Norm Hotson’s enthusiastic voice echoes off the concrete floors inside the hundred-year-old roundhouse building in Vic West.
“It’s a fantastic site, absolutely unique in Canada,” says the architect, standing below the thick layers of black soot covering the ceiling of the former train car service bay, a reminder of a once-bustling industry along the E&N rail tracks.
“There’s no other place where there’s an assemblage of the original railway buildings and the yard in which they’re all arranged in one piece like this, so the ability to recycle this into a new purpose is just a phenomenal opportunity,” Hotson says, careful to avoid metre-deep rail trenches he plans to cover in plexiglass.
Focus Equities, headed by Ken and Patricia Mariash, plan to transform the national historic site into an urban magnet over the next two years. The couple are behind the adjacent Bayview Properties, and the roundhouse represents the final stage of a decade-long development of the land parcel.
While the ribbon-cutting ceremony is at least two years away and still requires council approval, Mariash and his colleagues are accepting tentative offers to lease nearly 57,000 square feet of commercial space, including an 18,500-sq.-ft. space for a grocery store in part of the existing roundhouse.
Heritage specialist Hal Kalman, who spent several years studying the history of Victoria’s roundhouse, said the construction of the E&N railway was the kick-starter to Vancouver Island’s resource economy.
“Railyards were the airports of the time, so to speak,” he said. At the end of the Second World War, the E&N Railway fleet was considered state of the art, becoming the first railway in Canada to run entirely on diesel.
“(This is) also one of the very few complete roundhouses in Canada where you can see how a roundhouse works.”
Given its heritage status, project architect Hotson is tasked with restoring the existing buildings at a likely cost of $500 per square foot, Mariash said.
“And you can build a very, very nice (new) building for $250 (per square foot),” he said.
Members of the local chapter of the Canadian Railroad Historical Association still hope for a dedicated museum on the site, and early discussions with Mariash have been positive, said association secretary Glenn Migneault.
“As much as we’d like to see the roundhouse turn into a complete museum, that’s not going to happen, we just don’t have the money for that,” he said.
“But if we can get a small space in there, that would be great.”
Migneault and his colleagues in Parksville keep careful watch over a CN Rail transfer caboose, a 1930’s CP Rail baggage car and two CP boxcars.
The four relics of the E&N railway would be ideal for an interpretive museum at the roundhouse, Migneault said.
“But our main problem is moving equipment back into Victoria. It all depends on the Island Corridor Foundation and upgrading the various trestles and rail ties. We can’t move them down until we’re satisfied the track is safe.”
Hotson said a local brewery has shown early interest in converting the car shop into a brewpub, but no formal announcements are expected for some time. For now, real estate brokers will court possible tenants with $30 to $40 per-square-foot lease rates and the promise of a new neighbourhood destination at the 9.25-acre property.
“The grocery store would effectively be the anchor tenant, and then we tag onto that some of the more fun things like brewpubs or restaurants or wine bars or whatever we can come up with,” Hotson said.
A public plaza is also planned that will incorporate the old rail lines, possibly by turning market carts into faux rail cars, he added.