COMMUTING BETWEEN HIS HOME IN THE COMOX VALLEY and the massive residential development project he’s in charge of in Greater Victoria, Russell Tibbles spends a lot of time in his car.
“It’s an exciting project and it’s definitely worth the drive,” says Tibbles, currently president of the Royal Bay Community Limited Partnership, and formerly vice president of development at Fairwinds in Nanoose Bay.
Where there was once a huge gravel pit and quarry in a prime oceanfront location, a new 419-acre waterfront development called Royal Bay is taking shape. The brand new, master-planned community, just a 25-minute drive from downtown Victoria, promises to be the new heart of Colwood.
“It’s been a big landmark on the West Shore — it’s been a gravel pit for 100 years — and it’s not very often that the opportunity comes up to build a master-planned community right on the oceanfront,” explains Tibbles, whose background is in resort and residential development.
“This is unlike any other site on Vancouver Island and I can’t think of anything else in Canada that’s comparable. To be able to develop 400-plus acres on the waterfront in a growing metropolitan area like Victoria and establish a whole new community, that’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
The development has been years in the planning, and people are now starting to move into the first Royal Bay homes. By the time the ambitious project is finished, there will be 2,300 houses and up to 80,000 square feet of commercial space. It will be home for more than 7,000 people.
“It’s a big job with lots of moving parts but that’s what makes it fun,” says Tibbles, who grew up in Nova Scotia and has lived in Comox for the past 12 years with his wife and two children. “But with this fantastic opportunity also comes a responsibility to do it right and that’s where my passion lies — transforming this vision on paper into a reality on the ground.”
Far from a typical subdivision, Royal Bay’s mandate is to be a progressive and sustainable 21st-century community with bike lanes, trails and an extensive park system that includes a linear park running through the site providing habitat and storm water functions.
Even more impressive, Tibbles says a fundamental mission of the planning team is to make sure every home is within a five-minute walk of a park.
“In the past, suburban developments tended to have large areas of residential segregated from large areas of commercial and you’d have to get in your car,” the 51-year-old explains. “We’re seeking to have a vibrant community with shops, schools and recreation so you don’t necessarily have to get in your car if you want to do something.”
A quarter of the site, more than 100 acres, has been set aside as green space. That includes the development’s 1.3 kilometres of beachfront, which is slated to be a public park for everyone to enjoy.
“In BC, we’ve become really good at essentially privatizing waterfront and we didn’t want to do that,” Tibbles says.
Tibbles’ favourite feature is The Commons — which will be Royal Bay’s commercial core — along with the ocean views and the “big sky” first noted by renowned painter Emily Carr as “a place of high skies, blue and deep.”
“In 1936, Emily Carr actually spent a summer camped out here and she painted,” Tibbles explains. “So often on the coast we’re up against the trees and it can be dark but here it’s bright and it’s our job to take those natural attributes, like the water and big sky, and to frame them.”
It’s not an easy undertaking but Tibbles says he learned an important lesson in his last job at Fairwinds in Nanoose Bay: when it comes to development, slow is fast.
“At first the process to build consensus seemed exceedingly slow but I came to realize that it’s the only way to go,” he says. “A slow, deliberate approach actually gets to the finish line faster.”
Yet, as hard as he works putting in 50 to 60 hour weeks, Tibbles also plays hard, too. “If you’re pushing yourself, whether it’s skiing or sailing or biking, you’re focused on that and you don’t think about anything else,” he says. “It tends to crowd everything else out and while it might be physically exhausting, it’s exhilarating and recharges me mentally.”
Access to the outdoors is one of the reasons Tibbles and his family love the Comox Valley so much, and they take advantage of all it has to offer from the ski hills of Mount Washington to the bike trails of Cumberland and everything in between.
“It’s really a fantastic place — a fun and vibrant place — and it has so many things we like,” says Tibbles. “My son is involved with freestyle skiing and skiing is a big part of our family life. I also really enjoy sailing, so being close to Desolation Sound is a big thing, and I like mountain biking so it’s great to have good trails close by in Cumberland.”
Those bike trails have led to some wild stories — literally. And Tibbles learned that contrary to development rules, “slow isn’t fast” when a bear is chasing you.
“I had a friend I used to ride with and every single time we went out, we were chased by a bear,” Tibbles explains. “He used to call me bear bait and when you throw in the aspect of something that could eat you chasing you, it makes you go faster!”
As for Royal Bay, Tibbles knows the final verdict on all his hard work will be years in the making, but he wouldn’t have it any other way — hence the value of a long commute.
“The key is that it not only has to be master planned, it also has to be master implemented and I’m passionate about making sure we do it right.”