Centennial Square redesign drops fountain, preserves artwork

Centennial Square redesign drops fountain, preserves artwork
Centennial Square redesign drops fountain, preserves artwork

Goals include being able to accommodate more people, improving sight lines and providing “joy and whimsy” through features like a splash pad. There has been strong opposition to the fountain’s removal.

There is a new design proposal for Victoria’s Centennial Square, according to a report from the council. This will involve removing the central fountain and a large sequoia tree. The aim is to increase the capacity for the public on the square, improve the view and make the organization of performances more efficient.

Newly released concept designs call for an approach that embraces ‘joy and whimsy’.

For example, the square would have a seasonal shallow pool where ‘young and old can sit and relax’ and a water playground where the fountain now stands.

The 44-page report says additional amenities, such as a commercial kiosk and expanded green areas, will help create a space that will hopefully become a venue for fitness classes and farmers markets.

There will be more electricity and water connections on the square and a new stage will be built next to the McPherson Theatre.

The existing stage would be converted into storage space for ‘much-needed’ equipment.

The renovation will make the square more suitable for large-scale events of up to 4,000 to 5,000 people, festive events and evening markets and complements plans for public transport improvements on Douglas Street, the company said.

Currently, the fountain and monolithic artworks direct the square inward and “preclude larger gatherings or other uses in the central part of the space,” the report said.

On Thursday, Victoria councillors will discuss whether to proceed with the design, which is estimated to cost $11.2 million.

Historians, architects and others have urged the city to preserve the fountain, saying it has crucial historical value to the city.

The renewal will see the fountain’s three monoliths – a gift to Victoria of Saanich, Esquimalt and Oak Bay in 1965 for the city’s centenary – retained on site following a $150,000 renovation.

The report proposes relocating the three fountain monoliths to the east side of the square, adjacent to Douglas Street.

Councillor Matt Dell, who won his seat on a campaign that included a water play area in the city centre, said he believes the proposed changes will keep the square full of people from May to October. “I really like the new designs,” he said. “The city centre is desperate for new public spaces to attract people to the city centre.”

Dell said the city heard “loud and clear” from people who wanted Victoria’s first major public artwork to be preserved.

“We have asked the staff to look at options to keep those (monoliths) in the square,” he said. “I’m happy to see that a balance has been reached where some of the important artwork can be preserved, but we can also create a new space that will be much more inviting to people.”

As part of the new design, the large sequoia tree that dominates the eastern end of the plaza will be removed to improve visibility.

According to the report, the tree is one of three in the square that have “a limited ability to thrive” and cause damage to nearby infrastructure.

New trees would be planted to reduce the effects of heat islands, aid in storm management and come from species of “appropriate size,” the report said.

Dell noted that the project is receiving support from the provincial government in the form of a $4.5 million grant from the BC Growing Communities Fund. “That really helped reduce the financial challenges for the project.”

The Centennial Square project would be financed through debt for approximately $7.4 million, according to city staff.

Reuben Rose-Redwood, professor of geography at the University of Victoria and chair of UVic’s urban studies committee, said while it makes sense to preserve heritage and historic designs, Centennial Square is in need of a revamp.

“In the ’50s and ’60s, designers were more concerned with the visual appeal of the design and not necessarily how people were going to use these spaces,” he said in an interview before the report was released. “If it were designed today, (Centennial Square) would probably look very different.”

Rose-Redwood said it’s important to remember that the plaza isn’t just for local residents and workers; it also organizes large-scale recreational and political events.

“This is one of the central focal points for political gatherings and freedom of expression in the city.”

In recent years, participants in large rallies on issues such as women’s rights and black lives have filled Centennial Square to the rafters, with people spilling into the surrounding streets.

The proposal for the Centennial Square renovation involved Dialog, a design firm that has worked on projects including the North Vancouver Shipyards, the Edmonton Valley Zoo and the Royal Alberta Museum. Victoria City Council approved $750,000 for consulting and design costs.

The renovation of Centennial Square has been in the works for six years.

If the council agrees, a multi-phase construction process could begin in 2025.

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