The Uplands has the reputation of being Greater Victoria’s most exclusive residential district and there’s an interesting history behind its development. That history starts with the Hudson’s Bay Company and the early settlement of Victoria.
When the Hudson’s Bay Co. set up Fort Victoria in 1843, the British government granted the Hudson’s Bay Company a lease on Vancouver Island for 7 shillings, or about $2.00, a year on condition the company establish a British Crown colony on the island within 5 years.
When the Hudson’s Bay Co. lease expired in 1858 and the British government established the Colony of Vancouver Island, the Hudson’s Bay Co. retained several large landholdings around Victoria. One of these was Uplands Farm, an 1118 acre farm the Hudson’s Bay Co. had established in the 1850’s to supply meat and produce to Fort Victoria.
In 1907, a real estate developer from Winnipeg, William Hicks Gardner (1875-1951), began buying land in Uplands Farm from the Hudson’s Bay Co. with the intention of setting up a very exclusive, private residential district.
In William Gardner‘s plan, The Uplands development was to be self contained; residents would buy lots from the developers and then pay property taxes directly to the developers, who would administer the district and provide services like roads, water, sewer and power. Financing for the project came primarily from France, through the French bank Credit Foncier.
By 1909, William Gardner had purchased 465 acres of Uplands Farm from the Hudson’s Bay Co. and signed an agreement with the Municipality of Oak Bay stating the municipality would limit the taxes assessed to the Uplands development for 10 years on condition that Gardiner’s company completed an estimated $500,000 worth of improvements to the site by 1915.
To landscape his proposed development, William Gardner brought in one of the best known landscape architectural firms in the United States: the Olmstead Brothers of Brookline, Mass. This firm had been founded by Frederick Law Olmstead, whose landscaping projects included private estates like Biltmore, the Vanderbilt estate in North Carolina; cemeteries like Mountain View Cemetary in Oakland, California; and numerous public parks like Mount Royal Park in Montreal, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. and, the project Olmstead is probably best known for, Central Park in New York City.
Frederick Law Olmstead was not personally involved in The Uplands project. Frederick Law Olstead had died in 1903 and the Olmstead Brothers‘ work on The Uplands was carried by his nephew and former partner, John Charles Olmstead.
John Charles Olmstead finished the Uplands landscaping within two years; among the features he installed was underground wiring, which was a revolutionary idea in its day. The Uplands electrical wiring is still underground today.
The Uplands Ltd. began selling lots in May 1912. There were 424 lots between 0.26 acres and 3.5 acres priced from $3000 to $55,000. At least 20% of the purchase price had to be paid in cash with the balance to be paid within 4 years at 7% interest.
The Uplands was advertised as being “governed by reasonable restrictions guaranteeing high character for all time.” Among these reasonable restrictions: the entire development was single family residential; there were no apartments and there was no business or commercial activity allowed. Lots couldn’t be subdivided to less than 1/4 acre; houses built in the Uplands had to cost at least $5000 or 1/2 the purchase price of the lot, whichever was greater; and before any house could be built, the plans had to submitted for approval to The Uplands Ltd.’s consulting architect. That architect was Francis Rattenbury, who had designed the Provincial Legislature and the Empress Hotel; if Rattenbury considered the planned house inappropriate for the Uplands, it couldn’t be built.
The Uplands advertisements in 1912 claimed that buying property in the Uplands was “an excellent investment because prices will advance rapidly.”
Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way. A worldwide recession began in 1913. By 1914, only 83 of the 424 Uplands building lots had been sold and only 9 lots actually had houses built on them. The start of the First World War in August 1914 made things worse. In 1919, the Uplands Ltd. said it had been unable to sell a single property since 1914 and had only been able to collect 12% of the mortgage payments it was owed during the war years of 1914-1918.
Poor sales and the inability to collect mortgage payments it was owed meant serious financial difficulty for The Uplands Ltd. International financial policies created more problems; when the French government imposed currency controls during and after the First World War, restricting French currency from leaving France, the Uplands Ltd. lost access to the French capital that had financed the project in the first place.
By 1925 The Uplands Ltd. owed the Municipality of Oak Bay $27,431 in tax arrears which it was unable to pay. Oak Bay could have seized the Uplands for tax arrears but the municipality found itself facing an unforeseen legal obstacle. The problem was that The Uplands Ltd. owned all the roads and infrastructure in the Uplands. All the roads, sewers and underground electrical lines in the Uplands were legally registered as a single, separate lot called Lot X.
Lot X was owned by The Uplands Ltd. and the company had taken care to pay the assessed taxes on Lot X so the Municipality of Oak Bay could not seize it for outstanding taxes. If Oak Bay foreclosed on the The Uplands Ltd. the municipality would not have any road access to the Uplands because The Uplands Ltd. still owned all the roads and services.
In the end Oak Bay agreed to grant tax relief on condition that title to Lot X was transferred to the Municipality.
But even with tax relief, the financial position of the Uplands Ltd. continued to deteriorate and in 1935 it relinquished control of the Uplands to the Municipality of Oak Bay.
But that presented a new problem for Oak Bay; the municipality couldn’t legally enforce the type of property restrictions The Uplands Ltd. had placed on properties in the Uplands, without applying those same restrictions to every property in Oak Bay, including those outside the Uplands. That was politically unfeasible.
The solution to this problem required an Act of the Provincial Legislature. At Oak Bay’s request, the Provincial Legislature passed the Oak Bay Special Powers Act of 1935, which allowed Oak Bay to pass municipal bylaws which only applied to the Uplands.
The Oak Bay Special Powers Act is still in effect and Oak Bay still has by-laws enforcing some of the original restrictions The Uplands Ltd. introduced in 1912. There are a number of municipal zoning by-laws which only apply to the Uplands; it’s still strictly single family residential; there are no condos or apartments; architectural plans for new homes still have to be submitted for approval; and new houses cannot resemble any existing house within 500 feet. There are some fairly petty restrictions as well; for example, you can’t have more than two dogs per household. And there’s still an Oak Bay bylaw specifically preventing people from “keeping on any lot
One interesting bylaw change occurred relatively recently. The restriction on business activity in the Uplands, which had been in effect since 1912, was repealed in 1998, primarily because people wanted to have home based businesses. But commercial buildings are still prohibited in the Uplands.
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