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816 Government St/811-813 Wharf St Primer

816 Government St Public Hearing

This development application concerns the building at 816 Government/811-813 Wharf, located in the heart of the inner harbour and commonly known as the “Old Post Office/Customs House,” and is comprised of three connected applications; a rezoning application, a heritage designation application, and a heritage alteration permit.  This post will provide a primer on the complete proposal, summarizing the procedural timeline and actions to date.

You can skip straight to the conclusion if you wish, or to the references sections to get links to all relevant materials regarding this proposal which is being considered at a Victoria City Council Public Hearing this Thursday, along with hearings for four other development proposals.

Rezoning Application

The rezoning application is to increase the maximum height for a primary building on the lot from 15m to 17.7 m, increase the floor space ratio from 3:1 to 3.99:1, and to add brewery, distillery, and an accessory use of liquor retail sales for such enterprises to the permitted zone uses.  It should be noted that the increased maximum height does not reflect the actual height of the building being proposed by the developer (in actuality, the building height will be 30.3m, or 7 stories high).  How does that work? This additional excess height is being granted by the agreement made with the city in the related heritage alteration permit.

Heritage Designation Application

The heritage designation application will add the 1914-era Customs House Annex as a City of Victoria municipal heritage site.  This annex was built as an addition to the 1898 Victoria Post Office building (also referred to by the city as the Fuller building, named after the building’s architect), which was originally located at 816 Government St. but severely damaged in a fire in 1937 and demolished and replaced by the current structure in 1957. The heritage designation will only apply to the 1914-era annex.  The 1957 building is to be demolished if this proposal is approved.

This does not mean that the heritage structure will remain intact, however.  Only the exterior walls (or building envelope in planning terminology) will be retained.  The entire interior will be demolished and replaced with new construction, to allow for a more modern configuration and to upgrade the building and its foundation to modern seismic standards (The existing structure would not survive a strong earthquake as it presently is constructed).

It should be noted that the 1914-era annex is presently designated a National Historic Place by the Federal Government of Canada, due to its age and construction style.  As such, there are a series of standards and guidelines defined by the federal government to be applied to the preservation and restoration of historic places that apply to this structure.  Many of these guidelines are not being met by the present application, due to some of the proposed changes to the existing 1914 structure. These changes are included in the details for the heritage alteration permit.

Heritage Alteration Permit

The Heritage Alteration Permit trades off the preservation and restoration of most of the exterior of the 1914-era annex for an increase in maximum building height to the proposed replacement structure along Government street from 17.7m maximum according to the proposed new zone to 30.3 m, or 7 stories. This increase in height violates several relevant standards, guidelines, and plans.  The federal Standards and Guidelines for extensions to Historic Places is that they are subservient to the Heritage Place, and in this case, the opposite will be true.  However, due to the historic structure having been subservient to an original structure that has been lost, an argument could be made that this restriction makes no sense in this specific case.  (It should also be considered that, while the height of the proposed building is 3 1/2 storeys higher than the existing structure, it is approximately the same height as the original Victoria Post Office.)

More importantly, the height of this proposed structure violates several of the city’s own planning guidelines, specifically from the Downtown Core Area Plan.  According to the plan, the following key policies apply to the proposed structure:

  • developing an “urban amphitheatre” with lower scale buildings located nearer the waterfront
  • protecting key public views
  • respecting the historic integrity of the harbour and surrounding buildings
  • appropriately scaled building enclosure around the Inner Harbour basin
  • rooflines should not detract or diminish the visual prominence of the Parliament Building or Empress Hotel rooflines
  • enhancing Government Street and Humboldt Street as key pedestrian streets through the provision of ample sidewalks and active commercial street fronts.

Also in exchange for the preservation and restoration of the 1914-era structure exterior (and its upgrade to modern seismic standards), are a number of changes to the exterior of the building. These changes include new holes to be cut on the first floor granite and sandstone exterior walls for new doors and windows, allowing for new retail locations along the south and west sides of the structure (along Wharf St.) and to create entrances for new residential units and an underground parking entrance on the north side of the building (along Courtney St.).  Several windows above the ground floor will also be relocated, as per the developer’s design.

