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Restoration project aims to breathe new life into Victoria’s Old Town

Jon Stovell has taken the pulse of the Janion building in Victoria's Old Town and deems the derelict structure worth saving.

While others are daunted by the decay, he welcomes the challenge of preserving and rehabilitating the three-storey brick building on a gritty corner of downtown Victoria. The Janion was built in 1891 and had a varied life as everything from a hotel to a warehouse, but it has been vacant for more than 35 years. "When we see Old Town, we see miraculous potential for retaining beautiful heritage buildings in what could become an incredibly vibrant area," said Mr. Stovell, president of Reliance Properties.

Reliance, with the help of Merrick Architecture in Victoria, plans to restore the run-down Janion and turn it into a condo complex that will house 113 microlofts. Old Town has its charms, but the neighbourhood lacks a concentration of residents who are needed to breathe new life into the area. Old Town has survived a long period of decline, marked by high vacancy rates in aging buildings or, in the case of the Janion, decades of neglect. "You need a dense population base that will drive people into the nooks and crannies. It is such an amazing opportunity," said Mr. Stovell, a former president of the Gastown Business Improvement Association in Vancouver.

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To attract a new crowd of condo dwellers who will embrace the notion that small is beautiful (and affordable), Reliance plans to offer Janion units at a starting price of $110,000 for a humble abode of 248 square feet – roughly the size of a one-car garage. While some units will be more than 800 square feet, the average will be 360 square feet. About half of the microlofts are to be offered for less than $150,000 each, featuring built-in flat-screen TVs and flip-up wall beds.

Twenty-six of the condo units will be in the original Janion on Store Street. Behind the brick building, the remaining 87 units will be located in a six-storey wing to be built on former Transport Canada land that slopes down to the waterfront, just north of the Johnson Street Bridge. Work on the Janion project is slated to begin this summer, with completion targeted by the end of 2015.

Vancouver-based Reliance, which acquired the Janion property last year, is also keen to revitalize two historic Victoria warehouses known as Northern Junk. Those two structures, dating back to the 1860s, are on the south side of the blue-coloured Johnson Street Bridge. The aging crossing itself will be torn down after a new one opens in 2016 in a $92-million bridge project.

Within four years or so, Reliance hopes to convert the long-abandoned warehouses into restaurants with patios and also create a waterfront boardwalk that would be open to the public. The developer is proposing to construct a five-storey complex on Wharf Street that would hold 59 condo units aimed at higher-end buyers. "Jon Stovell is making a dramatic statement in his foray into the Victoria market," said Shaun McIntyre, a managing associate at Merrick Architecture, which has been hired for the Janion and Northern Junk projects. Mr. McIntyre is the project lead for Northern Junk while his colleague, Darryl Jonas, is the designer for the Janion venture. Paul Merrick is the design consultant for both Old Town properties, formerly owned by a Victoria family.

In Old Town, including Lower Johnson (or LoJo for short), Mr. McIntyre and Mr. Jonas sense a budding renaissance. Many Old Town businesses have struggled over the years, as local consumers shifted to shopping malls such as Uptown in suburban Saanich and even big-box stores in the nearby City of Langford.

Merchants in Victoria's historic core stand to benefit from an influx of residents, notably shops in Market Square and Chinatown. Another Old Town condo project getting under way is the Union development by Anthem Properties. Nearby merchants include Mountain Equipment Co-op, a Lululemon yoga-wear outlet, a variety of boutique shops and independent restaurants. Monty's Exotic Showroom Pub, a long-time strip joint on Pandora Avenue, closed two weeks ago.

Preservationists have criticized the size and scope of the new five-storey structure envisaged for what is currently public land in front of the Northern Junk site. "People in Victoria really are quite passionate about preserving their heritage and they're very protective of Old Town," said Steve Barber, senior heritage planner for the City of Victoria. City planners support the developer's vision for the condos, noting that some buildings were demolished in the 1960s on Wharf Street. The Northern Junk condos would fit within the historical context of Old Town, Mr. Barber argues.

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About the Author

Brent Jang is a business reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. He joined the Globe in 1995. His former positions include transportation reporter in Toronto, energy correspondent in Calgary and Western columnist for Report on Business. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Alberta, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of The Gateway student newspaper. Mr. More

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