passed – is a massive threat to the future of heritage conservation in the area.

“Overall I think people have become complacent thinking the heritage program is successfully working,” Stark said. Victoria’s Old Town spans the old commercial district, Chinatown and the old warehouse buildings along the waterfront. It falls under the protection of design guidelines that limit height and density of new development without restricting it altogether.

Those guidelines recommend limiting the height of new buildings and addition to a maximum of 15 metres. At one time, the hotel application asked for a height of 21.61 metres for 1312 Broad St. and 22.47 for 1314 Broad St.Since then the developer has made adjustments to their proposal, significantly lowering their variance request so the finished building would be only one foot higher than it is currently.

“Heritage is for all time,” Stark said. Heritage preservation is supposed to be still here in 100 and 200 years and what we’re seeing is a proposal that doesn’t follow the guidelines. And if this proposal doesn’t follow the guidelines that gives a precedent for other projects not following the guidelines.”

READ ALSO: University of Victoria scraps student housing plan, opts for hotel instead

Stark also said changes to Victoria’s historic core could impact a key industry: tourism.

“No one is going to come to Victoria and go up to Yates Street and look at the high rises,” he said. “I think the long-term health of the city is at risk when we monkey with our heritage, when we monkey with Victoria’s assets.”

Former Victoria councillor Pam Madoff, known for her focus on historic conservation, is also concerned.

“One of the most important things about Old Town is the scale,” she said. “Buildings have to change to remain viable and uses have to change … and there’s all sorts of ways to do that while maintaining the historical value.”

The heritage value of the Canada Hotel, which has undergone a number of renovations, has been debated – with Victoria city staff saying the structure lacks heritage status after losing original cornices, windows and storefronts, as well as gaining a third storey. Stark believes with proper advice, the building’s heritage value could be restored.

“You’re either one thing or the other. You’re either doing heritage conservation or you are compromising,” he said. “Or you are compromising to the point that principles have been destroyed so much the integrity of the heritage conservation area is at huge risk.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article indicated the 21.61 and 22.47 height variances were in the current proposal. The developer has since adjusted the proposed height to be within one foot of the Duck building’s current height.

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