“Mention the name Burnside to any newcomers to this city and they will ask you where it is located. Yet Burnside is one of the most populous suburban districts in the Victoria area. It has character all of its own.”
Much has changed in the Burnside community since 1971 when Millicent A. Lindo started his story in the Daily Colonist with this smooth description of an area that has begun to show its age in recent years.
“Like many another up-to-date suburban districts,” Lindo wrote, “it boasts among other amenities a busy, bustling, shopping plaza located in an ideal setting under an attractive canopy.”
These days the Tillicum Outdoor Theatre, which showed its last film (Superman) in 1979, is long gone, replaced by the 10-screen SilverCity multiplex.
Across the street, tucked behind the Shell station that was nearly a trampoline room and beside the bingo hall where the grocery store once was before Tillicum Centre replaced it in 1982, stands the Burnside Plaza.
Barely changed since it was built in 1963, the plaza is a proud relic of a time not so long ago.
Inside an establishment that’s been a favourite of generations of Victorians, Kelly Orr pulls his greasy hands from a splayed-open pinball machine. Behind the counter at Mr. Tubbs, his freezers limp along with the air conditioning, barely keeping up with the summer heat. Through the back window, behind the 1950s-style ice cream parlour, a friend’s van waits for Orr to take a look under its hood.
But the van will have to wait. Orr’s mother enters, just stopping in for a visit.
The family business was opened by Orr’s mom, Mae Sylvester, with the help of a loan from local businessman Bill Beadle.
The younger Orr gradually took over the role of managing the entire plaza from owner, Reuben Matiko, a retired doctor. Under Matiko’s direction, Orr has kept a mix of family-friendly businesses in the plaza – at substantially lower than market value rents – with the aim of keeping tenants long-term. So far it’s worked.
“I didn’t know for sure that I was going to be in this business for as long as I was,” Orr said. “After the first couple of years, I thought I was going to go bankrupt like everybody else.”
A beauty salon, barber shop, ice cream parlour and coin laundry: it was all there in the Burnside Plaza in 1963 and it’s all there today. A few minor changes here and there have rolled through the Burnside Plaza – Art’s Bakery moved down the street, the Tastee Freez moved out well before Mr. Tubbs and a gaming business moved in. But by and large, the strip mall has maintained its original character for more than half a century.
But it almost didn’t happen.
Orr initially had issues with teen partying outside the business in his first year. The situation, he says was “literally hell.”
In 1989 and 1990, the plaza was a hot spot for teens drinking, vandalizing property and generally causing a ruckus.
Saanich police became heavily involved and put an end to the broken beer bottles and smashed windows.
“I was trying to run a family business here and they were basically tearing it apart,” Orr said of the rowdies. “When that element was removed from the plaza, all of a sudden all the other stores started to fill up. Different businesses came and went as we went along until we found the ones that just fit in, that were in the groove of what we wanted to do.”
That groove is providing a safe place for kids in the community and a destination families can go for a handful of needs.
Among the services available at the plaza is the Tillicum Laundromat and Dry Cleaning.
Owner Gary Knapik used to go to the plaza to do his laundry at what was known as King Coin.
In May, Knapik bought the business, which is the longest in continual operation at the plaza.
Knapik and his wife Brenda were initially attracted to the retro style of the laundromat. They kept that style in mind while updating the interior.
“People are excited about the fact that someone’s putting the time and energy into it to look good and be a part of the plaza,” he said, full of complements for the community of characters around the often overlooked plaza. “Either you know about (the mall) or you don’t know about it,” he said.
Orr is realistic about his business and the financial struggles he faces. After 23 years, this year has been just as hard as the first, he said. While Mr. Tubbs is a family favourite to many in Greater Victoria, it’s also a business model that would never stay afloat in many of the city’s other shopping centres. Every year, costs increase at a rate faster than profits.
Whether businesses like Mr. Tubbs will remain viable for long will depend on the long-range plan for the property.
That plan, although unchanged for almost 50 years, is now taking shape. Matiko is now in the process of handing the reins of the business down to his son, Rob.
The owners declined comment on the plaza.
Orr did say, however, that cosmetic changes are in the works: something to update the look, he said, without changing the vibe of the long-standing plaza.
“As (the teen troublemakers) grew up and had their own families, they’ve come back,” said Orr, whose own two sons have worked at the ice cream parlour. “After a while, they got what we were all about and they knew that we weren’t trying to be the big meanies in the neighbourhood, we just wanted to create a family atmosphere, so that’s what we did.”
A strip mall history
Shelbourne Plaza, located at Shelbourne Street and Cedar Hill Cross Road, opened on Jan. 27, 1960, a year before the Cordova Bay Plaza.
According to building permit records, the Esquimalt Plaza opened in 1962, while the Fairfield Plaza, located across the street from Ross Bay Cemetery, was constructed in 1957.