SAINT JOHN – Developer Percy Wilbur has purchased a historic uptown property at the corner of Union Street and Charlotte Street and has begun renovations for a commercial and residential complex that will include a new building on the neighbouring vacant lot.
Wilbur first took an interest in the three-storey building at 1 Charlotte Street four years ago but decided it didn’t make financial sense to buy it at that time. “You just couldn’t get the rents to justify the purchase and renovation costs,” he said in an interview Wednesday.
But he recently changed his mind when the city informed the owner that the 150-year-old building had to be restored soon or torn down. Wilbur didn’t want to see the building destroyed and he also realized that recent developments uptown made an investment in the Union Street area more attractive.
“I approached the gentleman who owned it, and we came to an agreement and I bought it,” said Wilbur. “It’s a beautiful building and I’ve been looking at it for so long. There’s just so much you could do with it and the structure itself is in really sound shape.”
In its heyday, the building was home to businesses like retail clothing store Marr Millinery Co. Charlotte Street itself was for decades a clothing retail hub before the development of the east side malls.
Wilbur says the city centre has become a hub once again and he believes buildings like his at Charlotte and Union can become part of that renewal.
“There are so many historic buildings that have to be saved from the wrecking ball,” he said. “There’s such a revival going on uptown – a lot of young professionals deciding to [live] uptown, a lot of new bars and restaurants. It’s a much different uptown core than it was five years ago.”
Developers like Keith Brideau have been renovating historic buildings south of Union for a few years now, but the movement to revitalize the core is starting to happen in the Union St. area now too. Saint John Non-Profit Housing tore down the jelly bean buildings in the spring and a new mixed-income housing development will be constructed in its place. Beth and Allen Blois are transforming another Union Street building into a loft-style home.
Saint John Mayor Don Darling says the Uptown is the fastest growing area of the city, and he believes Union Street will become a big part of that revival through developments like Wilbur’s.
“I believe Saint John has a real niche when it comes to an urban experience and clearly others are noticing with people enjoying and investing in this incredible quality of life,” said Darling in a note to Huddle on Facebook Messenger.
“I’m thrilled to see the expansion and new projects coming to life throughout the Penninsula and believe the Union Street corridor will see significant investment in 2018.”
Wilbur has started renovations on his new building and plans to preserve, and in some cases bring back its original distinctive features. He hasn’t firmed up interior design and structural plans because he keeps discovering features of the building that have been hidden for decades.
“Our plans change because there’s just so much beautiful character,” he says. “There’s cast-iron columns … with character and curves and flaring at the tops and bottoms. We were going to put in steel beams, but we said, ‘no way, let’s keep those original cast-iron columns.”
Wilbur says developers would have to custom-build columns like that now. “It would cost you a fortune,” he said.
“Someone had actually covered them with plywood,” said Wilbur, who was told they were originally built in a Saint John foundry. “We’re going to sandblast them and expose them and make them part of the character of the building like they were originally intended to be,” he said.
The building is structurally sound, he says, a positive reflection on the quality of the original workmanship. It may have fallen into disrepair, said Wilbur, but the cast-iron columns support the floors and ceilings.
Wilbur also found original timber joists. He mentioned one that is 16 inches by 16 inches. “That piece of wood was from a tree that’s [probably] 300 years old – dry as a bone and sound as can be,” he said.
Wilbur plans to restore the corner building and construct a new one on the lot next door. They will be attached and appear as two separate buildings from the outside. Inside, they will function as one building, with the bottom two floors (approximately 4,500-square feet) leased to a commercial business like an IT company or boutique law or accounting firm.
He also plans to construct two high-end apartments on the top floor. But he stressed that those plans could change. If there’s market demand, for example, he may make two floors of apartments rather than one.
Wilbur was planning to speak publicly about the purchase after he had firm plans to share. But it became apparent that he had begun work on the building and people started sharing the news – including a conceptual exterior design – on social media.
“I’m really glad for all of the positive feedback on social media,” he said. “I didn’t know there was that much interest in the building. It’s a pleasant surprise.”
Wilbur hopes to complete renovations by the fall of 2018.