Is Uptown on the right track?

Editorial: Uptown centre’s bumpy start

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Times Colonist

There was plenty of optimism four years ago, when Saanich council approved a massive $150-million retail complex to replace the tired Town and Country shopping centre.

“It’s a significant investment for the entire region,” Mayor Frank Leonard said. “It shouldn’t be a place to shop, but to gather.”

Flash forward to 2011. The initial reviews of Uptown are in and Saanich councillors say they are not positive.

“People say it doesn’t look inviting,” says Coun. Vic Derman. “That’s the more polite comment.”

Coun. Dean Murdock says he has been told that Uptown is imposing and monolithic.

The developer, Morguard Investments, returned to council this week to ask for changes to its plans for the second phase of Uptown, giving the councillors a chance to comment on how Uptown has been working so far.

Uptown is still a work in progress. Only the first phase has been opened and work on the second phase has barely started. We have half the stores, traffic flow is still unsettled and features that would soften the look of the centre are not yet in place.

While it is too early for shoppers to make a final decision on the project, Morguard would be wise to listen to the complaints that have been raised. The design needs to be appealing to draw people to Uptown — and traffic is needed if it is going to be a financial success.

Uptown was designed as a lifestyle centre, with much of the parking hidden and stores lining an open-air street designed to look like an established downtown. It is a new concept in Canada, but lifestyle centres have become popular in the United States, and Uptown could surely learn from what has worked elsewhere.

There have been complaints that parking is not easy and the mall is not pedestrian-friendly. It will be hard to entice people to visit if they don’t like driving to it or walking to it, so Morguard will need to find a way to make Uptown more welcoming.

Other concerns are not new; they were raised before the development won approval in 2007. It does not connect with its surroundings, but rather looks inward, and from too many angles it seems impenetrable.

The work on Uptown went ahead even after those potential faults were noted. Saanich approved the development in just five months, a remarkably short time for the largest retail development the municipality has ever seen. More time listening to the concerns being raised — and fine-tuning the plans — might have helped.

Uptown is more than just a retail development. It will be a gateway to Greater Victoria on both major highways and a key factor in the development of the commercial area extending from the centre south to Mayfair. Its second phase might make it a huge success.

Still, with every major proposal they see, councillors throughout the capital region should remember the words of Saanich Coun. Paul Gerrard. As the president of the Gorge-Tillicum Community Association in 2006, Gerrard urged caution in approving Uptown.

As Gerrard said: “If mistakes are made on this, we’ll have to live with it a long time.”