Dec. 13, 2019 – City Hall was busy in 2019. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)

Year In Review: Top Issues in Victoria, Esquimalt in 2019

Housing, transportation, policing and more were top contenders for this year

The City of Victoria and the Township of Esquimalt faced a busy year in 2019; issues varying from climate change, the housing crisis and infrastructural updates monopolized much of the region’s time, as did disasters such as local fires. Here’s a wrap up on some of the top issues covered in 2019.

Climate Crisis

Throughout the year thousands of students staged regular protests on the lawns of the B.C. Legislature in unison with a global effort led by Swedish teen, Greta Thunberg.

In conjunction with the students, a group called the Extinction Rebellion has also been staging protests, many of a more disruptive nature including the closure of the intersection at Government and Belleville Streets, protests outside a the Ministry of Health building, and the closure of the Johnson Street Bridge. Protestors plan to continue their work in 2020.

“We’ve just lost a critical year in the fight against global heating. In 2020 the threats to all of us will only intensify. This is a fast-moving catastrophe—Mother Nature’s 911 call,” said Mark Nyaken, organizer with Extinction Rebellion Vancouver Island (XRVI).

An Extinction Rebellion Vancouver Island (XRVI) climate change event saw a large crowd occupy the Johnson Street bridge Monday afternoon.(Nina Grossman/News Staff)

“We all need to be first responders. XRVI will keep struggling to bring sanity to our country’s self-destructive environmental policies. That means an about-face on pipelines, tankers, LNG, and mining the tarsands for one of the dirtiest carbon bombs on the planet. And here’s a prediction for the coming decade: History will not be kind to deniers and delayers.”

ALSO READ: Youth die-in, occupation party to be held in downtown Victoria as part of Global Climate Strike

In response to ongoing research and advocacy for climate change a majority of munipalities have joined in declaring a climate emergency, including Victoria, Esquimalt, View Royal, Saanich, Sidney, the Highlands, Oak Bay, Sooke and Colwood.

Since joining with this declaration, Victoria has prioritized issues surrounding transportation alternatives in an effort to minimize the city’s carbon footprint.

Transportation and Infrastructure

The City of Victoria is continuing the expansion of its bike network; over the summer it opened the sections running down Wharf Street and Humbold Street, and in December announced plans for four more bike lanes on Kings Road, Kimta road, Halutain Street, Richardson Street and the northern portion of Government Street.

In December Victoria also launched a pilot for free youth bus transit passes after instating Sunday street parking fees in May to cover the cost.

BC Transit has had a few changes itself; in July it launched its new live GPS tracking website, as well as heard of new funding from the provincial and federal government which will see 10 electric buses installed in the Capital Region in 2020 and 2021. BC Transit also announced that it will be installing 650 busses with protective doors for its drivers in 2020 to protect drivers from harassment.

“We are looking forward to 2020 as an opportunity to continue building towards improvements throughout the Victoria Regional Transit System,” said Jonathon Dyck, communications manager at BC Transit.

“We will have 72 new replacement buses and eight double decker expansion buses join our fleet throughout the year. This will coincide with the introduction of compressed natural gas buses. Other exciting initiatives including the southbound bus lane expansion opening, creating more dynamic scheduling opportunities and a 20,000 service hour expansion, there is a lot to look forward to in the coming year.”

ALSO READ: Greater Victoria commission says ‘no’ to regional youth transit pass pilot

Besides installing bike lanes, one of Victoria’s largest infrastructural focuses has been the ongoing discussions of creating a new Crystal Pool and Wellness facility. In 2019 the City explored alternative site locations after the North Park Neighourhood Association put forward a report with concerns of a loss of green space in Central Park. Victoria looked across the street at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Arena, at the Royal Athletic Park and at property owned by the Greater Victoria School District without any luck, losing millions of dollars in funding in the mean time.

The Township of Esquimalt has devoted a good part of 2019 to deciding how to use portions of the $17 million McCaulay Point Amenity Fund it received from the CRD in exchange for the use of McLoughlin Point for the region’s wastewater treatment plant.

So far with these funds Esquimalt council has approved the creation of a mixed-use building and a dog park at the Esquimalt Gorge Park.

ALSO READ: Sewage treatment plant in Esquimalt sees rising costs

The Wastewater Treatment Plant is coming in for $10 million more than originally anticipated, after the CRD approved a $775 million budget in April. Operations and maintenance costs are also predicted to rise up by $5 million to a total of $20 million. Portions of Dallas Road will continue to be closed until January to accommodate the installation of a pipe for the treatment plant.

Housing

One of the biggest issues seen across the region has been the housing crisis. In the 2018 Point in Time report, it was found that more than 1,500 people were homeless in the Capital Region.

As part of Victoria’s 2019-2022 Strategic Plan, council has prioritized increasing affordable housing, decreasing homelessness and quadrupling the number of ‘missing middle’ housing units. In 2019 more than 1,300 units of new housing, including more than 650 units of rental housing were approved, many of which included affordable housing units. Thousands more units are slated to come to council for consideration in 2020.

A downtown complex which will include a new fire hall and eight storeys of rental units is also set to be finalized in 2020.

ALSO READ: Developers say Victoria’s affordable housing mandate will further drive rental housing crisis

The Township of Esquimalt also approved several larger projects in 2019, including a six-storey rental complex on Admirals Road and a 10-storey condominium development with a health clinic in the first floor.

Policing

Victoria and Esquimalt have held ongoing debates about the Victoria Police Department budget, which sat at $56 million in 2019. For 2020 VicPD have forwarded a request for a 4.43 per cent increase, bringing the total up to more than $58, 241, 090. Council has been divided on this request, with Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, who also co-chairs the Victoria Police Board leaning in favour of the request and Coun. Ben Isitt questioning why the department needs such a significant portion of the city’s budget.

READ MORE: Victoria Police Department requests $2.5 million increase for 2020 budget

In 2019 the province sided with the police in mandating the hiring of six additional police officers after a 2018 request was denied by Esquimalt. In 2019 the department put in a second request for a provincial review for the hiring of four additional positions, including three officers and one civilian.

Over the summer VicPD had to ask the City of Victoria for funding to police Remembrance Day and special events, saying that they didn’t have the funding after the City mandated an employer health tax come out of the police budget, versus the city budget. Council faced backlash after initially suggesting that the Department of National Defence and Veteran’s Affairs Canada pay for the event. Eventually the city allocated $135,000 to the events.

Regionally, police have switched to a new, amalgamated dispatch service run by E-Comm. While the quality of the calls has improved since switch from analog to digital radio, the public and the police have put forward complaints about long wait times for non-emergency calls.

Fires

Two major fires happened between Victoria and Esquimalt in 2019; on April 7 a deadly fire spread through a four-storey residential building in the 800-block of Craigflower Road.

The fire resulted from human error, the Esquimalt Fire Department reported, in the fourth floor unit of the fire’s only victim: Judith Rose Burke. Burke was known as a private, caring and artistic person who loved her cat, Blueberry. She worked as a cashier at Walmart.

READ MORE: Remembering Judith Rose Burke

Local businesses like Camouflage (the white building) continue to feel the effects of the Plaza Hotel fire (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)E

On May 6 a suspicious fire was set at the former Plaza Hotel Fire. The fire took more than week to put out, and eventually walls were torn down due to stability concerns. Police later confirmed that the fire was arson.

No one was injured in the fire but one person, live-in caretaker Mike Draeger, has been unaccounted for since the fire.

nicole.crescenzi@vicnews.com

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The Wharf Street bike lanes opened in August 2019. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)

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