At an early February Planning and Land Use Committee meeting, Councillor Pam Madoff arrived with a stack of reports of past harbour visioning exercises that was many inches high. She said they’d been sitting on her bookshelf since they’d been written, some dating back to at least the 1980s. She lamented that after countless hours of public input and high public expectation, nothing happened. She’d brought the reports for show and tell, because at that Planning and Land Use Committee meeting, council was considering a Project Charter for Inner Harbour Revitalization Opportunities. The Project Charter lays out a public participation plan for gathering input with regard to three strategic sites on the Inner Harbour.
Yes, another harbour visioning exercise. But the circumstances are different this time. This past week, the City of Victoria, the Province and Ralmax, operator of Point Hope Maritime, announced a three-way land deal. The City swapped City-owned lands on Harbour Road currently leased by Ralmax to the Province in exchange for five strategic pieces of land. Four of these are on the inner harbour, including land at Ship Point. The Province will in turn sell the Harbour Road lands to Ralmax at market value. The Province has committed to reinvesting the proceeds of the land sale in Victoria.
A Times Colonist opinion piece called this land swap a ‘good deal’. It’s more than that. With the Inner Harbour Revitalization Opportunities Project approved by Council on February 13th, there’s a huge opportunity right now for the City to take proactive, collaborative leadership on our Harbour’s future. It’s time to make something happen.
The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA) provides a detailed summary of the rich history of Victoria’s habour that’s well worth a read to understand the historical context for current decision making. There are two key elements of this history that must bear on the harbour’s future. First, the harbour lands, like the rest of the City of Victoria, are the unceded territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, the harbour waters and lands were their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. Any plans for the harbour must include a rich future for the Songhees and Esquimalt peoples. Second, public participation in the future of the harbour is key.
Opportunity, Focus and Leadership
The Official Community Plan policy goal of a working harbour was significantly furthered last week. The land sale to Ralmax, and the protection of those lands by covenant for marine industrial use sets the stage for the expansion of the shipyard and well-paying marine-industry jobs well into the future.
It’s now time for Council and the public to turn our minds to the jewel that is the City’s inner harbour, what I hear referred to often as “the heart of Victoria.” Past harbour visioning exercises have included the harbour as whole. This spring, between March and June, City staff and Council will be engaging the public as to vision and ideas for the future of three key sites pictured below: 1. the provincially-owned Belleville Ferry Terminal Lands 2. the now fully City-owned Ship Point lands and 3. the provincially-owned Lower Wharf Street lands.
At the beginning of the process, at an Ideas Forum, the City will share information with regard to development potential at Ship Point lands and what it’s actually possible to do with that site. A Victoria Opera House or water front art gallery, or other ideas put forward in the past aren’t possible there. A recent, and interesting, geotechnical report reveals that anything built on the large lot closest to the ocean has the potential to sink into the water at any kind of seismic event. But the report also revealed the development potential of the smaller lot closer to Wharf Street. The point is that the City will seek public input based on the reality of what is possible. This will help ensure that the public’s vision can be turned into a plan that can actually happen.
The City only owns the Ship Point Lands. Nonetheless each of the sites is an important public place in the City’s downtown. So there’s both an opportunity and a necessity for the City to play a collaborative leadership role by a.) bringing the many harbour-involved players together to develop a vision and a plan for each site b.) prioritizing which site to start with, and c.) taking action.
Here’s what I would do once the City has received public input on these three key sites in the heart of our downtown. While it might make the most sense to start taking action with the City-owned Ship Point lands, I’d start with the Belleville Ferry Terminal and the public realm surrounding it.
It seems to me that there’s energy and opportunity gathering at the Belleville Terminal Lands. With the winding up of the Provincial Capital Commission, responsibility for the Belleville Terminal was recently transferred to the Ministry of Transportation; we’ve got a fresh set of eyes on this location, which has been a bone of contention and sight for sore eyes in Victoria for decades. With this past week’s land swap, the Province committed to reinvesting the proceeds it makes from the sale of the Harbour Road lands in Victoria. What better place to reinvest some of the proceeds than in the Belleville Ferry Terminal, a key international gateway to the Province’s capital city. With Canada’s 150th birthday celebration on the horizon in 2017, revitalization of the Belleville Terminal would potentially be a good fit for any federal grant funding released for that occasion. And, with the potential for long-term leases and the possibility of jointly operating a new facility perhaps the Coho and Clipper owners might be willing to invest.
Focusing first on what could be called the terminal precinct, doesn’t mean the City ignores the rest of the harbour. The Harbour Pathway Plan is well underway and sections of the pathway will soon be under construction. The City will continue to help create a vibrant summer festival venue at Ships Point. Conversations could continue to move the other two sites from plan into action. And, with the passion around our downtown these days and the stars aligned around the Belleville Terminal, focusing on the terminal precinct is a real opportunity to make something happen this time.