$30M upgrades planned for Empress hotel; bus depot will move

The new owners of the 106-year-old Fairmont Empress Hotel are planning to spend more than $30 million to upgrade infrastructure and renovate the National Historic Site.

“We are working with our interior designers, our architects, on mock-ups for the rooms and common areas. So everything is on the go as fast as we can,” said Nat Bosa, who bought the hotel with his wife, Flora, in the summer. The Bosas, of Vancouver, were in Victoria on Wednesday to open the skating rink on the hotel’s front lawn.

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Bosa also said that Pacific Coach Lines was told last week to vacate 700 Douglas St. in about 18 months. In its place, he wants to construct “beautiful high-end rental accommodation” called Residences at the Empress.

The bus depot is part of the Empress property. “The very first time I saw it, I said, ‘That doesn’t belong here. It doesn’t do anything for this hotel,’ ” said Bosa, a property developer and philanthropist.

A PCL spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Plans are yet to be fully developed but the rental building may include 60 to 70 suites, he said. He will be talking to Victoria city hall.

As for height, a proposal would not seek to exceed municipal limits, Bosa said. “You cannot outdo the Empress.”

Today’s priority is to fix up the Empress.

Upgrading the “tired” hotel has already started, Bosa said. “We are going to make it much more comfortable. When you go inside the rooms, they are going to be more modern.”

Plans include improvements to windows, air conditioning, every guest room, the spa and swimming pool, and areas such as the tea room. New lighting and new furniture are going in. A few rooms will be eliminated to enlarge others. The gardens will be redone, he said.

“Nothing will change on anything that is deemed historic.” The exterior of the building will not change, he said.

The goal is to see the project finished within 24 to 30 months, Bosa said. “I think it is going to cost well north of $30 million by the time I’m done with everything,” he said.

The 477-room hotel has just been named the best building on Vancouver Island by the Architecture Foundation of B.C. It was designed by Francis Rattenbury, also architect for B.C.’s legislature, as one of Canadian Pacific Railway’s chateau-style hotels.

In 1989, $45 million was spent on a major restoration of the Empress.

To Bosa, taking ownership of the hotel was more than a business deal. “If it was just a hotel, I probably wouldn’t have bought it. It’s the Empress. She’s a beautiful old lady. She’s a hobby. She gives a lot of joy. It borders between philanthropy and business,” he said with a smile.

“I run quite a few buildings. But I’m more involved personally in this than any other building that I’ve ever done. … This is my passion.”

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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