Dockside Green, located near downtown Victoria, British Columbia, presents a breathtaking model of urban regeneration through brownfield reuse, green design, and community building and does so in an economically sound and contemporary way. With the recent attention on the Vancouver Olympics revealing that city’s green ethos, more Americans are learning about British Columbia’s commitment to place-based sustainability. Designers, planners, and builders are noting the unprecedented innovation that Victoria’s Dockside Green represents and realizing its applicability to urban revitalization in their own communities. The development shows that LEED Platinum-level green building at a neighborhood scale can be contemporary and profitable while attracting more and more people to live in urban energy-efficiency.
3D rendering of Dockside Green. Click image for site plan in
Graphic courtesy Vancity / Dockside Green.
Site Development Process
Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, sits at the southern end of Vancouver Island overlooking the Straits of Juan de Fuca and Olympic National Park to the south. The city, carved out of ancient cedar forest in only the past 150 years, has an agreeable maritime climate, benefiting from a rain shadow produced by the Olympic Mountains, which results in half the rainfall of Vancouver. Such a climate is clearly an advantage for green building, without the temperature extremes that require extensive mechanical heating and cooling.
The city remains prosperous, thanks to the provincial government, Canada’s Pacific fleet homeport, and University of Victoria-related employment. It has a reputation, perhaps undeservedly, for being staid and conservative, due to its strong British roots and large population of retirees. But with an increasing reputation as a quieter, more livable and drier version of Vancouver, the city is attracting a wider range of younger professionals and families. While the greater metropolitan area of 330,000 certainly sprawls over a series of inlets and rocky hills, the Capital Regional District has protected large expanses of wooded open space and beaches and established an impressive trail network.
With its location adjacent to the primary shipping lane to Seattle and Vancouver, it’s initially surprising that Victoria does not have a larger shipping industry. But being on an island, the lack of direct railroad links to the continent has prevented the construction of large container or bulk terminals. However, the sinuous Victoria Harbour winds its way deep into the capital and once provided a sheltered haven for the First Nations Songhees tribe until the federal government acquired the land.
Dockside Green includes a new waterfront
park with a small craft dock.
Photo courtesy Busby Perkins+Will Architects Co.
The protected Upper Harbour was once the home of Canada’s Pacific whaling and sealing fleet and associated shipbuilding activities. Intensive log exports from the island’s once majestic old-growth forests were processed in over 50 mills along the shores of Upper Harbour (also known as the Gorge Waterway). Later, warships were dismantled at a large facility and an oil refinery, shingle, and asphalt plant were constructed.
All of this intensive industry left a severely-contaminated shoreline and a collection of old vacant warehouses. The island’s economic reliance on dwindling natural resources and Vancouver’s emergence as the dominant regional node for trade led local authorities to pin their hopes on tourism, marketing a genteel visitor experience centered on the adjacent Inner Harbour’s Parliament Buildings, Royal British Columbia Museum, Empress Hotel, and Beacon Hill Park. Disused docks were converted to marinas and waterfront walkways. Former industrial areas nearby were slated for mixed-use redevelopment.
An underutilized, 15-acre area with four parcels on the west bank of the Upper Harbour, part of which was once a landfill, was contaminated with heavy metals and petrochemical residue from mills and a paint factory. The City of Victoria purchased the parcels, which it named “Dockside Lands,” from the province in 1989 for $1. The sloping parcels sat one block off the water’s edge, separated from the Harbour by the relics of Point Hope Shipyard. The Harbour Plan, completed in 2001, had supported the continued industrial use of the working waterfront and the city intended to include some form of light high-tech industry. But efforts to market the property failed due to inadequate understanding of soil contamination.
The city commissioned a detailed environmental assessment as part of the preparation of a business case for the property. It concluded in 2002 that development was possible, with some public financial support, favorable land pricing, and rezoning to allow greater density (the existing zoning was light industrial with a floor-to-area ratio of 1:1, and the project is currently at a 2:1 ratio). Utilities already existed on the site, with capacity for new development. A new 6-story office project called Upper Harbour Place was constructed adjacent to the site in 2002, proving the marketability of the land.
The central open space at Dockside Green includes a
system of stormwater treatment ponds.
Photo by Lotus Johnson.
The city then prepared a detailed Development Concept, which it completed in May 2004 following extensive public visioning and workshops. The resulting document included a market analysis and outlined vision and planning principles for a “new urbanism type of community,” with a mix of uses, “people-friendly streets,” and “high-quality public spaces… blended in overall harmony with the unique character of the location”.
