British Columbia

Decades of downtown Victoria's heritage preservation 'under threat' due to ongoing development, advocates say

A group of concerned citizens in B.C.’s capital are presenting an open letter to Victoria city council this week outlining issues around development in the city’s Old Town.

Citizen group worries development could come at the cost of heritage preservation

Victoria's Old Town is under threat, according to a group of citizens who have penned a letter urging city council to be diligent when approving requests from developers. (Shutterstock)

A group of concerned citizens in B.C.'s capital are presenting an open letter to Victoria city council this week outlining issues around development in the city's Old Town.

The group is primarily worried about planning policies around development and heritage preservation guidelines — it wants to see the historic community develop but also maintain the charm of the area.

"Old Town may be old, but it is also cool," the letter reads.

In order to maintain the current personality of Old Town, the letter's writers suggest city council be mindful of how requests from developers to exceed height limits or take down old buildings will impact the community — tourism, local appeal and commerce.

Former city councillor Pamela Madoff, who has been making the case for heritage guidelines and requirements for a number of years, is asking zoning applicants looking to exceed the 15-metre height limit be required to undergo a third party review of why the request is necessary.

A carriage waits near the Empress Hotel in downtown Victoria. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

"When granting exceptions to the rules becomes the norm, when every exemption becomes a de facto new baseline for future proposals, there is a real danger of undermining the very strategic goals that the system of policies and regulations was established to achieve," the letter reads, adding that the loss of old buildings in favour of new highrise condos and towers would change the entire character of the neighbourhood.

Madoff also wants city council to support the maximum retention of historic structures.

"The whole point behind Old Town is to give new life to old buildings," Madoff told On the Island guest host Khalil Akhtar.

Madoff is worried people will think the letter means the group wants Old Town to "freeze in time," that is, not to change at all.

"It's not that it doesn't change. It's how it changes."

Housing may overshadow heritage 

Victoria's city council was elected in 2018 largely on the issue of housing affordability. Madoff worries the need for affordable housing could overshadow preservation efforts.

"Literally over the last decade, and well beyond that, regardless of where the housing market was, regardless of where the development industry was going, there was a slow and constant redevelopment of properties in Old Town that created a variety of housing options on everything from rental to ownership," she said.

"You have to look at Old Town I think in a different way," Madoff said.

"It offers different things. We should have different goals and principles, and our desire for affordable housing should not trump every other goal, because they're not necessarily incompatible."

With files from On the Island

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