If you only knew Douglas Street’s most southern end where it intersects with Dallas Road at Beacon Hill Park, you’d think it was one of the loveliest streets on Vancouver Island. It has an ocean-view of the United States where the road terminates, with greenery flanking it on both sides. Occasional tents, now deemed illegal to the relief of the neighborhood’s residents, are the only blemish on the otherwise idyllic street.
Unfortunately, this is not the Douglas Street that everybody knows or pictures when they hear its name.
The majority of Douglas Street is a grimy, decaying thoroughfare that would resemble a ghost town if it weren’t for the constant stream of double-decker buses at Fort Street. When was the last time somebody asked a friend to go spend the day hanging out on Douglas Street? Maybe if they are going to the Public Market at the Hudson, if they are seeking typically yuppie activities.
When people usually spend time in Douglas, they are getting drunk at one of the street’s institutions of inebriation like the Sticky Wicket or Peacock Billiards. Another popular place to not bring your car keys is the local Cactus Club, which is a wealthy chain that can afford to operate a business on Douglas. That Cactus Club outlet is not unlike many of the other businesses that can afford to locate itself on Douglas, where it looks inevitable that only corporate empires can survive. For evidence, some of the only businesses that seem secure on Douglas are Cactus Club, Dollarama, McDonalds, and Shoppers Drug Mart.
Douglas Street has become the graveyard of small business in Victoria’s downtown core. Even the outlets in the Bay Centre that face Douglas Street seem unable to retain operators for more than a year. The Bay Centre itself feels like a husk of a mall, hollowed out by the development of Uptown and the attractive business climate of the rapidly growing West Shore communities. It is perhaps no coincidence that the only businesses in the Bay Centre that seem healthy, like Hudson’s Bay or Below the Belt, face Government Street on the other side of the mall.
The sheer amount of visible poverty on Douglas Street is growing as well. Pandora Avenue is the closest thing Victoria has to a Skid Row, and whether it is the closest thing or the real thing at this point is ambiguous. Not only is Pandora’s poverty seemingly permanent at this point, but its sad character is leaking onto Douglas as well and cementing itself there outside the Shoppers Drug Mart and the McDonald’s. The street’s troubling decay is not limited to people sleeping in doorways. The many historic apartments, such as the ones above the Circle-K at Yates and Douglas, are decrepit with no hopes for restoration in a city that supposedly still prides itself on its architectural heritage.
It is worth asking: do people feel safer walking alone at night on Government Street or Douglas Street? Most people will answer with the former, and for good reason. Attacks on strangers are all too frequent on Douglas, including a store employee who has headbutted in February, and a driver’s window that was smashed by a rock in an unprovoked attack. This is not the environment that creates a healthy economy, or an attractive venue for one.
Douglas Street will never be Government Street, and nobody should expect it to be. Government is relatively unimportant for vehicular traffic, and one of the crown jewels of Victoria’s tourism hubs. Douglas forms part of Highway 1, which connects to the West Shore and up-Island, and connects with Highway 17, which lead to the ferries. They are two streets that serve different purposes. Nonetheless, there is no good excuse to allow Douglas to continue on its grubby decline to a place only popular after 10 p.m. on Friday.
The new Telus Office Tower that was approved by the city government will hopefully do something to reverse the emaciation of Douglas Street. Future well-paid professionals will pump thousands of dollars per week into the struggling cafes and smaller businesses on Douglas that are barely surviving right now.
Victoria’s downtown has not been in good shape for a long time and a healthy Douglas Street will help that revival. How that is achieved is up to the politicians, but allowing one of Victoria’s longest and most important streets to fade away cannot be allowed to continue.
Geoff Russ is a B.C.-based writer whose work has been featured in National Post, Northern Beat and more. Follow him on Twitter at @Geoffruss3.
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