Even at that point in the process, however, current international standards of sustainability and green building had yet to be fully fleshed out. The Development Concept only required new buildings to be built to LEED Silver, which has become a relatively conservative standard in 2010. Perhaps more importantly, the concept directed future development teams to be selected according to strict “triple bottom line” standards, requiring that the successful teams consider social, economic, and environmental factors in all their actions. The concept also laid the groundwork for subsequent innovation by encouraging developers to offer lower bids for the land in exchange for promises of innovation in sustainability.
The city subsequently issued a Request for Proposals in September 2004 to remediate and develop 11.6 acres of the site. The RFP, sent to pre-qualified developers, required a detailed plan in response, including considerations of urban design, massing, circulation, and “public realm”—meaning parks and streets. The 40-day competition, which included a public presentation, was won by Windmill Developments, led by Joe Van Belleghem, who brought experience with other recent green development projects, including Canada’s first LEED Gold building. Van Belleghem was the driver behind the project’s green innovation.
According to project architect Jim Huffman from Busby Perkins+Will (selected to design Dockside Green based on its experience on preceding LEED Platinum-rated projects in Calgary and Ottawa), it was Van Belleghem’s resolve on a “big vision” that inspired the project. If it had been merely marketing (a.k.a., greenwashing), many of the innovative features may not have survived early cost-cutting measures. Most of the capital (75 percent) was provided by Canada’s largest credit union, VanCity, which became a co-developer of the project in a partnership called Dockside Green Limited. VanCity has since bought Windmill’s 25 percent and Van Belleghem has moved onto other projects, expressing some frustration with the slow pace of development at Dockside.
Inspiration is Dockside's first commercial
structure, with a bakery on the ground floor
partially powered by roof-mounted wind
Photo courtesy Busby Perkins+Will Architects Co.
Master planning proceeded over the next year. Busby Perkins+Will (BPW) prepared the master plan for the development team, with Terence Williams Architect, Inc. (subsequently merged with BPW). A wide range of consultant engineers and specialists in green design, including PWL Landscape Architects, was also part of the team. Jim Huffman of BPW noted that the project adopted an integrated design approach, including all consultants as well as development and finance staff for intensive meetings from the project’s outset, with everyone collaborating on how to creatively achieve the vision.
Under the September 2005 Master Development Agreement with the City of Victoria, Dockside Green Limited agreed to purchase the property for $8.5 million and develop it according to an approved site master plan and design guidelines with an extensive list of amenities such as public spaces and public art, interpretive signage, shoreline enhancement, and trail improvements. Dockside Green Limited also agreed to contribute money towards a dedicated City of Victoria staff member to shepherd development review and contributed $400,000 toward a new Sustainability Centre at Dockside. A key early contributor to the project’s success was the city’s willingness to allow the developers to defer payment for the land, which freed up enough cash for quick construction of the project’s infrastructure without significant bridge financing.
The city agreed to initiate zone changes and amend the Community Plan and land use designations. The city also created an interdisciplinary project team, bringing together city planners, engineers, and finance specialists and including representatives of the local Victoria West Community Association and local First Nations indigenous peoples.
Synergy, the first residential phase at Dockside Green.
Photo courtesy Vancity / Dockside Green.
Dockside Green is intended to be built over 12 phases in three neighborhoods, with a total of 1.3 million gross square feet (73 percent of which is residential) in 26 buildings, housing 2,500 residents. (There are currently over 450.) Dockside Wharf is the initial neighborhood, with two primarily residential projects and two commercial buildings. The first phase of the Wharf, a LEED Platinum condominium project named Synergy, sold 85 percent of its 96 units in 3 hours with the first residents moving in May 2008.
These early buildings at Dockside Wharf express a warm, resolutely modernist language, comparable to new developments in Germany, Holland, or Scandinavia (such as Hammarby Sjöstad). Jim Huffman of BPW noted that the project was partially inspired by BedZed, a 99-unit residential development near London, which had aims to use only energy generated on site (although a planned biomass heat generator didn’t work out) and featured a striking contemporary design with bold color accents and striking roof vents. That project also included aggressive measures to reduce private automobile use. Huffman recalled that the developers were not as interested in a design that looked “odd,” as they wanted to prove that green design could compete with other conventional projects and perhaps eventually become normal, standard practice.
Synergy’s façades feature columns of dark brick punctuated with recessed windows and balconies shaded with bold blue awnings. A vertical band of uniform planter boxes extends the streetscape and stormwater plantings to the façades. Two towers of eight and five stories above 94 spaces of underground parking are separated by a wood-clad townhouse block with three-story units raised off the street with front gardens. Rooftop patios seem quite exposed to views from surrounding towers, but the decks are screened with wood slats. Upper floors on the towers step back to provide wrap-around windows and decks for penthouses and give the fairly squat towers some presence on the skyline. Entries to the towers are recessed (almost as arcades) behind columns on broad corner plazas and faced with recycled wood paneling. Lumber for construction of this phase included old growth reclaimed from forests flooded for BC’s Lois Lake Reservoir in the 1940s. Wood detailing is somewhat rare on large buildings in Vancouver, but Victoria’s drier climate allows for more generous use of the material.
