When will Victoria get it?

by Yule Heibel on August 24, 2010

Keith Norbury’s in-depth article on Victoria’s Inner Harbour ran in last Sunday’s paper (see Seeking a new vision for Victoria’s harbour), and I have the honor of being quoted in same:

“I think the key word for the harbour is land use,” says Yule Heibel, an art historian who has a keen interest in urban issues. “We’re certainly underutilizing it in significant ways. I mean we have parking lots on the water. That’s pretty unimaginative.”

Like Hobbis, she grew up in Victoria but was away for decades, in her case to earn a PhD at Harvard and to teach at MIT. When she moved back in 2002, “I thought nothing has changed,” says Heibel, who recently helped organize the counter-petition campaign against the City of Victoria’s plan to replace the Johnson Street Bridge.

It’s a slightly off-set quote, since I was talking about driving down Highway 17 into Victoria in 2002, through Saanich, and noticing the many changes in Victoria’s suburbs – but then landing in downtown, where, in 2002, it looked like nothing had changed: it still looked like the 1970s.

Of course there were some changes, but the point was that all the big visible changes were out in Saanich and other suburbs, while the downtown lay rotting, er, preserved for the fucking [don’t swear, Yule, it shows your powerlessness] heritage-according-to-the-Gospel-of-NIMBY crowd (a crowd led by a specific City of Victoria councilor who subsequently exposed her heritage cred to be about as authentic as styrofoam: see my Johnson Street Bridge related posts).

Meanwhile, the downtown rots still, and in fact does so more today than back in 2002, when the economy still had a pulse that went a smidgen beyond the “let’s extract as much fleece as we can from the tourists and retirees” mantra to encompass a wide-eyed “oh my gawd, maybe we can grow an ecosystem here!” enthusiasm. Of course that councilor is still sitting, eight years on (can you believe it?) because that’s just how we do things around here – that is, we don’t. We have terminal atherosclerosis, and dead weight gets to clog the arteries. Of course, the irony about NIMBYism in downtown Victoria is that there are no “backyards” there, so I’m never quite sure where the damn NIMBYs come from.

But come they do.

And today I was reminded just how difficult it is to talk to them. Someone I know (and like) remarked on seeing my name in the paper, and she then mentioned another person quoted in the article, Gwyn Symmons of CitySpaces Consulting. In turn, the mention of CitySpaces Consulting reminded me that I was very much opposed to a 2007 plan to remove the MV Coho from the Inner Harbour – an absolutely idiotic idea, in my opinion.

I wrote two articles about the flaccid “Belleville Plan” proposed by the City of Victoria-initiated “task force” (both published in FOCUS Magazine: see The Belleville Plan: It’s all wrong [Oct. 2007] and Victoria’s genius locus: perspectives from the water [Nov. 2007]). CitySpaces Consulting was, iirc, associated with the City’s Belleville Terminal Task Force.

This is how we came to discuss the magnificent motor vessel ferry Coho, running for 50 years straight. To my mind, the Coho is a symbol of our working harbor: it’s how trucks from the US reach BC’s capital city; it’s a vestige of all the major ferry traffic that used to navigate our harbor. It runs just twice a day and is a marvel to watch, as its huge bulk gracefully maneuvers in and out of the harbor. Flawlessly.

I’m quite certain that my acquaintance moved to Victoria decades after the Coho started its runs, yet in her view that vessel disrupts the kayaks paddling around the harbor, and she thought that we don’t really need all that automotive traffic coming into town anyway. According to her, the ferry should be removed from the harbor. (I’m not targeting my acquaintance specifically, nothing personal: she simply articulated what is an all-too-common point of view here. But it’s uninformed.)

I really want to tear my hair out when I hear stuff like this.

Just how is Victoria supposed to have an economy if we gear everything to the pretty-pretty tourist-and-recreational-user set? Oh, the kayaks might be disturbed by an MV-class ferry! Too bad – because guess what?, the recreational kayaks came way after the ferry. As for the cars and trucks off-loaded by the ferry? They create …um, what, exactly? Congestion? Nope, hardly. There’s never any congestion. They create pollution? Yes, but those American trucks arriving are polluting a whole lot less than the goddamn Canadian tourist buses that ply our neighborhood streets during the summer. If automobile traffic pollutes, control it at the source (the tailpipe – hello, City of Victoria, this is your cue to do something about those inexcusable rat-traps you license as tourist city tour buses: my god, how deceptive the website photos are!). But you don’t banish a perfectly good ferry from a working harbor, dammit.

And so it goes in Victoria: person moves here, often close to or at retirement, and loves the lifestyle. What’s not to love? It is gorgeous here.

Then, person says, I shall remake the world in my image. And bang, there goes the working harbor, there goes the economic development, there goes growth – because person doesn’t need that in his/her life anymore. At the same time, person banks on younger persons to drive the city’s economy.

Well, guess what? Younger persons get sick and tired of living in a luxury town where it costs a small fortune to expel gas but is nigh impossible to make a decent living. Younger persons leave in droves for Vancouver or beyond.

And so we’re back to square one, with a fantasy economy and a fantasy island, trying to make sense of a fantasy harbor.

I really don’t know what to say anymore. The problem is so entrenched – and we do not have the right people at City Hall to show a way forward. The suburban mentality is just too damn strong, it seems – even our City Manager lives way out in the ‘burbs. You can’t run a city this way.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Slaven August 24, 2010 at 11:11 pm

Very well said!!

robert randall August 25, 2010 at 12:21 am

Didn’t Ryan Burles say the Coho was good for the environment (net?) because the commercial heavy truck traffic takes a shorter route to get here compared to coming over via the Canadian mainland?

It amazes me how close we came to booting that great ship out of our harbour. What stupid short-sightedness.

I’m not sure the role Cityspaces played in the Belleville task force. I suspect more of participant rather than overseer or director like they were with the harbour lands consultation. But I may be wrong.

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