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Developer brings eighth proposal for Northern Junk buildings to Victoria council

Public hearing for new rental building goes Thursday; 19th-century warehouses would be added onto
Looking south onto the 1318 Wharf St. warehouse, part of the Northern Junk properties. Owner and development hopeful Reliance Properties invited media inside for a tour on July 26. (Kiernan Green/News Staff)

In their eighth attempt in 11 years, developers Reliance Properties will present new plans to Victoria council that call for four-storey additions atop a pair of 150-year-old Wharf Street warehouses.

A public hearing for the proposal happens at council’s Thursday evening (July 29) meeting, starting at 7 p.m.

If approved, the Northern Junk buildings project at 1314 and 1318 Wharf St. would feature 47 rental units, elevator access to an extended waterfront path and 9,000 square feet for commerce and restaurants.

Three food and beverage services with existing Victoria locations have expressed interest in tenanting following the redevelopment’s two and-a-half years of construction, said Reliance CEO Jon Stovell.

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The single-storey warehouses were built in the 1860s to store provisions and the spoils of the Fraser River gold rush. The question of their redevelopment has been a leading litmus test for the city’s preservation of its building heritage since their last purchase in 2010.

Rendering of proposed five-story addition to Northern Junk warehouses, looking inward from wharf. (Reliance Properties)

“It’s been slower for Victoria to come around to the idea of adding to the top of heritage buildings, even though that’s been done all down through history,” Stovell said, citing its common practise in Vancouver and Europe.

Currently, the buildings are in a state of disrepair, he showed media during an interior tour on Monday. There’s no onsite fire protection, and Stovell said both warehouses would collapse in the next minor earthquake. “Bringing them up to compliance (with seismic codes) requires more building revenue than is currently on the site.”

With the buildings unused for 43 years, the five-storey idea is the compromise required for the sake of Northern Junk and Victoria’s Old Town. “Coming out of COVID and how badly downtown has suffered, council should welcome with open arms anybody who’s willing to invest and tenants who are willing to move into the downtown core,” Stovell said.

With its gold rush history and on the edge of the working harbour, the authenticity of Victoria’s Old Town area needs to be considered, said heritage advocate Pam Madoff, a former city councillor and a critic of Reliance’s current proposal.

At one time a working group began a process to have Old Town considered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, she said.

“The fact we would even be able to be considered for that indicates how important the form, character, scale and authenticity of Old Town is,” she said.

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Looking at Reliance’s proposal, “all of that is gone. The (heritage) buildings turn into, at best, a stage set to new buildings,” she said, noting the new structure would not have the same internationally recognized character.

Madoff said Reliance could instead employ Victoria’s heritage building tax incentive program for the cost of its seismic upgrades. The program provides up to a decade of property tax forgiveness, allowing the owner to recoup expenses.

Since the company’s purchase of the Northern Junk property 11 years ago, Reliance has spent $1 million on it, Stovell said.

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Cabinets within 1314 Wharf St., are said to have been used to store products and provisions of the 19th-century gold rush for which the warehouse was constructed. (Kiernan Green/News Staff)
Northern Junk is in a state of disrepair. The 150-year-old buildings would fall down in the next minor earthquake without seismic upgrades, said Reliance Properties CEO Jon Stovell. (Kiernan Green/News Staff)