Unbuilt Victoria

Unbuilt Victoria

Dorothy Mindenhall

Reviewed by Larry McCann

What if? Ah yes, that perennial question. What would a city look like if the “unbuilt” were actually built? What if a municipality’s proposed plans were followed “to a tee”? Sometimes the rejection of a questionable proposal results in an improved counter-proposal, even a successful outcome. Other times, sensible schemes are scuttled because the economy is in a tailspin, or they are cast aside for sheer lack of political will. In a related way, “what if” questions can fairly be asked of any historical study that examines the role of the “unbuilt” in the city-building process. What if the choice of unbuilt projects had been widened by plan and building type, by number of case studies, or in geographical scope to give a more complete portrayal of the city-building process? And what if the author had probed more deeply into archival sources to reveal why the “unbuilt” actually remained, well, unbuilt? 

Unbuilt Victoria is part of a new series sponsored by Toronto’s Dundurn Press. Unbuilt Calgary has just been published. Judging from the contents of both books, the apparent approach is for an author to select a range of unbuilt projects that she or he deem important and that, if built, would have had a significant impact on a city’s built environment. We are indebted to Dorothy Mindenhall for introducing us to a cast of buildings and plans that at one time took centre stage in local newspapers and municipal council chambers. Regrettably, though, a number of Mindenhall’s “biographies” of buildings and plans remain unbuilt, their full story incomplete, unresolved.

For Dorothy Mindenhall, the choice of unbuilt schemes focuses heavily on public places and institutional buildings, with less attention given to commercial and residential projects. Thus, Victoria’s waterfront landscape, including the Songhees district and legislative precinct (all united by an egregious mid-1960s transportation plan), draws considerable attention. Building projects include Victoria’s City Hall, the provincial parliament buildings, a convention centre, a civic art gallery, several cathedrals, and the University of Victoria. The City of Victoria’s urban landscape garners most attention. The suburban districts of Greater Victoria are largely shunned. Unbuilt Calgary, by contrast, has much more to say about suburban development and residential housing.

Mindenhall’s choices receive varying degrees of discussion and supporting research. She relies heavily on newspaper accounts to tell stories of the unbuilt. When possible, especially for the recent past, these accounts are supplemented by interviewing a cast of actors, mostly architects, once associated with a scheme. These sources do yield important insights about why certain projects were never built, but too often reveal only part of the story, or gloss over the precise reasons for failure. Government records -- for example, municipal land use and zoning files, and City Council minutes -- are seldom examined by Mindenhall. Even readily available published research is sometimes ignored. The controversial Reid project of the 1960s and early 1970s, its proposed high rise buildings looming large over Victoria’s waterfront and historic “Old Town” district, receives detailed attention. It is an important story, entertainingly told and well illustrated. But in the end, why did the provincial government of Dave Barrett eventually purchase the land, bringing closure to the scheme? Also informative is the story of the various convention centre plans and the equally numerous choice of sites “around town.” The spatial variety of desirable building sites is an unspecified but nonetheless underlying theme of Unbuilt Victoria, at least to this reviewer. But again, important questions remain unanswered. For example, why did the site adjacent to the Empress Hotel -- shunned in the 1950s -- regain favour as the convention centre’s final resting place? Would files in the CPR archives in Montreal yield the reason, or a planning report in the City of Victoria Archives? Mindenhall claims that John Blair, the designer of Beacon Hill Park, is “a shadowy figure about whom little can be confirmed.” Yet in The Pioneers of American Landscape Design, W.A. Dale offers good detail on Blair’s career.

Other discussions seem to “tail off,” never fully resolved. Although the Bay Village scheme at the heart of the James Bay neighbourhood is wisely chosen for discussion, we are never told about various other proposals for the site, such as a thirty-story, mixed-use tower proposed by the developer J.A. Mace (he of an unrealistic convention centre proposal at the corner of Bay and Government streets). Nor is it explained how changes in provincial planning legislation and shifts in the City of Victoria’s policies towards limiting the height of high rise residential towers throughout Victoria brought a close to the dreams of Mace Homes and Investment Limited. In fact, the final building, James Bay Square, is much smaller than the scheme illustrated in the book. Similarly, the discussion surrounding the money-raising development aspirations of the University of Victoria in the vicinity of the campus contains a number of errors. It was the proposal to build a large complex of apartments on what is now the parking lot of Camosun College that enraged the residents of Oak Bay’s Lansdowne Park neighbourhood, not the apartment area north of Cedar Hill Cross Road. These moneymaking development schemes were essential before the provincial government of W.A.C. Bennett finally decided, in 1964, to provide direct financial support to British Columbia’s several universities.

Despite these caveats, Dorothy Mindenhall’s Unbuilt Victoria is important because it brings to our attention many forgotten features of the city-building process in the province’s capital city. It’s a shame, though, that suburban schemes in the Capital Region District (once known as Greater Victoria) failed to win more attention: schemes like the many “paper” subdivisions promoted during the early-twentieth century land boom era, or a high rise apartment project envisioned to sit atop scenic Gonzales Hill, or the Eaton’s department store that might have anchored Saanich’s Broadmead Village. Ah yes, what if her publisher had offered Mindenhall more space to round out the story of unbuilt Greater Victoria?

Unbuilt Victoria
Dorothy Mindenhall
Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2012. 248 pp, $29.99 paper

BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.

BC Studies 178 (Summer 2013)