St. Catharines, Ont., builds bridges to commercial development
ADAM BISBY – ST. CATHARINES, ONT. SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Decades after Teenage Head played its last punk-rock show there, 201 St. Paul St. will soon be vacant no more.
The corner lot on downtown St. Catharines’s main thoroughfare still sits empty, as it has done since the 1996 demolition of the infamously decrepit Russell Hotel. But that is set to change. Last October, the city’s council approved Bloom, a seven-storey Class A office building that’s slated to combine soaring ceilings and expansive windows with roomy outdoor terraces and high-end tech infrastructure.
Bloom is but one example of downtown St. Catharines’ property development boom, which is being fuelled by a mix of public and private investment, savvy urban planning, and forward-thinking government policy.
“These are exciting times,” says Walter Sendzik, mayor of the Niagara-region city of 130,000 about 120 kilometres south of Toronto along the Queen Elizabeth Way.
“We were stagnant for a long while, but now there are few cities in Canada that are seeing the same levels of downtown renewal. With the QEW and GO Train linking us to the Toronto-Hamilton-GTA economy, the momentum is building. There are more cranes in the air every month, and that’s a sign of the next stage of development.”
The first stage began in 2010, when the city unveiled its Garden City Plan, a 191-page, long-term land-use strategy that was formally approved shortly after the province designated most of downtown as the sole Urban Growth Centre in the Niagara region. This designation provided public funding that has totalled more than $270-million so far, and established a density target of 150 residents and jobs per hectare, up from 109 in 2006.
Four years later, the opening of the 5,300-seat Meridian Centre arena helped answer the Garden City Plan’s call for a vibrant core. Owing to the Meridian Centre’s valley setting and the shortage of nearby parking – a major sticking point among proponents of a suburban venue – an elevated pedestrian walkway was built to link the $55-million arena to historic St. Paul Street. Brock University’s $42-million Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts opened next door in 2015, with the $62-million FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre completing the revitalizing triple play shortly thereafter.
In a span of less than 15 months, “these three purpose-built projects gave thousands of people new reasons to visit downtown businesses on the way to sports, academic and entertainment venues,” explains Brian York, the city’s director of economic development and government relations. “This is a key component of our strategy, and it’s working really well for the community.”
Adrian Kulakowsky can vouch for that. Prompted by the action downtown, he opened Kully’s Original Sports Bar across the street from the 1,500-seat Performing Arts Centre, which is not far from the Meridian Centre where the Niagara IceDogs junior hockey team plays. “I probably wouldn’t have gone ahead with Kully’s if not for the new scene downtown,” he says. “Before these new venues, it was pretty quiet. Now, on IceDogs game nights and on show nights – we had Elton John here for crying out loud – we’re lined up out the door.”
This new vibrancy also inspired Mr. Kulakowsky to spearhead The Lincoln, the two-storey commercial development at 386 St. Paul where his company, Advisors Realty & Consulting, is now based. The former Lincoln Theatre is about 75-per-cent occupied, Mr. Kulakowsky says, with its 30,000-square-feet of commercial suites already housing eclectic tenants such as the SEIU Healthcare trade union, a financial services company, and a photography studio. An upscale restaurant, meanwhile, is slated to open on the main floor in February.
The annual value of construction permits in downtown St. Catharines has nearly tripled over the past four years – hitting $12,357,662 in 2018 – and much of this activity has been spurred by the city’s 2017 hiring of Margaret Josipovic as project expeditor. Her role is to “challenge the developer community,” Mr. York says, “and to ensure that when people come here with a vision it doesn’t get caught up in the machinations of bureaucracy.”
Stephen Reesor, an advisor for Bloom co-developer Devencore Realties Corp., says the project has benefited greatly from this added human touch. “It’s excellent for developers. What would have taken years and years in other municipalities was completed in just over a year here.”
Many downtown properties have also been extensively renovated. Last year, the former Niagara Regional Police headquarters at 110 James St. was converted into a six-storey innovation and technology hub by Clickback Inc., a software firm that now occupies the top floor. Then there’s the nine-storey 80 King St. office and retail complex. It recently underwent a $10-million overhaul of its airy public spaces and suites, which range from 2,074 to 36,895 square feet.
New, refurbished, under construction or in the planning or approval stages, several projects promote a live-work theme that Mr. Sendzik, the mayor, says makes downtown especially appealing.
Another mixed-use property, Carlisle Square, has been approved next to the Carlisle Suites, a 75-unit luxury rental apartment building that recently replaced the venerable Leonard Hotel. The $75-million tower is slated to include three levels of underground parking, two floors of retail and commercial space, and 16 floors of upscale apartments that together will make Carlisle Square the tallest building in town.
A new 85,000-square-foot office space at 43 Church St., meanwhile, is being sold alongside the nearby 77 Yates St. luxury condo development. Both projects are drawing significant interest from prospective buyers who are “trying to simplify their lives by buying and living at Yates, and buying a location for their business at 43 Church,” says Sally McGarr, the broker of record. “They want convenience, and they also want to be part of the action.”