Townhouses with decks overlooking Dockside
Green's central greenspace.
Photo by Ken Pirie.
The eastern façades of Synergy feature much more glazing, with views east to downtown maximized thanks to a two-story grade difference. Directly east of the first residential tower, a small commercial building, “Inspiration,” features a mix of residential and commercial uses, including Fol Epi, an organic bakery, Caffè Fantastico, an organic fair trade coffee shop, and two floors of office space leased to the BC Oil and Gas Commission, the regulator of petrochemical extraction activities in the province. Three small roof-mounted propeller wind turbines partially power the bakery. Inspiration achieved the highest rating ever (53 of 61 points) for LEED for Core and Shell and has a distinctive design, with a wood-panelled southern façade and bands of operable windows shaded against summer sun. The western side of the building features more robust aluminum sheeting, perhaps paying homage to the basic industrial materials of the nearby shipyard sheds. The bakery’s circular brick oven has been constructed to protrude outside the building, providing an interesting detail to terminate views on the central greenway and allow for simpler venting and reuse of oven exhaust.
Victoria has long dumped its raw sewage after preliminary screening directly into the Straits of Juan de Fuca, arguing that currents dilute it easily. Years of public pressure and environmental study have led to the ongoing construction of a new municipal treatment system. Wedged between Inspiration and Synergy sits the Dockside Green’s membrane bioreactor package wastewater treatment plant. The plant will recover heat from sewage, bathwater, and dishwater. Dockside Green residents will therefore be exempt from the hundreds of dollars of fees assessed to pay for the new citywide system. Treated water will be looped back into buildings to flush toilets and will also irrigate site landscaping (although this is minimal, thanks to the use of climate-adaptive plantings). An additional 18,000 gallons of treated water will be sold to nearby industrial users. With water-efficient appliances, the project could save up to 70,000 gallons of public water annually, a reduction of 65 percent over similar conventional projects.
A series of terraced ponds, lush with wetland plants and interspersed with large granite boulders, are interconnected throughout Dockside's central greenway. These ponds are a visual amenity and a significant public open space for residents but they also assist with on-site stormwater storage and act as a strip of wildlife habitat, even including introduced crayfish and stickleback fish. (If green roofs are included, 50 percent of Synergy’s site is dedicated to open space.) The water levels in the pond are supplemented by treated wastewater from the nearby plant. Most paved surfaces at Dockside Green are permeable surfaces to infiltrate stormwater, and most flat roof surfaces are vegetated, to slow rain runoff and help insulate buildings. The stormwater system incorporates artistic features such as rusted metal grates and concrete runnels along staircases exposing the flow of water for passersby. Townhouse units open directly onto this pond with decks and docks and the path winds its way across wood bridges, connecting with side stairs to adjacent streets and buildings.
Eastern façades of buildings feature generous
balconies with views to downtown Victoria.
Photo by Lotus Johnson.
The next phase, named Balance (these marketing names are somewhat forced for this project and start to seem like a set of corporate motivational posters), features 171 condos in two nine- and ten-story towers built above 165 underground parking spaces. On the west (street) side of the project, between Synergy and Balance, a porous drop-off (most paved surfaces in the project allow stormwater infiltration) accesses a three-story townhouse building. This smaller building allows for more sunlight to reach flanking towers and softens the overall density, with wood façades emphasizing the residential character and offsetting the dominance of glass and concrete on neighboring towers. Balance features two straightforward tower blocks, squatter versions of the well-glazed towers bristling with balconies that crowd Vancouver’s waterfront. In keeping with the precedent, the towers sit atop a two-story podium of townhouses that activate the street with individual entries and semi-private terraces. Between the two towers, a pocket park features a green wall and artistic stormwater planters.
Prosperity, the second commercial building, is a three-story office and retail structure along Harbour Road and the Galloping Goose Regional Trail. Surrounded by porous surface parking the building, with a distinctive ‘sawtooth’ roofline echoing early industrial buildings, faces Point Hope Shipyard with a retail streetscape, the first of a long row of several mixed-use structures that will line the eastern edge of the project. North across Harbour Road from the commercial buildings, a new shoreline park has been created at Point Ellice, including a kayak launching point. A commute via kayak certainly sounds appealing and unprecedented but surely comes with a temptation to just keep paddling....
Subsequent neighborhoods will extend Dockside Green’s development south towards downtown Victoria. An old restaurant, the Princess Mary, has been repurposed as a construction administration office. The Commons will have a similar scale to the Wharf. The final neighborhood, the Village, will feature more retail and office development, and a boutique hotel, all at a higher density reflecting its proximity to downtown. The promised sustainability center will face a large circular plaza and open-air amphitheater.
