$100M makeover to bring Inner Harbour site into limelight

Nearly four years since the first proposal, developer Stan Sipos is on the cusp of starting construction on his Customs House project at the foot of Government Street’s retail strip, near the Inner Harbour.

“This is a big day,” said Sipos, during a media tour of the site, which is bordered by Government, Wharf and Courtney streets. “We are awfully excited to be moving forward and commencing construction, and we’re extremely excited about the reception from the marketplace.”

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The new configuration of the Customs House project will see 57 high-end condos built in what was the Canada Customs building at 816 Government St. and the adjoining heritage building that faces Wharf Street. The heritage facade will be maintained while the interior will be gutted and renovated.

The two buildings have been empty for years after the federal government and small retailers moved out.

The seven-storey project, which at one point had a construction budget of about $40 million and was to have rental units, office space and a commercial component, will now cost more than $100 million.

It will feature high-end condos above 16,000 square feet of what Sipos intends to be exclusive retail tenants.

“This location is, I think, one of the greatest locations in North America. I don’t know if there is a more beautiful setting than being on our Inner Harbour,” he said. “For us it has been an extremely difficult and diligent process to ensure this [building] is replaced with something that will be here for hundreds of years.

“This is the gateway to our inner core. And having a beautiful building as a gateway, next to the Belmont building [across the street at the corner of Humboldt and Government streets] is like a couple of pillars inviting you down into here.”

Architect Paul Merrick said the design will etch the building into people’s consciousness.

He recalled describing the project to friends and colleagues, but getting little more than blank stares in response as most didn’t know where it was.

“They don’t have a mental image of it because there’s no life here,” Merrick said, noting the existing building was built to be cold and substantial. “This place was never really strong in anyone’s mental map. One of the most meaningful things this new place is going to do is make it a contributor to this part of the city, and by doing that it will contribute to the whole city.”

Sipos said the region’s buoyant property market has made tackling the massive and expensive project easier as it will ensure he will be able to extract his investment at the end of the day.

Selling prices for the units range from $800,000 to more than $10 million. Some sales have been for more than $2,000 per square foot, which Sipos believes is the highest residential price per square foot ever recorded in Victoria. That should go a long way to offsetting costs, Sipos said.

Talk about the project has already stirred the marketplace to action, despite the lack of a marketing plan until now. According to real estate agents who represent the project, they have sold more than 45 per cent of the residential units, with interest coming from around the world.

One of the penthouse units, with about 4,000 square feet, sold for $10 million.

Sipos said the interest has likely come via word of mouth and may have something to do with the tourism industry booming and exposing the world to Victoria.

So far the work on the building has included interior demolition and remediation work. In the next few weeks, Sipos said, hoarding will be established allowing crews to do pre-demolition work, before a steel structure is erected to protect and secure the heritage walls that will be left intact.

At that point demolition of the building that faces Government Street will start. Sipos said that could be completed in about four weeks, and may be done by Christmas.

Construction of the new building will take just over two years.

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