Unease on Victoria’s Waterfront

With the iconic blue Johnson Street Bridge slated ?for demolition and development ?on the rise, all eyes are on the future ?of Victoria’s waterfront?.

Ian Maxwell, Point Hope Shipyard Victoria | BCBusiness
Ian Maxwell, owner of the historic Point Hope Shipyard in Victoria’s Upper Harbour, faces development pressure and complaints from local condo owners, but he says he’s not going anywhere.

With the iconic blue Johnson Street Bridge slated 
for demolition and development 
on the rise, all eyes are on the future 
of Victoria’s waterfront

A seagull’s cry echoes across the sparkling waters of Victoria’s Upper Harbour, just north of the creaky Johnson Street Bridge, an aging symbol of waterfront industry. There’s a whiff of sea salt and creosote in the crisp morning air as Ian Maxwell ambles along the docks of Point Hope Shipyard, talking about his ambitious expansion plans for the historic site. Perched on a narrow shelf of land just north of the blue bridge, Point Hope has operated continuously on the site since 1873. It’s the last remaining shipyard in a harbour where maritime industry thrived for more than a century.

Over the last 30 years, the rapid loss of industrial land along Victoria’s harbour, mostly to condo and resort developments, has fostered a common assumption: that the eventual disappearance altogether of heavy industry from the city’s waterfront is inevitable. But Maxwell, who rescued Point Hope from the brink of bankruptcy eight years ago, is determined to see to it that doesn’t happen. He’s planning a $60-million upgrade to the facility, the centrepiece of which is a $35-million graving dock, a specialized berth that can be drained to allow repair and maintenance on the hulls of large ships.

“It’s the first major investment in a shipbuilding facility in Victoria’s harbour in at least 50 years,” says Maxwell. “For generations, all the industrial land in the Upper Harbour has been nothing more than a land bank for developers. We’re trying to change that and protect the industrial lands for what they are.”

Measuring 170 metres long and 35 metres wide, the Point Hope graving dock will be able to accommodate all but the largest B.C. ferries, and will “affect shipbuilding on the West Coast for another 50 to 100 years,” Maxwell says.

In a stroke of fortuitous timing, Maxwell’s revamped shipyard could be well-positioned to reap the benefits of the federal government’s National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, a $35-billion fund aimed at stimulating the country’s shipbuilding industry. Most of the money allocated to the initiative is earmarked for construction of navy and coast guard ships and will be split between two of the three major shipyards that submitted bids – North Vancouver’s Seaspan Marine Corp. and shipyards in Nova Scotia and Quebec. The remaining $2 billion is set aside for smaller shipyards and may benefit Point Hope in the coming years, said Maxwell, noting that his expansion plans were already underway when the NSPS was unveiled in June 2010. 

Image: Nik West
The condos of Dockside Green loom over Point
Hope. If Maxwell gets his way, soon residents’ views
will feature a 170-metre graving dock.

Rising from former industrial lands behind Point Hope, the eco-friendly glass-and-chrome condos of Victoria’s Dockside Green serve as a reminder that Maxwell is swimming against the tide. In the last five years, close to 500 people have moved into Dockside Green, a $650-million mixed-use development that, when completed, will house a population of 2,500, and will include 26 buildings, totalling 1.3-million square feet of residential, retail, office and light industrial uses.

City staff estimate that, in the last two decades, 2,500 to 3,000 dwelling units have been built along Victoria’s harbour. That estimate also includes major projects on Shoal Point, the Songhees lands just south of Point Hope, and the Selkirk waterfront.

Meanwhile, according to a recent survey by the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA), about 85 per cent of the harbour’s industrial land base has disappeared, and half of what remains “is threatened by possible incremental decision-making related to development and zoning.”

It’s a dynamic that has isolated the harbour’s remaining maritime enterprises into tiny pockets and increasingly pitted them against newcomers who don’t appreciate the rattle and hum of traditional industry. Maxwell says the arrival of Dockside Green has led to ongoing complaints about noise emanating from Point Hope, forcing him to spend thousands of dollars on studies showing people the company isn’t breaking the noise bylaws. “It’s like the city writes us an open-ended ticket,” he says.

