Oak Bay Avenue stretches for about 2 km from (near) the bay after which it is named west to the point where (in true Greater Victoria fashion) it changes name to Pandora Avenue (which continues straight west to the Victoria harbour). On Friday November 27, we joined with students from the University of Victoria Urban Development Club for an end-of-term walk, talk and social on the evolving Avenue.
The joke is that evolution on Oak Bay Ave is just like natural evolution: it happens so slowly, you can’t see it happening. “Quaint” and “charming” are words that are often used to describe the clusters of mostly one or two storey shops and commercial services, mixed with residential clusters, that constitute Oak Bay Village and the emerging “Oak Bay Village West.”
30 of us started an urban discovery walk in front of the existing Home Hardware and the soon-to-open Red Barn Market on the avenue. Architects Peter Johannknecht and Gregory Damant of Cascadia Architects gave us an overview of the site’s history and the two buildings, owned by the same local developer. Although only one storey buildings, both have been designed to create a ‘street wall’ closer to that of a two storey structure. Greg noted that in future evolutions, buildings on this site and nearby might more appropriately be four storeys or so with residential above commercial.
In combination with a garden centre across the street and other shops, the area is becoming a more walkable destination. Our group talked about the street design, which still reflects car-oriented priorities with wide driving lanes. A number of properties along the avenue are designed with parking in front, rather than behind, their buildings, which creates a dangerous and uncomfortable environment for people walking.
East of the Red Barn a block or so, we stopped in to the Village Walk by Abstract Developments, where Vice President Sam Ganong explained design features of the new mixed use structure on the Foul Bay corner. He noted that the first floor is set back to provide a wide public space at street level, then the second and third floors are cantilevered out over. This allows the developer to maximize square footage while providing a visual ‘wall’ to the urban corridors and weather protection to pedestrians. Almost unnoticed is a fourth floor residential level, which again is set back. That “stepped” design allows light into the street area and to buildings to the north.
From the Village Walk, we strolled through the mainly residential section of the avenue to Oak Bay Village proper, noting wide variations in sidewalk widths and comfort levels. Oak Bay Councillor Michelle Kirby explained that in some sections, much of the sidewalk construction is actually on private property, so the municipality is just in the process of reviewing its right-of-way edges and how space might be reconfigured. The municipality just recently hired its first urban planner and is developing a Complete Streets guide.
We then visited The Clive, the first new-build rental accommodation in Oak Bay for many years. Despite its modest three storey height, the building was subject to community opposition. Cascadia Architects were also the designers on this project and Greg Damant noted that the consultation process was lengthy but ultimately worked. Greg pointed out design features that help create an active street front, including ground floor apartments with doors opening onto small patios on the Oak Bay Avenue sidewalk. The previous apartment on the site had a large concrete retaining wall on the south edge, forming a hard barrier at street level. The building has been very popular with renters, being fully rented with a significant wait list before it was completed.
And then, our heads full of ideas, we ‘retired’ to the Penny Farthing Public House for drinks and food. It was a fine evening where everyone learned – which is the intent of these urban discovery walks. Thanks to Ernesto Mendez and the University of Victoria Urban Development Club, to Oak Bay Councillors Michelle Kirby, Tom Croft and Tara Ney, to Peter Johannknecht, Gregory Damant and Andy Guiry of Cascadia Architects, and to Sam Ganong of Abstract Developments.