Finally, an additional floor will also be added on top of the annex.  This floor addition will be recessed from the roof edge of the building to hide it from view from pedestrians walking on the sidewalk beside the building along Wharf St. and Courteney St.  However, due to the proximity of the building to the inner harbour, this additional floor will be quite visible from many locations around the inner harbour.

Relevant City Processes

The following is a list of meetings that occurred related to this proposal for rezoning of 816 Government Street:

Planning and Land Use Committee

This proposal was brought to PLUC (while is comprised of all members of Victoria City Council) on April 30, 2015.  Although a number of questions were made by council, the proposal was approved to be moved forward to Public Hearing as is, subject to any revisions in response to key questions recommended by staff to be posed to the Advisory Design Panel and the Heritage Advisory Panel regarding the application.

Advisory Design Panel

The Advisory Design Panel was presented with an overview of the application and were asked for a response to a number of questions identified by staff.  In response, they approved the proposal with the following changes:

  • Reconsideration of design refinements to the sixth and seventh floors and the mechanical penthouse with respect to the materiality of the massing and colouration of the parapet.
  • Simplification of the form of the one-storey addition to the Heritage Registered building.
  • Reconsideration of the perception of the building height from the street.
  • Further consideration of the depth of the recessed office lobby entrance with the intent to appear more welcoming.
  • Reconsideration of the removal of the mature purple beech tree.
  • Further design development of the at-grade retail glazing at the corner of Government Street and Wharf Street in consideration of a more positive pedestrian experience.
Heritage Advisory Panel

The HAPL was presented with an overview of the application and were asked for a response to a number of questions:

  1. the appropriateness of the proposed height of the new addition in relation to the heritage-registered Customs House and Old Town
  2. the appropriateness of the setback of the proposed rooftop addition
  3. the proposed exterior alterations and additions to the 1914 Customs House, having special regard to the scope of work anticipated by rehabilitation in the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada
  4. the design of the seven-storey building addition in relation to the existing heritage- registered building and to its wider context, including Old Town and the Inner Harbour
  5. the appropriateness of the proposed finishing materials

The HAPL minutes contain a number of comments and request, but three in particular deserve highlighting in light of the developer’s response as included in the agenda package for the August 27 Council meeting:

  • In response to the appropriateness of the proposed height of the new addition, the HAPL stated that the height is acceptable, but more setback of the upper storeys would be preferred.
  • In response to the the appropriateness of the setback of the proposed rooftop addition on the 1914-era annex, the panel stated that the rooftop addition on the heritage-registered building presents an undesirable view from across the harbour.
  • With regard to the design of the seven-storey building addition in relation to the existing 1914-era annex and to its wider context, the panel responded that the balconies on the addition are anomalies as there are no balconies on other buildings along Government Street. The proposed glass balconies on the new building do not fit well with the surrounding Victorian and Edwardian style buildings.
Council Meeting, August 27, 2015

On August 27, council was presented with an updated proposal by the developer in response to feedback from the Advisory Design Panel and the Heritage Advisory Panel.  The developer provided the following changes to the proposal in response to the Advisory Design Panel feedback:

  • Simplifying the upper-storey massing on the sixth and seventh storeys by removing the vertical limestone columns and replacing them with dormers and glazing
  • Simplifying the form of the one-storey addition to the Heritage-Registered building through changing the upper portion of the parapet from glazing to limestone
  • Reducing the height and size of the mechanical penthouse by removing the stair access and revising the cladding from limestone to zinc
  • Revising the lobby entrance on Government Street to reduce the depth of the recess and bringing the entrance closer to the sidewalk
  • Revising the corner of the at-grade retail windows at the corner of Government Street and Wharf Street by providing for a more generous setback to the corner retail unit
  • Providing visual sight-lines on drawing elevations to demonstrate the perception of the building as viewed from the street
  • Agreeing that, in the event that the purple Beech tree needs to be removed, the tree will be replaced by one with a minimum calliper size of 10cm diameter.

