Condo plan for Cook leaves businesses considering new locations

Commercial tenants in the Fort Building have been living on borrowed time since 2010, when a developer bought the building at Fort and Cook streets.

This may be the year that Kilshaw’s, Sorensen Books, the Velvet Crease and Tooks On Cook among others get their six-month notices to vacate in preparation for demolition and then construction of a $30-million condo and commercial project at 1115 Fort St.

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The one-storey structure is slated to become six-storeys under a proposal from Abstract Developments. A decision on whether the project goes ahead will depend on a pre-build sales push in March, said Sam Ganong, Abstract’s vice-president of development. If uptake for 81 condos does not meet expectations, “we’re not going to give tenants notice,” he said.

Pam Arslanyan, who has operated Tooks On Cook with her husband for 19 of its 31 years on the block, said she doesn’t think the tenants will last the year. “A single-storey building that close to downtown isn’t going to last forever,” she said. The rents have been “artificially low” for a long time because it’s common knowledge that it’s coming down, she said.

The most senior tenant is Kilshaw’s auction house, which occupies about 4,000 square feet and has been at the site since 1949.

“Kilshaw’s has no plans on leaving Victoria,” said owner Alison Ross, declining to comment further.

Abstract plans 11,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor, with the space fronting Fort Street “designed to accommodate either several smaller tenants or larger tenants depending on size requirements,” Ganong said. A café or restaurant at the Meares Street corner is also part of the plan.

The developer has always been upfront about impending demolition, so it’s not a shock, Arslanyan said. “The previous owners didn’t do a lot of maintenance, so it’s not in good shape,” she said. “It’s not like it’s a brutal eviction in any sense.”

Tooks plans to reopen “in some form” and build the expected rent increase into its business plan.

Cathy Sorensen, owner of Sorensen Books, which deals in rare and used volumes, said the site has sold second-hand books for at least 40 years. Customers always ask her what’s going to happen and she wants them to know that she plans to reopen. “Of course I’ll move somewhere,” she said. “And I hope my customers follow me.” She’ll be sorry to see the dispersal of the building’s longtime tenants.

“A lot of us share the same customers,” said Sorensen. “I love this corner. We are part of the neighbourhood and people are going to lose a really neat area of the city.”

No deals can be solidified for commercial tenants until a disclosure statement from B.C.’s Office of the Superintendent of Real Estate, expected in a couple of months, Ganong said.

After the disclosure statement is received, Abstract president Mike Miller said he plans to see if current tenants have “any interest coming back and, of course, [we will] work with them to make this happen if that’s of interest to them.”

At Country Comforts near Meares Street, owner Diane Evans said she’ll move her retro-based business, but won’t be moving back. “I’m only going to move one more time” she said.

Evans said Abstract has been fair and open about the process and she sounds optimistic about the future of the block. “When the building is developed, it’s going to change this place into a destination,” Evans said.

Shopper Rosamund Neville, who lives a block away, said she hopes another interesting group of small businesses and stores take up tenancy. “Because that’s what will make this area vibrant.”

Not all current occupants are long-time tenants. More recent arrivals include Fierce Studios, specializing in martial arts, Simple Remedies Herbal Solutions, Paper Street (improv classes) and the CineVic Society of Independent Filmmakers.

At The Velvet Crease consignment shop, customer Marian Colwill, regrets the coming change, citing her preference for second-hand businesses that recycle quality goods.

“It’s way more fun to shop in second-hand stores,” she said. “You never know what you’re going to find. Plus, we have great people running the second-hand shops.”

Velvet owner Jacqui Facon has been there six years, but said second-hand women’s wear has been sold on the site for several decades. It’s a great location close to bus stops and walk-by shoppers, but she’s looking for new quarters.

“It’s hard to make it downtown,” Facon said. “The rents are really high and the parking is difficult.”

On the parking score, some Meares Street residents have concerns. It isn’t the proposed 81 underground spaces for condo dwellers, but the 10 outside parking spots perpendicular to the project, said Ellen Henry. She said the development sounds “fabulous,” but 10 vehicles backing in and out will cause “traffic chaos” in an already congested narrow street. Trucks using Henry’s driveway to turn around have hit her building three times.

Ganong said the parking spaces should eliminate the need for turnarounds, as trucks and other vehicles can pull into the spaces and avoid turnarounds further up Meares.

Henry is pleased two live-work units will open onto Meares, as opposed to a blank wall, along with an eatery with 20-foot ceilings and large patio.

Abstract had to seek renewal of its two-year development permit in December. It was supported by most Victoria councillors, but not Pam Madoff, who cited “significant reservations about the form and size of the building.”

When the public hearing to rezone the site was held in February 2014, city staff recommended it be turned down due to density and other factors, but council disagreed.

The Official Community Plan provides guidance for buildings as high as eight storeys on the property, which would have been out of character with the neighbourhood, Ganong said. Abstract has just purchased a building at 1010 Fort St. for the condo showroom it plans to open.

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

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