Losing our edge; time for a doughnut?

Qualicum Beach’s prized natural and built legacy is being eroded — just when other towns and cities are taking steps to preserve and harmonize their built and natural environments.

For millennia, human beings have recognized the intrinsic value of commonly-held green space within their communities, co-existing with the built environment. Hundreds of years ago, the village green provided practical economic benefits as well as sustenance for the soul and, today, these same greenspaces fulfill the same role in many communities. The village greens of the picturesque towns of New England like Woodstock, Vermont for example, population 3,000, provide economic stimulus, and enhance the quality of life of their residents.

Qualicum Beach too has long stood out as a unique and desirable community, known for its graceful architecture surrounded by blooms and carefully situated within a stunning natural environment. Thanks to QB’s founding citizens and its previous councils and municipal administrators, QB did not become a hodge-podge of big box stores, billboards, restaurant chains, parking lots and cookie cutter housing so typical of one forgettable town after another, right across our land. The wisdom and foresight of our forebears resulted in the Qualicum Beach that residents and visitors alike cherish and take delight in, and that has helped propel our prosperity and enrich our lives.

As a result, QB has often been looked upon as a model community to be emulated, but our stature has diminished of late. We’re losing our edge.

Meanwhile, other towns and cities, those whose built and natural amenities were either sparse or spoiled by ill-conceived and poorly-managed growth, are now embracing a new way of (re)creating livable communities.

The main residence at Milner Gardens, located on Estate Properties land in Qualicum Beach.

Take the City of Nanaimo, for instance. Several years ago, Nanaimo’s city council and its administrators were frequently in the news for their uncivil conduct and ineffectual management, much like Qualicum Beach is experiencing now. However, after changes in their elected and administrative leadership, the City of Nanaimo is now making news around the world for progressive harmony and insightful planning and development. In December 2020, Nanaimo Council voted to adopt, as part of its REIMAGINE NANAIMO project, a new planning model that will include “a reassessment of procurement and government contracting policies, which can have profound social and environmental benefits… in ways that are more symbiotic with the natural systems we depend on, while also boosting social and cultural value,” according to a recent Vancouver Sun article.

“If Nanaimo’s entire private sector contributed to enhancing local well-being within nature’s limits, it would most definitely not spell the end to business. Instead, it could very well seed an explosion of innovation,” says economist Yannick Beaudoin. The “doughnut” model of civic and economic development is taking hold around the globe. Nanaimo is following in the footsteps of cities such as Amsterdam, Portland (Oregon), Dunedin (New Zealand), Copenhagen and Austin (Texas).

In stark contrast, Qualicum Beach Council and Town administrators appear to be stumbling along, at breakneck speed, selling public land at fire-sale prices and tearing down buildings and greenspace, without so much as a coherent plan, much less innovation. Measuring progress in QB has been reduced to Councillor Harrison’s fixation on “How many building permits did we issue this month?”

Let’s look at a recent Qualicum Beach example of questionable development that devalues the community — the “enhancement” of lower Memorial Avenue. What was recently a pleasant tree-lined street leading down to the golf course and QB’s postcard Waterfront, is now a shorn maze of curbs, and narrow alternating walk and/or bikeways, separated by planted strips of what some developers cynically refer to as  “salad.” This once pleasant roadway is now bordered by a hodge-podge of fencing, including fake wood plastic fencing, resembling the industrial sound/sight barriers along the Inland Highway near Nanaimo, and pock-marked by a flurry of illegible, confusing signs on poles and painted on the surface every 50 feet or so, imparting no useful knowledge to drivers, cyclists or pedestrians. Ironically, this over-built roadway is now more dangerous, and much diminished as a community asset. Like the Memorial roundabout at the Qualicum Beach Waterfront, there was neither a good reason nor public demand for this “enhancement” project.

And now, looming on the horizon like a dark cloud, is the recent development proposal vying to occupy the very centre of town at Railway Street and Village Way.

The “artist’s rendition” of the “Qualicum Stations” affordable housing design resembles — but lacks the charm of — a Motel 8. (Artist renderings are usually generously misleading in their depiction of what eventually gets built.) Some people have suggested the proposed design looks more like a prison than a place young families would want to call home, especially when neighbouring trees are cut down, as the artist’s rendition indicates. It’s hard to believe this is the same architect firm that designed the beautiful Salish Lelum affordable housing in Nanaimo [built by Windley, the recent purchasers of the town-owned parking lot in QB’s East Village].

It is disrespectful to prospective residents of “affordable housing,” that Qualicum Beach would offer up such an inferior, offensive design, especially on prime public greenspace. Good design need not be expensive. Should this proposed grim five storey institutional building be permitted to occupy town greenspace alongside QB’s elegant train station and the Baptist church, it would be a permanent scar on the town’s ambience.

Like the proverbial frog sitting in a pot of water on the stove as the heat is slowly turned up until he boils to death without realizing it, we may one day wake up to find that it’s too late, and the town we love will have irretrievably disappeared. If the built and natural legacy that has made Qualicum Beach unique over the past century is erased, QB will cease to be the desirable place for visitors and would-be residents to seek out, or residents to remain, leaving only images of the treasures destroyed, and memories of a once-enviable town. QB’s existing built and natural assets should not be treated as disposable or thought to be easily replaced. They should be carefully nurtured and enhanced for our future prosperity as a uniquely desirable community unlike any other, respectful of the legacy entrusted to us and committed to civic stewardship.

Or, we can capitulate to a small cabal of self-interested profiteers, and become like any of the over-developed splotches of quasi-urban cookie cutter blight that one encounters all too often, indistinguishable and forgettable. The choice is ours.