When developers, urban planners and city officials are on the same wavelength with creating positive urban spaces, the results can be wonderful.
Take the Era development in downtown Victoria, BC, Canada. The 15 storey condo building is part of a boom in downtown residential and retail redevelopment in British Columbia’s vibrant capital city.
In 2013, a group of urban explorers participating in The Places Project explored downtown Victoria walkways. Many walkways, they found, had the potential to be good urban spaces but also faced significant challenges. One key problem with mid-block walkways was that they lacked visual clarity: because of zigs and zags in their layout, pedestrians can’t see what’s ahead.
People who can’t see for sure where they are going are wary and distrustful. What’s around that corner?
That was the situation with “Millie’s Lane,” a dog-leg walkway between a theatre complex and retail / residential buildings, when Concert Properties started to plan a new building on its west side. The narrow laneway had a couple retail shops opening onto it (positive) but also featured a shift in elevation (challenging steps) and a blind corner (negative) as well as buildings that turn blank walls to the lane (negative).
Landscape Architect Bruce Hemstock and colleague Anna Babych worked on the redesign. Hemstock says that creating “clean sight lines” was a first priority. The lane in its original configuration “creates hideaway places” that made it feel unsafe. Concert Properties had an interest in widening the laneway into a plaza space between its building and the theatre, as did City of Victoria planners.
“We wanted to create animation on the laneway,” Hemstock says, “to give it a sense of identity, rather than being just a passageway.” Two public open houses were held and the architects and planners heard that the public also wanted the space to be inviting to larger numbers of people, not just to those who might be looking to pass through or, late a night, do a drug deal or throw down a sleeping bag.
To achieve some of those objectives, Hemstock and the developer realized that the laneway needed to be widened into more of a plaza at its south end, so that people could see clearly from one street through to the other. That would also allow active uses, such as a sidewalk cafe or coffee shop, sitting spaces, and attractions like water features. To do that, though, the developer had to agree to pull back its building well within the property line. Concert Properties saw the value in doing that. “The public won’t know where the property line runs” in the new development, Hemstock notes.
To complement existing retail shops on the west side of the neighbouring Odeon Theatre building, the Era development will add four retail spaces facing them, and facing onto the newly widened plaza. All will have clear glass to encourage the two-way human communication that is so important in building inviting places.
A citizen-led initiative to rename the space in 2007 also gave it a new focus and sense of identity. Previously known to many simple as “Odeon Alley” for the next door Odeon Theatre, the walkway was renamed Millie’s Lane in honour of Millie Hawkes, a longtime operator of a shoe repair shop opening onto the lane.
What may be most notable about the redevelopment is that everyone from developer to city planners to architects to citizens were on the same wavelength. They were all thinking about placemaking – about how to create a space that is an urban magnet. That is the power of holistic thinking.
images courtesy: Lorne Daniel, PWL Partnership, Concert Developments