I’ve spent the past eight months writing blog posts in response to emails, primarily about homelessness. Each week we’ve received an average of 100 to 150 emails on this topic, many from the same people who write regularly. Of course I love to hear from the public, and to be responsive.
But this past week, another perspective came to light. I realize that I’ve been sucked into a bit of a negative bubble with respect to homelessness. I was almost in tears at Thursday’s public hearing for the Tiny Home village, when we learned that 570 people donated over $500,000 in just over two months to help create homes for their neighbours; I was struck once again by the generosity and goodwill of Victorians. This tells a different story than some of the emails I’ve been receiving, and letters to the editor in the Times Colonist about how Victorians feel towards their fellow community members who are living without homes.
This doesn’t mean that we bury our heads in the sand or ignore the many challenges we need to face. This excellent commentary in the Times Colonist this past week by UVic professor of Canadian history Lynne Marks makes the important point that there is more work to do with regard to discrimination against the poor, and racism, in Victoria. And we still have much work to do on housing with supports for those who are vulnerable.
I also realized that I’ve been continuously in response mode to homelessness in my Sunday blog posts rather than also focusing on all the other issues that Council is working on and initiatives that are happening in the community. So today I’m pivoting to address other issues and will continue to do so in the coming weeks. I do appreciate hearing from you so keep the emails coming! firstname.lastname@example.org is the best way to reach me.
Council’s Recent Decisions A Glimpse of Post-Pandemic Life
In a panel discussion earlier this year on creating “15-minute neighbourhoods,” the speakers were asked to predict what post-COVID cities would look like. Two of the panelists made their predictions. A third, leading Canadian urbanist Jennifer Keesmaat, said that we shouldn’t try to predict what post-COVID cities would look like; we should create the cities we know we need and want for an inclusive, prosperous and sustainable future.
Victoria Council made a number of decisions last week that provide a glimpse of what life in cities will look like post-COVID.
People Will Go Back to the Office
There has been much speculation in many circles – from real estate professionals, to commercial property owners, to city planners – about whether the work-from-home culture created by COVID is here to stay. Some elements will certainly remain – more options for remote work and flexible work arrangements. Yet this past week, Council advanced a proposed project at Douglas Street and Humboldt called Telus Ocean to a public hearing. The proposed building would keep the 250 existing Telus jobs downtown and create space for 200 more people.
The fact that a major Canadian company is proposing to invest $100 million in downtown Victoria to build a new, state of the art office building is a strong indication that the physical office is here to stay. And that downtown will continue to be the economic heart of the region.
Telus Ocean still has many hurdles to clear before it ends up at a Thursday evening public hearing. And there are strong feelings about the proposed building, from those who can’t wait to see it built as part of the story of who Victoria is in the 21st century, to those who think the building should fit better into its heritage context and be more subservient to the Empress Hotel.
As required by Provincial legislation, I’ll reserve judgement and wait to see the final proposal at a public hearing. However, in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression when a project comes forward proposing to keep and create jobs downtown, philosophically, I felt it was important to move it forward to a public hearing rather than send it back to staff. This Times Colonist article does a good job of capturing Council’s discussion.
Arts, Culture and Live Events Will Thrive
Many of us who love the big-city arts and culture scene that Victoria offers – despite being a mid-sized city – have missed attending live performances, festivals, and art openings this past year. Artists and the arts organizations that support them pivoted creatively to bring us online content, too varied and extensive to begin to list here!
But arts can’t live only online. Post-pandemic Victoria will experience what one of my friends called, “a pent up demand for real life.” This past week, Victoria Council voted for the City to contribute $40,000 this year and $20,000 per year for the next five years as a founding supporter of a new arts hub at 851 Johnson Street in downtown Victoria. This will be operated by Theatre Skam for the benefit of a wide array of artists and performers.
The plan is for a shared performance hub, managed by artists, for artists. The centrepiece of the space will be a versatile black box performance theatre. A smaller second studio will be used for rehearsals, smaller performances, teaching, and small-scale visual art shows. They envision six offices available to rent by performance companies at below market rates. They’ll have hot desks for artists who need a space to work in an encouraging environment. Other ideas emerging include: a script library, visual artist painting room for rent by the hour, and storage of shared theatre equipment. This hub will help fuel the downtown creative economy.
Council voted unanimously to support this proposal. This sends a strong signal that arts and culture will play a leading role in post-pandemic Victoria. An arts and culture hub is a key action item from Create Victoria, our arts and culture master plan. Having the hub come to life now – out of the embers of the pandemic – will be an important part of feeding our spirits as well as our economic recovery.
More Public Spaces for More People
Near the beginning of the pandemic, when physical distancing was mandated, we watched cities around the world leap into action to make more space for people in public rights of way. In Victoria we created additional pedestrian space in village centres and we began Build Back Victoria, which enabled businesses to expand into city streets.
A year later, we’re seeing some business owners wanting these changes to become permanent. This past week Councillor Loveday and I brought forward a motion responding to petitions from businesses in the 1100 block of Broad Street to permanently close their block to car traffic. Take a look at what the block turned into last summer, you can see why they’d want to do this!
On April 15th, city staff will be bringing a report to Council with further recommendations for Build Back Victoria. I think we can expect to see what worked really well in summer 2020 – with patios and flex spaces popping up around the city, and main streets like Government prioritizing pedestrians – as featured elements of post-COVID life in Victoria, and in cities around the world. There will be more public spaces in cities turned over from the exclusive use of cars to more varied uses for a wider range of people.