The building

Orchard House tower is a leasehold residential building of 211 suites located at 647 Michigan Street, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, V8V 1S9. The building is not a condominium. Suite lessees are really tenants who pre-paid the rent for—or if you’re in the market, can buy—the remaining years of a suite’s 99-year lease assignment, expiring at year’s end, 2073. The building and land are owned and managed by Westsea Construction with lessees/tenants covering operating costs and capital costs for refurbishment. In news reports, the Times-Colonist usually confuses leasehold and condominium, which is a different animal. I corrected one such reference in a letter-to-the-Editor in September of 2019, which you can read here (‘opens a new browser tab): Letter to T-C 13 Sept 2019 .  The 99-year lease can be found here (opens new tab):  OH Head Lease from LTO  .

The building’s office number is 250-383-1185, week days, 8 a.m. through 4 p.m., and the email address is OrchardHouse@westsea.ca   The site managers are Doug and Kathleen and after-hours and weekend calls are taken for emergencies, such as a major water leak. The resident weekend manager is Don.

To avoid movers knocking over people coming and going via the front door, moves must use the east-side door. The padded elevator must be booked in advance for moves, which may not use the other elevators.

The City approved construction of Orchard House in 1968, announced in The Daily Colonist of December 14, 1968 under the headline “Bonus Plan Allows Tall Tower” on the front of the Local News section (p. 21), which you can view here (opens new tab): O.H. to be built news clips  .  The rental tower was completed late in 1969 or during 1970. The building of this and other massive apartment towers in James Bay, replacing historic homes, caused an outcry that eventually led to “down zoning” of the area. For a few decades Orchard House was Victoria’s tallest building with its 22 floors, although these are numbered to 23 because the number 13 was omitted.

In May of 1974 builder/owner George Mulek was apparently frustrated by rent controls and a new prohibition on converting rental buildings to condominiums, so he signed a lease between two companies that he owned to make possible the assignment of the lease to individual suite “buyers” for 99 years, which was controversial from the start. A news story in The Daily Colonist on August 24 of 1974 was headlined “Firm denies using lease loophole”, which you can see here (opens new tab; scroll down in the document to find an easy-to-read typed copy of the story):  O.H. news clip plus text re deny loophole .  Newspaper ads were soon marketing suites with 90% financing, but saying nothing about their leasehold nature: O.H. sales ad 1975   For more history about the troubled experience of leaseholds, turn to this site’s page titled “We need protection by statute!”.

Today’s buyers of a suite’s remaining years should keep in mind that these lease assignments all expire at year’s end, 2073. Buyers of an assignment pay B.C.’s property-transfer tax, but on the other hand qualify for the annual B.C. Homeowner Grant. Because suites are leased, and not owned by leaseholders, the building has a single property title. The assessed value of the tower and its land for 2021 is $43,395,000.

Monthly operating fees paid to Westsea Construction are charged to suites in proportion to the floor area of each, and include the cost of the building’s annual property tax bill. Because Orchard House is not a condominium there is no mechanism to establish a reserve fund for major expenses, some of which have been major, indeed.

The tower’s floor plan is almost identical on levels three through 23 with 10 suites per floor. A sample floor survey plan is here, but like a condo plan it only shows the suite boundaries, not the divisions inside each suite (opens a new browser tab): floor plan 23rd floor . The main floor has only two suites in addition to the lobby, the site office, mailboxes, a laundry room and two locker areas. There are more lockers on the basement level, which also houses the hot tub. On the second floor an ’08-plan studio suite is omitted to accommodate access to the outdoor swimming pool and two change rooms with tiny saunas. On the survey plan note that suite floor areas include the roomy balconies and are measured to the exterior of outside walls and midpoint of interior walls, so true square footage is 10% or 12% less than stated.

Two-bedroom suites are numbered ’05 and ’10, half of them with a second toilet/sink bathroom. One-bedroom suites are numbered ’01, ’02, ’03, ’04, ’06 and ’09. Of these, the ’01 (NW corner) and ’06 (SE corner) one-bedroom suites, have a dining/kitchen window. Studio suites are numbered ’07 and ’08; these offer 450 square feet of wide-open space best utilized with a “Murphy” or fold-up bed.

About 80 suites are lessee-occupied, which is as close as we come to “owner occupied”. Westsea Construction itself retains the leases to 16 suites, one being the owner’s suite, one assigned to the resident managers, and 14 rented out along with what should be our visitor parking stalls for the company’s profit.

A major feature of Orchard House is the view from suites higher than, say, the sixth floor. The south-side suites look towards nearby towers, such as Roberts House condominiums, but from a distance. To the left are views of South Park, then the forest of Beacon Hill Park, and for those on higher floors Oak Bay, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the American San Juan Islands. To the right, south-side suits overlook James Bay, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the American Olympic Peninsula mountains, Esquimalt Harbour and the Sooke Hills. On the north side Orchard House suites have picture-postcard views of the Inner Harbour, the historic B.C. Legislature, all of downtown Victoria, the Malahat hills and from top floors one can see north to the Coast Mountains 150 km distant, and to the east Washington State’s Mount Baker, which is 130 km away.

The common areas of Orchard House look a bit tired after 50 years, but lessees have over the past decade paid for major improvements and repairs. At 2020 the building had all new double-glazed windows and balcony slider doors, a new roof, renewed waterproofing atop the garage, which is overlaid with lawn and sprinklers, a re-plumbed seasonal outdoor pool, a new backup electricity generator, new hallway carpeting and a new card-op laundry room. All elevator mechanicals are still original and the three elevator cabs have never had ceiling fans, although the vents and electrical receptacles are available, and even though Island Health in 2020 called the company suggesting that these would be a well-advised improvement during a viral epidemic. The building was passed over by Telus when the company installed internet and TV fiber-optic cable throughout Victoria, perhaps because Westsea couldn’t be bothered arranging for access to the building and its suites.

Amenities include the just-mentioned swimming pool, a dated-looking but functional hot tub on the basement level, an indoor parking stall for every suite, a locker for almost every suite, and an over-crowded bicycle storage room. Some lockers are located above lobby-level lockers, so these require a ladder to access.

There is no visitor parking on-site at Orchard House even though there are 34 more indoor parking stalls (245) than suites (211). The City of Victoria bylaw requiring that 10% of residential building parking be allocated to visitors was authorized by the Province just after the building went up, so owner Westsea Construction is exempt from compliance. Westsea rents out the surplus stalls for revenue and/or leaves stalls unassigned and available informally at the site manager’s discretion.

Orchard House tower is concrete and steel construction. During repairs I’ve seen that interior walls between suites and between suites and hallways are double-wall systems. While concrete transmits tapping sounds, and some suites have original parquet hardwood that clatters a bit, largely it’s a quiet building internally. I live in an ’07 suite adjacent to the elevators, so I sometimes dream that I can hear a subway running in the distance. The ’08 suites are next to the garbage chute, so sometimes its use is audible. Across the hall, downtown-facing suites overlook a fire hall where engines announce an emergency several times each day. These are urban sounds we gladly live with; Victoria’s amenities are at our doorstep.

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