Bold colors on condo awnings add an exuberant,
unpredictable pattern to the façades.
Photo courtesy Busby Perkins+Will Architects Co.
The project has not been immune to global trends in real estate, with a slowing in sales (about 10 sales staff were recently laid off) but several large developments in the Victoria area have been cancelled over the past two years, while Dockside continues to sell units, at a range of $500-$900 per square foot (1-bedrooms to penthouses), roughly the same price point as local comparables. Only about 10% of units have yet to sell. There is also clear evidence of the savings available from green building technology. The project features lower strata fees (a Canadian term roughly equivalent to homeowners’ association fees) thanks to energy savings in common spaces. Homeowners will save over $500 a year because they don’t need to contribute to regional assessments due to the project’s full treatment of sewage on-site.
One of the most contentious challenges for the development was the provision of affordable housing. The project was initially envisioned to contain at least 10 percent in affordable rental units for people with incomes as low as $15,000 and 26 units have been set aside at Synergy and Balance, priced under market value with some subsidy from the city. A three-story “attainable” housing building (a new presumably less-stigmatized euphemism for “affordable”), with two levels of “micro-condos” (less than 400 square feet) over commercial/industrial space, designed by Number TEN Architectural Group, has recently been approved for construction next to the biomass plant.
The Fol Epi bakery's oven protrudes
Photo by Ken Pirie.
With an upfront commitment to a high level of green design and greenhouse gas neutrality, Dockside Green needed to incorporate somewhat unproven methods and technologies. The developers also committed to paying a $1 million penalty if Synergy did not achieve LEED Platinum certification. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities made $350,000 available to support the development of innovative infrastructure at the outset of the project. These funds offset the costs for LEED documentation (often the one clear hurdle to certification) and helped with the costs associated with developing and obtaining approval for the unprecedented wastewater treatment system. As BPW’s Jim Huffman noted, during the design of Dockside’s first phase new technologies were released “almost monthly,” forcing the design team to constantly review and update its plans. When the project proceeds, there should be even further energy savings and innovation by the time the final building is constructed.
The team’s ambition for innovation clearly succeeded, because in 2008 Synergy was awarded Platinum with 63 points, making it the highest-scoring LEED-certified project in the world. It includes standard steps for green building, such as fresh air ventilation, energy-efficient operable windows, low-energy appliances and lighting, greener (and healthier) building materials sourced as close to the site as possible as well as consideration of daylighting and solar orientation. A relatively new feature, called a living wall, has been installed as 30-foot-high panels on either side of a public plaza at Balance, helping to cool the buildings and reduce energy consumption. Dockside Green also received the first LEED for Neighborhood Development (ND) Platinum certification, due to its brownfield location, reduced dependence on private vehicles with car-sharing and access to trails and transit (including a harbor ferry), proximity to employment, walkable streets, and on-site renewable energy sources.
Dockside Green features an integrated energy system, which may provide an opportunity for the project to become a net-energy provider, together with units that are built 50 percent more efficient than code. The system includes a Nexterra biomass plant, operated by a new micro-utility, Dockside Green Energy. The plant converts locally sourced wood waste into a clean burning “syngas” to produce heat and hot water for the district (and beyond), eliminating the use of fossil fuel for heating buildings. (Vancouver Island has much of BC’s private forest lands, which are still heavily and controversially logged. With consistent mill closures and continued raw log exports, this wood waste supply may not seem readily available at a large scale—but the gasification plant also uses municipal tree trimmings and construction wood waste.) Bio-solid disks remaining after on-site wastewater treatment are sent to the biomass plant to complement the waste wood. The estimated overall impact of the plant is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 3,460 metric tons per year.
Native plantings in the central
greenspace will soon create a lush
urban wildlife habitat.
Photo courtesy Busby Perkins+Will Architects
Dockside Green represents a successful prototype for green building on a neighborhood scale. The developers of the project, driven by a strong vision for urban regeneration that doesn’t simply aim to maximize profit, are producing a model that is responsive to larger social and civic concerns. Beyond simply striving for the highest LEED point totals, the Dockside Green team has built the first stages of a community that feels rooted in its context and expresses a strong contemporary aesthetic, while clearly competing well with less-innovative neighbors in a tough market. If it’s clear that a more sustainable future will require denser urban living, with alternatives to automobile use along with innovative and efficient ways to produce energy and reduce waste, then it’s clear that Dockside Green shows us all a bold precedent with lessons that we can apply to subsequent projects in our own communities. By the time of its ultimate buildout, we can expect that Dockside Green will have been joined by numerous other projects across the continent, all contributing to the “UnSprawling” of North America.
For more information, visit Dockside Green at www.DocksideGreen.com.