The developer also provided the following responses to the feedback from the Heritage Advisory Panel:

  • Regarding the proposed height of the new addition in relation to the Heritage-Registered Customs House and the broader context of Old Town, the applicant cites the original Post Office height as the comparison and is, therefore, maintaining the height as originally proposed.
  • In relation to the appropriateness of the setback of the proposed roof top addition, the applicant has made revisions to a portion of the south wall of the roof top addition that is located adjacent to the new seven-storey addition to reduce its visibility from Wharf Street.
  • In relation to the proposed exterior alterations to the 1914 Customs House, the applicant acknowledges that the original use of the building was deliberately inward looking; therefore, to enhance the retail and pedestrian experience and improve functionality, additional openings in the exterior facade of the building are required. The extent of the proposed openings in the character-defining elements of the Heritage-Registered building has remained as proposed, rather than being reduced as suggested by HAPI.
  • In relation to the proposed finishing materials, the applicant clarified that the rationale in selecting the colour of the stone for the new addition was to serve as a bridge between the 1914 Customs House and the Belmont Building.
  • Regarding the additional setback of the seven-storey addition at the upper storeys, particularly along Government Street, as it relates to the predominant one to five-storey character of Old Town, the applicant has provided a summary of the response in the accompanying letter. This includes stepping back the easternmost portion of the south wall on the seventh storey approximately 3m to align with the existing wall to the west. The revised drawings include sight-lines from the street level that demonstrate the extent to which the new addition will still be visible.
  • Regarding the setback of the rooftop addition, the applicant notes that this will predominantly be visible from the west of the site at the exit ramp along Courtney Street. The rationale, provided by the applicant, for not increasing the setback further to make the addition inconspicuous when viewed from across the surrounding streets, is that a portion of the new rooftop addition will be aligned with the date parapet on the south elevation of the 1914 Customs House and on the same southward axis as the Legislative Building.

Upon receiving the updated application, council, with no discussion on the recommendations from the two advisory panels or the changes by the developer in response, approved the application to be moved forward to Public Hearing, set for the council meeting of September 10, 2015.

Conclusion

The development application is now at the Public Hearing stage of the development process.  This public hearing will occur at this Thursday’s council meeting, starting at 7PM at Victoria City Hall.  This is the last opportunity for the public to be heard by council regarding their opinions on the proposed development.  Once the public hearing is concluded, council will (is to) consider the merits of the proposed development in light of the public feedback.  They will then either approve the application as is (in response to public feedback) allowing construction to occur as designed or they will reject the proposal and refuse to give 3rd reading of rezoning bylaw.

When we consider the lead-up to this Public Hearing, it is troubling that there was no effort to discuss publicly the feedback from the city’s Advisory Design Panel or Heritage Advisory Panel at the August 27th council meeting, nor a review of the developer’s responses and changes to the application based upon that feedback.

What worries me more is how there remain several key questions brought up by the HAPL left unanswered by the developer in their response.  These issues being:

  • More setback of the upper storeys of the new 7-storey structure is needed (A request also brought up at the PLUC table back in April).
  • Because of the location of the building near the water’s edge, the rooftop addition on the heritage-registered building presents an undesirable view from across the harbour.
  • The balconies on the addition are anomalies as there are no balconies on other buildings along Government Street. The proposed glass balconies on the new building do not fit well with the surrounding Victorian and Edwardian style buildings.  They could also be used for unsightly outside storage that will be viewable to everyone visiting the inner harbour.

References

Developer’s Publications

Customs House Website

Customs House Developer Booklet

811-813 Wharf Street Conservation Plan

Zoning Links

Existing Zoning Bylaw for Property – CA-3C Old Town District

Media Links

Times Colonist Article – Inner Harbour building set for revamp in $50M proposal

Times Colonist Comment – Avoid a new mistake on Victoria’s Inner Harbour

April 30th Planning and Land Use Committee Links

PLUC Meeting Video for 816 Government St/811-813 Wharf

Staff Powerpoint Presentation

Staff Report – Rezoning

Staff Report – Heritage Designation

Staff Report – Heritage Alteration Permit

May 12th Heritage Advisory Panel Links

HAPL Minutes May 12 2015

May 27th Advisory Design Panel Links

ADP Minutes – May 27, 2015

August 27th Council Meeting Links

Council Video for 816 Government St/811-813 Wharf

Staff Development Update Report

September 30th Council Meeting Links

Agenda on CivicWeb

Bylaw – Rezoning

Bylaw – Heritage Preservation

Bylaw – Heritage Revitalization Agreement

Bylaw – Housing Agreement

April 30 PLUC Report – Rezoning

April 30 PLUC Report – Heritage Designation

April 30 PLUC Report – Heritage Alteration Permit

August 27 Council Report – Rezoning

Correspondence

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