Downtown Victoria – Breakfast with Robert Jawl

I had the pleasure of attending the Urban Development Institute’s Under 40 breakfast event on Friday morning. Our host and guest speaker was Robert Jawl of Jawl Properties. Jawl Properties built the highly acclaimed Atrium Building at Blanshard and Yates. And, they’ve got two more leading-edge projects in the works. First is a LEED Platinum office development at Douglas and Pandora – directly across from City Hall. Second, in conjunction with Concert Properties, the redevelopment of the six-acre site behind the Legislature, which, in Robert’s words will “broaden the civic sphere around the legislature. Though the land will be privately owned, it will read as public space.”

It was as Robert began speaking, eloquent as usual, about  Jawl Properties’ core development principles and his vision for Downtown Victoria, that the idea for this series came to me. My departure point is similar to Robert’s. I’m not at all convinced by the story that I hear far too often – that Downtown Victoria is dying.  Yes, the downtown vacancy rate is 7%. But Robert assures this is not indicative of a downtown crisis and warned that, “Downtown is dead,” could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Let’s not fulfill that prophecy! Instead, let’s see Downtown Victoria as going through a process of reinvention and renewal in which everyone – residents, businesses, developers and the City – must participate. And let’s look a little closer at Jawl Properties core principles, because there’s some simple wisdom to be gleaned from these principles with regard to how we seize this opportunity and re-create downtown Victoria together.

Principle Number One: Developers should have positive, collaborative working relationships with the communities in which they build. It’s important that the community see new buildings as enhancements to the community and that residents feel as if they’ve played a key role in creating these enhancements. As Robert notes, “because (as local developers) we’re members of our community there are far more important criteria to be met than whether something is a ‘good (financial) deal’ or not. In the long-term, projects that are embraced as community enhancements also create long-term economic return.” Too often it feels as if the process of development is adversarial and a zero-sum game: if developers win the public loses; if the public wins, developers lose. With the Jawl’s and other developers sensitive to the needs and the desires of community residents, this doesn’t have to be the case. Lesson number one for building Downtown Victoria: collaboration is key.

Principle Number Two: Orientation to quality. Jawl Properties is motivated to build quality buildings because they retain ownership of the buildings they build for the long term. They care – over a 50 year time period – about how their buildings perform. Lesson number two for building Downtown Victoria: build a quality public and private realm that will continue to sing 50 years into the future; long-term vision matters.

Principle Number Three: Local partnerships and relationships are the lifeblood of business. Jawl Properties doesn’t refer to the people who lease their buildings as ‘tenants’. “They are our clients,” says Robert, “and we work for them.” Part of being able to deliver quality customer service to their clients, is that Jawl Properties is also a local business. “In any environment where you have local knowledge, where you know the difference between this block and that block, your business performs better.” Lesson number three for building Downtown Victoria: focus on local.

With collaboration as key, long-term vision, and a focus on local, what does the future hold? Downtown Victoria will continue to be the commercial centre for the region with a focus on high-quality office space, local retail, more downtown residents from a diversity of backgrounds, and a growing tech sector. Buildings themselves will be high-quality amenities that enhance both the public and private realm. People will walk, bike and bus as much as they drive to the City’s core. Victoria will capitalize on what Robert calls its “lifestyle proposition” that allows us to “attract and retain top talent from anywhere.” The City needs to be proactive in this regard to succeed.

Finally, Downtown Victoria will continue to develop this new identity that’s emerging as a great place to live, a place of vibrant and beautiful public spaces, a site of innovation and creativity, and an epicentre of locally focused business that attracts local and tourists alike. “We’re not a mini-Vancouver,” Robert says. “we’re not a copy-cat of Portland, and we’re not a retirement community for Alberta and Ontario. We’ve got our own identity and our own swagger!”






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