Oak Bay: behind the tweed curtain

House 2

The District of Oak Bay, population 18,000, is the third most heavily taxed municipality in British Columbia, of 161 listed in provincial tax tables. Property taxes on a representative house are 29 per cent higher than in the City of Victoria next door, and close to 90 per cent higher than the B.C. average.

The numbers suggest an affluent population prepared to pay for services such as an  independent police force — as in the highest taxed local jurisdiction in B.C., the District of West Vancouver.

Oak Bay Ave 1 croppedThe town’s official community plan notes that along with higher incomes and property values, Oak Bay has proportionally “many more people over 55” than the Victoria region or the province. In the long-time stereotype, the essential local moment had elderly ladies, very British, gossiping over tea and cakes. Oak Bay was said to exist “behind the tweed curtain.” There are more Asians today, but it is still a place of tea rooms and cricket.

People in Oak Bay have doubtless got money invested in coal mines and such, and like the rest of the Victoria region they flush their sewage untreated into the ocean, but above ground all is tidy. The town government sets out clear standards for property maintenance. There are no boats or trailers parked in view of the street. There are no industrial uses, not even any gas stations. When I lived close by in the City of Victoria in the 1990s, a Victoria  councillor urged the renewal of a land use permit for a derelict gas station on our corner because the folks in Oak Bay might need it someday. The councillor, it turned out, was an Oak Bay resident himself.

But I digress. Oak Bay is an attractive place to walk or cycle, with no visible poverty, no gas stations, a cute high street and an ocean front that looks out (on a clear day) over the Gulf islands to Mount Baker on the Washington mainland. I cycled through the high street to Willows Beach on a blustery day in late May, and found families picnicking in their coats. A friendly teenager at the Kiwanis Tea Room, an employment project for students, sold me a hot dog and fries.

Hot dog stand reduced

Beach 1The 200-page Oak Bay plan focuses on preserving this quality of life. The population was almost unchanged from 1981 to 2011, and the forecast for future growth is modest. Local government has permitted enough medium-density development to offset  shrinking family sizes, enough to provide support for the high street. Oak Bay Avenue has the services you would expect in Storybook Village — banks, cafes, a food market, a public library — and maybe a few that you wouldn’t, such as the Whole Beast, a charcuterie that presumably disguises snouts and tails in its elegantly prepared sliced meats.

An oddball example of arts and crafts made of cement brick, possibly from a mail-order plan

An oddball arts-and-crafts style residence made of cement brick, possibly from a mail-order plan

The residential streets, taking up most of the town, offer an impressive stock of arts-and- crafts style homes from the early 1900s, as well as picturesque garry oaks like those shown in the photo at the top. The District has created  pathways, such as the one along Bowker Creek, and a semi-wild park connecting to the seashore.

It’s compact enough, and it’s walkable. So it’s surprising to see the amount of vehicle traffic, even on the tree-lined residential streets. Why don’t these people walk? you ask, as you pause on your bicycle to make a left turn. Why do they need to climb into their cars to travel four blocks?

On the other hand, the cars are often elegant, like the charcuterie. And they move quite slowly.

[Oak Bay is located in Greater Victoria on southern Vancouver Island, a float plane ride away from Fraseropolis, but we will include it on our Urban Villages page.] 

Oak Bay Ave 2 reduced

House 4

House 5

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