In James Bay, residents have long complained about the diesel fumes from idling cruise-ship traffic at Ogden Point, and the GVHA has responded by considering a massive electrical upgrade that would eliminate the need for cruise liners to idle while in port. Across the harbour, along the Songhees shores next to the tony Ocean Point Resort, fierce opposition to a proposed marina for luxury yachts last year forced the property’s owner to cut the moorage area in half. 


Image: Nik West
The plan to build a 3,600-square-foot floating
terminal in the Inner Harbour has attracted vocal
opposition from residents irked by float-plane noise.

Expanding Victoria Inner Harbour’s float-plane terminal

There’s also controversy brewing over a proposed expansion of the Inner Harbour’s bustling float-plane terminal that’s expected to go before Victoria City Council this fall. Harbour Air, which recently bought West Coast Air, plans to team up with Washington state’s Kenmore Air to build a 3,600-square-foot seaplane terminal that is sure to raise the ire of condo owners who have been lobbying the city to curb float-plane traffic for years. Harbour Air senior vice-president Randy Wright says the consolidation of existing facilities into a single terminal, along with the acquisition of West Coast Air, will allow him to put more people on each plane and run fewer flights. “We’re going to cut back on our Twin Otter fleet because they’re louder and they generate more complaints,” he adds. “By focusing on yield management we’ll be able to reduce noise and pollution and also reduce our costs.”

Wright admits it’s been frustrating to deal with newcomers who fail to recognize the importance of a working harbour to the local economy. “A lot of them would just love to see kayaks and canoes in here and for the float planes to go away,” Wright says. “But the key is to have a balance of both because, like it or not, this has always been a working harbour.”

Wright points out that float planes have been landing in Victoria since 1919, when American aviation pioneers William Boeing and Eddie Hubbard beached their plane near Shoal Point, as part of a new U.S. International Air Mail service they launched that year. Certified by Transport Canada, Victoria Inner Harbour Airport handled more than 38,000 flights in 2009, ranking it as the third-busiest water airport in the world, behind Lake Hood, Alaska and Vancouver.

The new floating terminal will require a rezoning from the city, putting council in an awkward position during the anticipated public hearing. While the city supports the concept of a working harbour as a matter of policy, elected officials remain wary of the collective voting power wielded by the city’s politically active waterfront condo owners.

“It’s important to find a balance and sometimes it’s not as easy as it may seem on the surface,” says Mayor Dean Fortin. “Yes, the float planes have always been there, but then residents come back and say, ‘Yes, but the amount of flights has tripled; what are you going to do?’”

Most stakeholders agree that one of the biggest barriers to a cohesive development plan for Victoria’s harbour is the large number of landowners, agencies and public bodies along the waterfront, and the divergent agendas they bring to the table.

Transport Canada holds sway over all matters related to transportation and maritime industry on the harbour, and its policies often take precedence where other agencies are involved. The GVHA owns the Ogden Point cruise-ship docks and several other pieces of high-profile waterfront property it inherited when the federal government was divesting itself of responsibility for Canada’s ports in the 1990s. The Provincial Capital Commission, a Crown agency run by an appointed board of directors, owns Belleville ferry terminal, the scenic Lower Causeway across the street from the Empress Hotel, and a large chunk of Ship’s Point wharf. Zoning and development decisions along the shoreline, however, fall under the city’s purview, while applications involving water lots require both provincial and federal approval. 

Also in the mix are not-for-profit organizations such as the Downtown Victoria Business Association, Tourism Victoria, the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce and the Victoria and Esquimalt Harbour Society.

The piecemeal governance structure has for too long prevented the kind of “careful consideration and planning needed to safeguard the harbour’s future,” according to Barry Hobbis, owner of Victoria Harbour Ferries. “For decades, we’ve had multi-levels of government agencies acting as stewards of the harbour and on key issues they just can’t seem to, pardon me, get their shit together.”

