Northern Junk development headed to public hearing

A controversial proposal to develop the historic Northern Junk buildings near the Johnson Street Bridge is headed to a public hearing.

Victoria city councillors voted 5-2 Thursday to let residents weigh in on the merits of a project that has already pitted heritage experts against one another.

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Reliance Properties wants to rehabilitate two modest warehouses that date to the 1860s and incorporate them into a five-storey building with 47 rental units, commercial space, an internal alleyway and waterfront walkway.

People who support the development have described it as refined and “elegant,” while those opposed say the rooftop addition “overwhelms” the original buildings and destroys their heritage character.

The Caire & Grancini Warehouse, built in 1860, is considered a rare example of work by San Francisco-based architect John Wright, while the Fraser Warehouse, built in 1864, was designed by Thomas Trounce, who arrived in Victoria during the Fraser River gold rush era.

Both buildings have sat vacant for 42 years.

Councillors voted against sending the project to public hearing in June, but they reversed course Thursday after the developer worked with city on a number of refinements.

Mayor Lisa Helps said the changes resulted in a better proposal that’s worthy of public comment.

“There is a large amount of opinion about this in the community,” she said. “There are people who are very for it and there are people who are very against it for very different reasons.

“And I think we have an obligation to now hear from all of those people.”

Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe agreed, but made clear that she has yet to make up her mind about the project.

“I think it’s a very attractive building and if it were anywhere else I would absolutely celebrate the building,” she said. “But, of course, there are more concerns when it’s on top of a heritage structure, as well as when it’s on the harbour.”

Coun. Geoff Young voiced a similar concern in voting against a public hearing.

“I agree the current design is a bit better,” he said. “But the piling up of the new space on top of the old buildings is entirely disproportionate and out of scale.”

Reliance president Jon Stovell, who has been trying to develop the site for 10 years, was grateful to council for moving the project forward.

“It’s a huge milestone,” he said in an interview. “I mean, we’re just at base camp. We haven’t summited yet.”

Stovell said there’s a lot at stake with the project, including a significant dedication of new public space with the alleyway and waterfront walkway, “and just the need to keep investing in moving the downtown forward.”

“So I’m glad council sat back and looked at the big picture,” he said.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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