Hugeasscity has me thinking about Victoria’s Centennial Square (again)

by Yule Heibel on June 1, 2008

(Note: might add some links/ photos later, but no time now — written on the fly…)

Dan Bertolet of Hugeasscity hits all the right points in his discussion of what makes a good urban plaza.  He includes a “wow!” photo of Seattle’s Garden of Remembrance, which, with its relatively steep grade, allows for steps oriented in such a way that they provide “natural” seating for people who want to “watch the action on 2nd Ave.”

This got me thinking about Victoria’s own piece of urban misery, Centennial Square: it’s very rarely used, and it’s really badly designed.  There’s no reason to be in Centennial Square, which was built by deleting a street, but didn’t replace the street with any reasons for people actually to cross the square.

What follows are my ruminations on Centennial Square, which won’t be of much interest to anyone not familiar with Victoria or the Square, but here goes.

If you’ve ever put on an event at the Square, you’ll know that a big chunk of it lies in the shadow of the old 3-story City Hall, a protected heritage building.  This is the “south-east” part of the Square.  Shadowing from City Hall makes being in that section of the square really uncomfortable, particularly since dank shade isn’t especially welcome anyway in a climate which never gets very hot, even in summer.  What this suggests to me is that this particular plot would be ideal for another building — although I can hear the howls of outrage should any section of City Hall’s north facade be covered up by a new building.  But there might be ways to work that problem, perhaps by incorporating the facade into the interior of an open-to-the-public glassy building.  At any rate, my hypothetical structure would have to be really low-rise, so that the sun could penetrate to the north of it.  A structure built on the edge of Douglas Street would, however, be able to draw more pedestrian traffic, and therefore bring people into the Square itself.

The Square’s north-east section gets full sun (when it’s out), but that section is taken up by one privately-owned lot, plus a string of ugly (and mostly empty) “arcaded” venues (offices, dead shops, dead restaurants) facing into the Square, which are also part of an increasingly decrepit city-owned parkade from the sixties.  The parkade is on the list of structures slated for removal/ replacement.  Douglas Street to the Square’s east is for the most part a thoroughfare, with lots of bus stops, but few reasons for pedestrians to linger on that strip of the block.  To the west, there’s the Royal McPherson Theatre, and the north-west has the new CRD Headquarters building, which isn’t set snug to the north-west corner, but unfortunately is set back quite a ways, with yet another large-ish and hugely underused “plaza” at the corner of Fisgard and Government Streets.

Thinking of Bertolet’s observation, that the Garden of Remembrance provides a vantage point for people- and action-watching, I started to wonder where you could sit in Centennial Square to do anything similar.  The answer?  You can’t.

The Square is resolutely and stubbornly inward-turning: it presents a slightly walled and therefore slightly elevated patch of truly useless lawn with one big tree in the middle on the east edge (Douglas Street).  (For a great aerial shot, see this flickr photo by thebugs.  South is at the top of the photo, north at bottom, east on the left, west on the right. The pink building near the center is City Hall; to the right you can make out the Square’s fountain; directly to the north of City Hall, you can recognize the grassy patch with its lone tree.)

There’s nothing to see from the open grass patch, as it opens up on a part of the block that people hurry along since there’s absolutely nothing to stop for except the bus stop.  And I don’t know about you, but watching people wait for the bus is really seriously depressing.  Vistas to every other street are blocked off, with only two small “enticements” to glimpse some street action on the south-west and the north-west sections.  They’re not bad, but neither are they enough.
Consider, however, that the parkade on the north edge is supposed to come down (in the bottom part of thebugs’s photo), and that perhaps the city could acquire the privately-owned lot on the north-east corner.  There has been talk of replacing those buildings with some kind of new central library and civic auditorium, but let’s think about how that corner might also be worked to create a view cone on to the Hudson project now under renovation (not visible in thebugs’s photo; it would be in the lower left hand portion: part of the roof is visible).  Once it’s fully built out (a conversion of the Hudson Bay department store into condos, plus 2 high-rise towers also for condos and shops), this project, which is a truly large undertaking, should inject a tremendous amount of life into this northern edge of downtown.

It’s just a thought, but:

  • if a glassy “civic” structure were built next to City Hall on its north (because no one wants to be in that dank spot anyway, so you may as well put a building there instead),
  • and the parkade on the Square’s north were replaced with something much better (a library, a civic auditorium),
  • and the private lot on its north-east were acquired, too, then:

It might be an opportunity to reconfigure the Square so that the Douglas Street frontage finally gets some “built interest,” while a clever view cone is opened toward the north-east, which opens onto the Hudson.  The Hudson is in itself a magnificent structure from The Bay’s grand old department store days that literally deserves a view point.  And furthermore, the Hudson will be a potential river of interest-producing activity worth watching once it’s finished and its ground-floor shops are open.  Plus, seen from Centennial Square, the new view would be of a corner, not of a stretch of interest-bereft Douglas Street.  Where things come together (corners) one  usually finds more interesting to see.


Davin June 22, 2008 at 10:32 pm


Great post. I agree with pretty much everything you’ve mentioned here. As someone who regularly uses public transit to get from Estevan Village in Oak Bay to this specific stop in front of Centennial Square after work, I can speak to the fact that it’s not a bus stop that you want to hang around for very long. Neither is the square itself. There seems to be some good stuff around the square, but nothing good dares venture in to the “arcade.”

I noticed that there’s a Starbucks opening up at Fisgard and Government, across from QV’s, on this specific block, but sadly not in the square. I would say Starbucks is too smart to try and do the job of the city – rejuvenate the square – so they opted for an existing high-traffic area (China Town).

On a tangent – I was thinking the other day that it would be really great if there was a Cafe in a busier part of downtown where I could grab a coffee and sit on the patio with some friends or colleagues, other than the Starbucks on Government Street. I was thinking specifically on Douglas. I would be found there regularly.

I’m living on Pandora and Vancouver now – beside the CRA building – so city planning is a topic I am thinking more and more about each day, as this area has been heavily effected by decisions in the past about how to plan various services in the city. Harris Green is an interesting space with a lot of potential, but gets little more attention than a mowing. Lots could be done there.. I could go on.

Nice to see you are still blogging. I came across your website randomly in the comments section of Dave Winer’s blog, so I thought I’d pay a visit and see what you were talking about these days. Been enjoying the site, so thanks for writing!

Yule June 22, 2008 at 10:46 pm

Thanks for commenting, Davin — I remember you as one of Julie B. Andersen / Perpetual Karma’s blog friends, right? I’ll need to explore your site and catch up with what you’ve been up to! It’s great that you’re living downtown/ in Harris Green — you should definitely get involved with the Downtown Residents Association (Harris Green is included). Check out Robert Randall blog (he’s the chair of the DRA) and also see the forum for Vibrant Victoria.

eric June 28, 2008 at 12:33 pm

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I live in poverty in NYC and suffer a certian disability for many years.
will answer all letters

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