Curtis Grad, recently appointed CEO of the GVHA, says his top priority in the coming months and years will be to bring all the stakeholders together and draft a comprehensive development plan for the entire harbour, an ambitious goal that has eluded many others before him. “Everybody that’s got a role to play has to start singing off the same song sheet because this industrial and commercial land is what keeps our businesses going and feeds our tax base,” he says.

Hobbis was among those who opposed the marina for luxury yachts, arguing the new docks would pose a safety hazard to the float planes, ferries, sailboats and kayakers already crowded into the harbour.

The “mega-marina” application, as opponents labelled it, has been a case study in the complexities of doing business along the harbour. In the 1990s, when the property’s owner, Bob Evans, tried to build a marina and condo development on the site, city council killed the application by down-zoning his property, sparking a lengthy legal battle that ended in 2003 when the Supreme Court of Canada ordered Victoria to pay Evans $1.8 million.

Gun shy about losing another court battle, the city kept its distance when the mega-marina resurfaced two years ago and more than 7,000 local residents signed a petition against the project. This spring Evans, now in his 80s, finally received approval from Transport Canada under the Navigable Waters Act and the federal Fisheries Act, as well as provincial approval of a long-term lease for the marina’s water lots.

“There’s a tremendous amount of politics involved in doing anything on the harbour,” says Evans.

All along the shore, the city’s roots as a hub of maritime commerce can be traced though the history of its former industrial lands. Victoria’s shipping industry dates back to 1863, when Joseph Spratt and Johann Kriemler started Albion Iron Works, which later became the Victoria Machinery Depot shipbuilding company. During World War II, Victoria Machinery Depot built more than two dozen warships for the Royal Canadian Navy. Closed in 1994 after a long, slow decline, the former VMD shipyard below the Bay Street bridge, directly across from Ian Maxwell’s Point Hope Shipyard, is now a gravel depot.

Starting in the early 1900s, the Canadian Pacific Steamship Co. ran passenger vessels on the “triangle route” linking Victoria, Seattle and Vancouver, a service that continued until 1960, when B.C. Ferries was created. The CPR steamship terminal was later converted into the Royal London Wax Museum, a tourist attraction that closed last year amid plans to re­develop the site.

Ogden Point, now a seasonal port of call for gigantic glittering cruise ships, was once the site of a towering grain elevator that served as a transfer point for shipments of prairie wheat to international markets. In 1928, B.C. Packers built a fish-processing plants and warehouse building that stood on the site for more than 60 years.

Fisherman’s Wharf, at the foot of Erie Street, was built by the federal government in 1948 as a moorage site for large fish-packing ships, and is now a laid-back enclave catering to live-aboard pleasure craft. The Selkirk Waterfront, further up the Gorge Waterway, served as a centre for sawmilling and related industries from the 1840s until 1989, when the long-running B.C. Forest Products mill on the site was demolished. In the 1990s, the area was redeveloped with a mix of office, residential and recreational uses, including a busy rowing and paddling centre that hosts regattas and special events such as the annual Victoria Dragon Boat Races.

Even the aging blue bridge, its rusted iron girders and industrial aesthetic a throwback to the harbour’s rough-hewn, blue-collar past, will disappear soon, replaced by a sleek new $80-million lift span. The rail crossing on the old bridge, connecting downtown Victoria with the E&N line running all the way to Courtenay, was decommissioned months ago and won’t be replaced due to cost considerations. But there will be an expanded footpath on the new bridge, connecting cyclists and pedestrians with the Galloping Goose regional trail that winds through the former industrial lands surrounding Point Hope Shipyard.

If Ian Maxwell’s expansion plans get the green light, cyclists will be able to gaze into the gaping cavern of his graving dock as they ride across the harbour, and he makes no apologies to those who might be offended by the view. “The only reason Victoria is here is because this harbour’s here. The depth and the protected waterway for shipping – the whole city was built around that natural infrastructure,” he says. “You have to get on a boat and look at Victoria from the water to understand why it’s laid out that way.”