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The Janion building on Victoria's Inner Harbour waterfront has been derelict and abandoned for about 35 years. It was a grand hotel before becoming offices for a number of businesses, including the historic Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway. A Vancouver developer plans to refurbish the building. (Reliance Properties)
The Janion building on Victoria's Inner Harbour waterfront has been derelict and abandoned for about 35 years. It was a grand hotel before becoming offices for a number of businesses, including the historic Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway. A Vancouver developer plans to refurbish the building. (Reliance Properties)

Eyes on the Island

Victoria’s historic Janion building will once again be ‘a hive … of people’ Add to ...

The building has been a waterfront eyesore for decades, a decrepit brick shell on Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

The entrances are barricaded, the windows boarded up. A rear corner has partially collapsed. Inside, the plaster has fallen from the walls, exposing lath work.

A hint of former beauty can be seen amid the decay. Central bay windows on the second and third storeys project over Store Street. At the top can be read a wooden name plate, the paint long since faded, the embossed lettering still visible. It reads, THE JANION 1891.

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The building has been vacant now for almost 35 years – the only known occupant in that time, a squatter protesting against homelessness in the city. He was evicted by police in protective gear who used tear gas to flush him from a reinforced room after a day-long standoff six years ago.

The building has been the subject of another standoff between a long-time owner, who applied for a demolition permit, and the city, which responded by proclaiming heritage designation to prevent destruction.

The building now has a new owner, as a Vancouver development company purchased the building for $2.49-million. Two years ago, the same developer bought from the same vendor two nearby abandoned commercial buildings, known as Northern Junk.

Now, Reliance Properties will be renovating the historic buildings and constructing a new retail and residential complex. These will flank the downtown end of the Blue Bridge, which itself is being replaced.

“The Janion has some serious problems as a dilapidated building,” said Reliance president Jon Stovell. “The walls and the foundations are generally sound. That’s the key. Once those are gone, you can’t bring a building back.”

Reliance is a major landowner in Vancouver’s historic Gastown neighbourhood. The company plans to restore the exterior of the Janion. The interior will be refitted to house as many as 100 micro-lofts, compact living quarters that have been compared to the size of two parking stalls. The micro-lofts in the company’s Burns Block development in Vancouver range in size from 270 to 350 square feet, featuring galley kitchens and pull-down wall beds.

“Micro-lofts are not a whole lot different than its hotel history,” Mr. Stovell said. “It’ll be a hive again, housing lots of people.”

The Janion opened as a railroad hotel with 48 bedrooms. The Daily Colonist pronounced it a “creditable and commodious hotel,” noting every room was to be lit by electricity. The proprietors offered Sunday chicken dinners for 25 cents, promising in paid advertisements “only white cooks employed.”

The hotel lacked a liquor licence, limiting prospects in rough-and-tumble Victoria, still then the province’s commercial centre.

Less than a year after the first guest checked in, the sheriff held a cash auction at the hotel to disperse carpets, stoves and the contents of bedroom suites. Barroom furniture also went under the hammer for a hotel that sold nothing stronger than carbonated soda.

The building was then used as a warehouse, an assayer’s office, a cold storage facility, and, briefly, as the bottling plant for Pacific Beer, an ironic development considering its construction as a temperance hotel. For many years, the old building housed the offices of the Lake of the Woods Milling Co. and the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway, whose terminus was just outside the front door.

The sale of the Janion is welcome news for preservationists. Others are keen to learn whether the Janion’s basement houses tunnels beneath Store Street to Chinatown, a persistent bit of urban lore.

PLOYS OF SUMMER

Baseball will be returning to Royal Athletic Park next summer. The city signed a three-year lease with John McLean and Dwight Willett of Vancouver, owners of a new franchise in the West Coast League. The circuit, which includes teams in Washington and Oregon as well as Kelowna, features amateur collegiate players. The Victoria team is to be named in a contest by fans. The best suggestion so far, from a local baseball blogger, is the Fighting Marmots.

Follow on Twitter: @tomhawthorn

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