New owner plans major investments in Victoria, Nanaimo shopping centres

The new owner of the Mayfair Shopping Centre in Victoria and Woodgrove Centre in Nanaimo is putting together major development plans for both sites.

Vancouver Island-based Weihong Liu, chairwoman of Central Walk, is planning a four-stage project at Woodgrove, Valen Tam, the company’s director of asset development, said Thursday.

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An application for the first stage of development at Woodgrove will likely be submitted to city hall by the end of the year, he said.

Liu, who bought Woodgrove last year, was not immediately available for an interview.

Fang Sun, Central Walk’s executive director, said the company aims to expand offerings at both shopping centres with a wide range of services.

In each mall, “We want to make it a very convenient community for everybody,” she said.

Woodgrove’s first phase would see an outdoor park of about 100,000 square feet and suited to all ages. It would include a performance stage and possibly a dog park, Sun said. There would be space for specific uses, perhaps basketball.

It would be built above ground-level parking, Tam said.

Plans for the following three stages include residential units in towers, with some kind of affordable housing in the second phase, Tam said. Additional retail could be added in stage four.

Plans are still being worked out and there’s no cost estimate yet for a project that would be built out over 10 to 20 years.

Central Walk has met with Nanaimo city planners to discuss potential development and ensure it fits with the official community plan, Tam said.

Despite the pandemic, Woodgrove Centre has performed well, he said. “That’s why we proceeded with Mayfair, because the chair felt our experiment with Woodgrove panned out successfully.”

The Mayfair sale closed June 1. Central Walk is looking at what is possible for that site, what would appeal to the community, enrich the neighbourhood and fit with the official community plan, Tam said, noting Central Walk is “just brainstorming theoretical concepts” for Mayfair.

Purchase prices were not disclosed in either sale, but Mayfair is assessed at $242.57 million and Woodgrove Centre at nearly $260 million.

Central Walk also bought the Arbutus Ridge Golf Club at Cobble Hill in 2019.

Liu is an avid golfer and it is a beautiful course, Tam said.

A permanent resident of Canada, Liu fell in love with Vancouver Island during a visit several years ago and decided to move here with her family. Her brother Ergang Liu, a company official, and his family are here as well, Tam said.

It’s unusual for regional shopping centres — especially two — to be owned by a local resident. They are often held by large companies. In this case, Montreal’s Ivanhoé Cambridge, the real estate arm of Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, previously owned both.

The company also owned the Fairmont Empress Hotel, but sold it to Vancouver developer and philanthropist Nat Bosa in 2014, after his wife spotted it for sale on a website. As a B.C. owner, Bosa has brought a personal interest to the heritage hotel and invested millions of dollars in renovations.

Weihong Liu is originally from northern China, moving to Shenzhen as a young woman when she started a restaurant.

Her business interests grew and she built Central Walk, a shopping centre of about 1.4-million square feet in that city, Tam said.

She sold the mall to come to Canada in 2014 with enough resources to continue in business, he said.

Sun said Liu’s company in China is Yijing Corporation.

Tam describes Liu as outgoing and a “bit of a juggernaut.” She takes a personal interest in the shopping centres and often visits them.

It was after a visit to Woodgrove last year that she initiated touchlesss temperature sensors and made masks available to anyone coming into the building, becoming a leader in western Canada among malls.

Liu does not have a specific location on Vancouver Island that is her home, but is in different locations at various times, Tam said.

As for the future, the company is looking in the Vancouver area to add to its portfolio, but the Island “is our base and what we cherish most,” Tam said.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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