No compromises in hotel homes

Saturday, September 27th, 2008

Rebuild in Oak Bay salvages charm, character of old

Suzanne Morphet

Water views – and location — are a certainty for the eventual Oak Bay Beach Hotel households. With the Victoria Golf Club, Oak Bay Marina and the village of Oak Bay nearby, other proximities ‘can’t be duplicated or arrived at overnight,’ the developer says.

Oak Bay Beach Hotel kitchens will have granite countertops, stainless steel sinks and traditional manor house finishes and details.

Bathrooms in the residences will cleverly include a wooden ‘window’ which can slide open to give bathers a view of the ocean. Each residence floor plan will be unique.

Buying a home always involves choices and, usually, compromises. For example, how many homes with water views are actually located on the water? How many gourmet kitchens must be stocked with ingredients that are many gourmet kitchens must be stocked with ingredients that are a 30-minute drive away from the home? What home with charm and character doesn’t come with old plumbing crying out for replacement?

The Oak Bay Beach Hotel households won’t have had to make any of those compromises.

They’ll have water views — and the Strait of Juan de Fuca a stone’s throw away.

They’ll have gourmet kitchens — and the shops of Oak Bay within walking distance.

They’ll have charm and character — and no plumbing to replace.

In fact, the Oak Bay Beach Hotel and Private Residences will be both old and new. Owners Kevin and Shawna Walker have taken pains to retain as much as possible of the old Tudor-style hotel that’s graced Oak Bay‘s waterfront for over 80 years, while still rebuilding from scratch.

“We have a warehouse full of beams, thousands of boar feet of original beams and boards and brick and leaded windows, that are going to be used in the new hotel,” says Kevin Walker. “People will be able to walk into a replica of the original Snug [Pub] and reach out and touch the beams that were actually there in the original Snug in the original hotel.”

Tearing down the old hotel wasn’t something the Walkers set out to do – they cared too much about the historic building that Kevin’s father and his partner, Glenn Anderson had purchased in 1973, to want to level it. Even Kevin’s grandfather worked in the hotel back in the 70’s.

But when they went to renovate the building- something they had done before – the municipality of Oak Bay warned them that any further renovations would trigger a full seismic upgrade, something that would cost $11.7 million.

“My accountant friend sat me down and said ‘you know what, you will not have a viable business if you spend that much on seismic work, you might as well stop now because it will never repay you’, ” says Walker, recalling the conversation.

Coming to that realization was very difficult.

“That might have been the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced,” he continues. “Having to come to grips with, ‘do we just sell it or, let someone else set up condos here?’ because I knew I couldn’t do that, [build condos]. I’m a hotel guy, yet that’s what the underlying zoning on the land was for.”

Fortunately for patrons of the Oak Bay Beach Hotel – and they are legion – the Walkers decided to rebuild. And it turns out Walker is a ‘condo guy’ as well as a ‘hotel guy’. He and Shawna decided they would tear down the old building and rebuild not just a hotel, but also condos on top for full ownership. Anything that could be salvaged and reused to retain the hotel’s unique character and preserve people’s memories would be.

“I had a letter from someone saying, ‘You can do anything you want, but don’t destroy that fireplace in the centre of the lobby, we have wedding photos, we come back and have our anniversaries there, and it’s very very important to us.’ ” says Kevin, remembering one of many pleas from patrons.

Salvaging bricks and boards makes for slow, costly demolition, but it was something the Walkers were determined to do.

“I remember standing and talking with the demolition contractor,” recalls Kevin, “and I said, ‘how long is it going to take to take this building down?’ And he said, ‘We could do it and have the site cleared in three days.’ In the end it took 5 1/2 months.”

Once they made the decision to rebuild, the Walkers also determined to do it right, which in today’s construction world means meeting LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) guidelines. “It’s a LEED gold criteria that we’re designing it to, which will be the first LEED Gold hotel in Canada,” says Kevin, adding “We’re three points away from Platinum, they tell me, right now, so it is absolutely world class.”

And world class carries, of course, a high price tag. To make the project financially feasible, the Walkers needed to add 20 private residences on the top two floors, above the hotel. The condos begin at $1 million for 857-square feet – not as much as a similar property in Vancouver or some other cities – but one of the highest prices per square foot in Victoria.

However, the Walkers are counting on the enduring popularity of the original Oak Bay Beach Hotel, and the decades of nostalgia associated with it, to carry over to the Residences. Given the hotel’s history, it’s probably a safe bet. “The Oak Bay Beach Hotel has been an important part of the community for a long time,” says John Herbert, an Oak Bay Councillor and member of the Oak Bay Tourism Committee. “It was the first place you thought of for your wedding reception, a Christmas party, a retirement party, a place to hear Christmas carols, a place for a nice lunch or dinner with friends. If you were organizing a community event that needed some financial assistance, it was never refused. It was like community living room where people felt very comfortable.”

And residents won’t just own a piece of the prestigious new building, but they’ll also enjoy all the amenities that come with a five star hotel. “We have 24-hour butler service, so if you’re going travelling they’ll water your plants, make sure your place gets dusted. There’s a valet at the front door who will park the car for you. If you want to call a chef up to cook dinner for your friends that you’re entertaining on Friday night, that can be arranged. And of course [there’s] the mineral pool down by the sea, and the spa and fitness centre,” says Kevin, rhyming off the services included with a monthly strata fee.

In addition to the building and the amenities, the hotel’s prime location is also of note, directly on the waterfront, across from the Victoria Golf Club, and close to the Oak Bay Marina and the village of Oak Bay . “There’s a culture here, a neighbourhood that we fit into very nicely, which can’t be duplicated or arrived at overnight,” says Kevin, summing up the selling points of his project.

While residents of the Oak Bay Beach Hotel may not have to make compromises, they’ll still have to make choices. Life’s just like that. But instead of ‘what shall we have for dinner tonight?’ they’ll be asking instead, ‘should we cook, call up the chef from downstairs or simply eat out?”

Suzanne Morphet is a photojournalist in Victoria and contributor to a new book, The Vancouver Island Book of Everything.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008


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