What used to be mostly a commercial centre with a large rental-housing market, Saint John’s city’s centre is becoming a hot spot for residential real estate.
In 2016, uptown Saint John saw an increase in residential real estate sales with 16 sales (which is considerable given the size of the area), up 45 per cent from 11 sales in 2015. Saint John real estate agent Bob McVicar, who specializes his practice in the city’s centre and lives there himself, says the 2016 number has already been beaten just five months into 2017. As of the end of last month, he says there were 17 residential properties sold in the uptown area. That number was only nine last year during the same time period.
McVicar attributes some of that increased activity to the construction of the Irving Oil building overlooking King Square.
“In the past nine to 12 months, the activity uptown has really skyrocketed,” says McVicar. “When they began building the Irving Oil Headquarters building, that seemed to be really symbolic for folks. That really increased the activity, no question.”
McVicar says the people deciding to purchase real estate uptown fall on a wide spectrum, but says many are empty nesters looking to downsize.
“The movement at the moment in terms of sales is really among people 50 or older who are transitioning out of their large family homes in the suburbs who see the exciting development of urban lifestyle,” he says “With the great new explosion of restaurants and galleries and street-level local retail that we have, that’s really appealing to people.”
Brendan Bates, vice-president of Toss Solutions, falls into this category. After moving back and forth from the suburbs to the city most of his adult life, he and his partner Angela Hunter decided to purchase the old Buckley Building, located at 82-84 Germain Street, with friends Suzie and Shane Furlong.
“Truthfully what swayed us was our youth,” says Bates. “I’d lived uptown, Angela lived uptown most of her life, and my daughter is going to be graduating next year. We realized we have got a whole social network and we are going back to being in our 20s again.”
“We can actually go out with friends and do things again. We don’t have any younger children we need to babysit or anything. Now we have a social life that is back to what we were before we had children. Being uptown facilitates that so much better.”
Though purchasing real estate in Saint John’s city centre is quite affordable compared to downtown Toronto or Vancouver, it’s still can be pricey for many. Bates says since their building was a mix of both commercial and residential space, they are able to use the income from tenants to help subsidize the operations, upgrades and tax costs of the building.
“I think that model can be translated or improved upon at other locations,” he says. “I can see the ability for people to now afford to come uptown but to also develop these properties and buildings to improve our assets.”
The other demographic purchasing real estate uptown is young professionals. People like Emily Teed and Craig Estabrooks are in that camp. The couple lived together in Milledgeville before moving uptown in May 2016. They rented a condo at Robertsons Wharf for several months, then decided to purchase a unit in the same building that November.
Teed says the decision to relocate uptown was largely a lifestyle decision. Both she and Estabrooks work uptown.
“The simple things like needing to drive to work, needing to drive anywhere all the time, not seeing our friends quite as much as we used to. It started to get to the point where you feel really isolated when you’re out there and all your friends and everything is uptown,” she says. “We made the decision to move
uptown and I don’t think I’ve been happier. I’ve never felt healthier. I never felt more connected with the community. I think those are all things that I find make uptown great. The little things.”
Estabrooks says moving to the Saint John city centre gives people a taste of “big city” living on a smaller scale. He says the more people move to the area, the more that will grow.
“I think there’s a lot of appeal to living in an urban setting. That’s the appeal of going to a bigger city, because everything is accessible and you can be very social and you go to a local coffee shop or a local restaurant … We have a small piece of that, it’s just not the same scale,” says Estabrooks.
“I think more and more people are seeing that if we invest and come together and make this little piece that we have work even better, that we have that small slice of Toronto, that small slice of Montreal. We have a little bit of that here. It’s going to be different. It’s going to be our own.”
The movement of more people both buying and renting in uptown Saint John has had an impact on local businesses says Tracy Hanson of Uptown Saint John, the organization that represents businesses in area.
“The population is like the stitching that holds the rich fabric of the uptown together,” says Hanson. “We have all the rich fabric. When we have a lot of people, it’s the stitching that holds it together. It’s sustainable economically. The restaurants are filled more because there are more people around. There’s people shopping, there are people going out to activities. It is definitely good for the economy uptown.”
Uptown Saint John recently hosted a residential tour, where uptown Saint John residents, both owners, and renters, opened up their homes to give others a peek and at what living uptown could look like. Teed’s and Estabrooks’ pad was one of the stops. Estabrooks says it’s the beginning of a shift of more people moving to the city centre, particularly young people.
Check out some of the stops on the Inside Uptown Saint John Residential Tour:
“I think for a lot of younger people, the decision isn’t between living in the [Kennebecasis] Valley or Grand Bay-Westfield and Saint John. I think their decision may be between Saint John and Toronto. Or Saint John and Montreal or Saint John and Halifax,” he says.
“For some people, if they choose to stay here, they want to have a bit of that lifestyle that they would have had if they had chosen a job in a different centre and that’s why I think you’re going to see a lot more uptown and that’s why we need to invest in the uptown. We need to keep the people here that are making that decision.”
Bob McVicar agrees that it’s only just the beginning. He says what’s happening in Saint John is part of a larger movement that’s happening across North America.
“It’s a North American trend where cities are cool again, suburbs aren’t cool anymore,” he says. “So there’s also an effect locally on the national trends.”
But right now, he says he has more clients than uptown homes that they’re willing to move into.
“The biggest struggle we’re having right now, of course, is finding enough properties and homes, that are in the condition that these mostly affluent buyers are looking to purchase,” says McVicar
Though there is plenty of historic, charming inventory in the city centre, many require renovations, something some people don’t want to deal with.
“There’s a lot of inventory, and there’s a lot of gorgeous inventory, but because the neighbourhood suffered from neglect for so long, when everybody fled downtown like they did all over North America and rushed into the suburbs through the 70s, 80s and the 90’s,” he says.
“This stock of residential property uptown is significant. It’s large and the beauty of it is incredible and the quality of it is amazing, but for 20 to 25 years nobody much cared about a lot of it, so a lot of it needs a lot of renovation.”
Like most real estate trends, McVicar says sales in the uptown may eventually plateau, then decrease. But he says he doesn’t see that happening in the foreseeable future.
“I think this is the beginning of the curve. We’re nowhere close to the top of the curve and that may be five or six years down the road or more,” he says.
“These are the early days of this phenomenon in Saint John and I think that we’ll see this continue for some time.”