SAINT JOHN – In the early 90s, Roo Chang visited Saint John for the first time. She and her mother-in-law, a Saint Johner, would walk up and down King Street and talk about the bygone days of shopping there.
Market Square had recently opened and the retail centre had already shifted to the east side, so people were anxious about would happen to the city centre’s main street. “There was a bit of a turbulence, to say the least, with a lot of stores closing down on King Street,” she said in a recent interview.
People have spent much of the last three decades worrying about the future of King Street. Now, thanks to developers like Chang, the street is undergoing a renewal.
Last year, she bought a property near the top of King Street (70-76) and moved here from Vancouver to oversee renovations. Today, it was announced that her company has also acquired the former Woolworth’s building at 91 King Street and the former Royal Bank building at 22 King Street, the latter of which is on the registry of Canada’s Historic Places. They plan to invest millions in both properties.
Chang and Siobhán Riley, her daughter and business partner, have grand ambitions for the building on King Square. They plan to repair and enhance the current facade and renovate the ground floor for commercial use. Then they plan to construct as many as 10 additional floors with anywhere from 55 or 60 residential units.
Chang was in Saint John in April of last year and spent a lot of time walking the city streets, when she was struck by the possibilities for the building at the top of King Street and the Uptown in general.
“Every time I walked by [that building] I couldn’t get over how sad [it was] that it was standing there, thinking how beautiful this city is and the potential that it has to go back to the old glorious days,” said Chang. “It’s just a matter of people [being] willing to do that.”
A year later they now own the building, in a purchase brokered by Stephanie Turner of Partners Global Corporate Real Estate. It took some time to complete the sale because there was a covenant on the use of the building set up by the Anglican Church, an owner of the property from an earlier time.
The development group had to assure the church that they wouldn’t lease the ground floor to something like a tavern or casino. They’re currently brainstorming alternative establishments that would add vibrancy and activity to the core, like a restaurant or a small movie theatre.
Chang, a longtime property developer in Vancouver before moving to Saint John with her daughter, says Uptown Saint John is a great place to invest for many reasons.
She believes the province’s economy is sound, with a small, but steady growth rate over the last few years. She says there’s “money in the buy” on properties here, meaning developers can pick up properties well under their market value, which is not possible in Vancouver right now.
Chang says the large urban markets like Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto are “oversaturated”, so the real opportunities now exist in smaller centres like Saint John. She owned as many as seven properties in Vancouver and now only owns two.
Chang and Riley are also part of a recent wave of investors – a group that includes Keith Brideau, Holly and Ken Singh, and Percy Wilbur – who believe Uptown Saint John is ripe for more residential and commercial development.
“Since 2011, the uptown population has increased 15 per cent,” said Chang. “People want to come uptown, so there will be a demand for a lot of things – better restaurants, bar scene, entertainment, and of course living space.”
Steve Carson, CEO of the newly formed organization Develop Saint John, said the city will support developers like Chang in whichever ways it can.
“We are very excited to be working with such a committed and passionate community builder as Chang and her team, to bring this iconic property back to life,” said Carson. “We see tremendous opportunity to move the results from good to great – with positive economic, social and cultural outcomes, and inspire further growth and renewal. As a champion for strategic real estate development, we are here to instigate and support investment in developments, like 22 and 91 King, which add value to our community.”
The renovated building at 22 King Street will include a commercial tenant on the main floor and mezzanine level. It will also include several condos – some on the second floor and then two-floor “loft condos” on the third and fourth floors with spiral staircases connecting the two floors.
“Whenever I look at this building, I’m just so taken in by its heritage [features] and beauty and the beautiful setting in uptown Saint John,” said Chang. “Look at the [grandeur] of this building. The high ceiling, the crown mouldings…it’s breathtaking.”
There will be a gym in the basement and a “guest room” for guests of the condo owners who need the extra space. There will also be a concierge in the main entrance who will serve both the commercial client and the condo owners. On the rooftop there will be a large communal area with a shared garden, chairs and tables, a large surface-level chess and checkers board, and a putting green.
“We want it to make it a community for everyone, a place where they can hang out in the summertime, and get to know everyone else in the building,” said Riley
“It’ll be great for people of all ages – kids, seniors,” said Chang. “Everybody can go up there and play chess and putt a ball, talk a little bit and enjoy the sun.”
Chang and Riley have ambitious plans, but they say their renovation targets are manageable. The commercial space will be ready for occupancy by the end of May. They have two potential businesses interested in that space, and one of them needs to be in a new office by June 2.
They’d like to have the loft condos ready for occupancy by the end of August.
The renovation timelines for 91 King are longer, but Chang says they could have the new tower completed in 18 months.
Morgan Lanigan, Practice Manager at the Saint John office of EXP, will be working with Chang and Riley on both projects.
Chang and Riley are embracing the development culture of Saint John, where developers are being celebrated for their efforts to bring about renewal in the core.
In Vancouver, their business model was very much based on a “fix and flip” system of making money on properties they bought, renovated and then sold for a profit. Here, they appreciate being part of a movement that sees property development as a critical part of improving the social, cultural and fabric of the city.
Now that they’re settled in here, Chang says they’ll seek many more opportunities to make investments that are catalysts for growth.
“Through real estate investment, we can promote and create opportunities… it’s like a cycle. You have the jobs, people come in. When people come in, they need places to stay. So [our] intention is really to create pockets of activities.”
Riley says they also like the personal element of doing business here, and that it actually gives their work more meaning.
“When we were in Vancouver, it was all very transactional,” says Riley. “My mom was only here for a couple of months before me and already people are waving at her saying, ‘Hi Roo,’ asking what’s up and asking about the project. It’s nice to also be able to feel and see that we’re making a bit of a difference versus it just being work.”
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