by Norman Gidney, citizen reporter
Big signs have gone up along the sidewalk opposite Saanich Plaza just a block over from Uptown, telling residents and passersby about a major project for a parcel of land known as the Nigel Valley.
If the name is unfamiliar, you’re not alone. It’s a new label for a big part of a square block bounded by Vernon and Darwin Avenues, and the Lochside Trail, close to Saanich municipal hall.
A dozen parcels of property totaling 2.5 hectares make up the Nigel Valley redevelopment project. Four nonprofit groups and several levels of government are involved as owners.
They are the District of Saanich, B.C. Housing, Garth Homer Society (GHS), Broadmead Care, Canadian Mental Health Association, Greater Victoria Housing Society, and Island Health. There’s a range of services, day programs and housing on the site for adults with disabilities.
The name comes from Nigel Avenue, a street that runs up the middle of the site and lets drivers come in from Vernon or Darwin.
Mitchell Temkin, executive director of the Garth Homer Society, has been involved in the redevelopment plans for almost a decade, initially for the GHS neighbour on Darwin, Nigel House, which provides housing for adults with disabilities.
He describes the collection of new buildings and site changes in the Nigel Valley as an “inclusive, accepting community in a dense urban village.”
Temkin has worked with the Nigel House board in planning a replacement for its building, before he joined Garth Homer in 2011.
B.C. Housing, the provincial agency which funds nonprofit housing projects and owns the largest part of the Nigel Valley, paid for a site master plan, which D’Ambrosio architecture + urbanism of Victoria produced last fall.
Things are moving faster now, although the rezoning proposal is still awaiting a date before Saanich council. Approval is expected sometime in 2018.
Overall, the plan would increase density with bigger buildings and increased services for a larger population. About 190 people now live there, which might rise to 500. Garth Homer now provides programs for about 200 day visitors.
The different organizations of the Nigel Valley intend to share services — a cafe with job opportunities, daycare, a meeting hall and community activities. A compact, walkable neighbourhood with public spaces is in the works.
Nigel House has the oldest building on the site and its plans for replacement are farthest along. Now part of Broadmead Care Society, Nigel House has apartments for 26 adults.
The new building will be across the valley from its current site and accommodate 41 residents, including the 15 residents of Harriet House, a separate building a few blocks away near Burnside Road.
Funding is starting to flow. Capital Regional Hospital District (CRHD) approved $1 million in April for the new residence, while Broadmead Care will contribute $3 million and fundraise another $2 million over the coming three years of planning and construction.
Residents of Nigel House have “a complex combination of medical, mental health and behavioural issues that have not allowed them to live successfully in other housing and care settings,” says the CRHD announcement.
Population changes are also shaping the Nigel Valley development. Persons with disabilities “are now living longer but getting sicker,” says Temkin. “It’s a huge but mostly unseen demographic change.”
Since the site borders a very busy highway, traffic and transportation are major issues. Temkin hopes Saanich’s current Douglas Corridor study sketches out a more pedestrian-friendly route for the neighbourhood. The study is due next year and if it carries through the theme of “the highway begins at McKenzie,” it will be a much safer place.
He’s watched some residents scramble across the five lanes of Vernon Avenue that carry 25,000 northbound vehicles a day to the Pat Bay Highway.
Topography is also an issue with this property. Nigel Valley is a steep-sided ravine, some seven metres lower than the highest point on the bordering streets.
A culvert carries a little creek under the pavement and there’s a short stretch of open water before it goes under the trail, down the hill and into Swan Lake.
Garth Homer Society’s building opened in 1977 and sits on an L-shaped lot. The plan calls for its new building to move about 25 metres south.
“It’s an interesting old building but it’s definitely showing signs of age,” says Temkin.
Pilings support the building and make a stable footing, but the slope is moving.
“It’s a real problem because the ground is slipping away all around us,” he says.