FRANCES BULA (GLOBE & MAIL) - Hudson’s Bay is proposing to turn its flagship Vancouver store into a part-office tower, part-retail space, part-event space and part-green commuter hub – the latest move in the continuing transformation of department stores and city downtowns.
Company officials announced Wednesday they will be putting in a formal application to the city to redevelop the historic nine-storey store building (three underground) by adding 12 storeys of office space, transforming the top floors of the existing building into more office and reworking the interior to create a large event space and a three-storey atrium. The retail space will be reduced almost in half, from about 600,000 square feet to 350,000 square feet.
“Hudson’s Bay will become a discovery destination. We are fully reimagining the Hudson’s Bay experience,” said company president Wayne Drummond.
The architects for the Vancouver store are Perkins and Will, an architecture firm that specializes in sustainable building. This has transportation advocates excited, because the plan at the moment is to add no new parking for motor vehicles and instead provide space for 1,500 bicycles, as well as improve transit and pedestrian experiences.
The decision is also being enthusiastically welcomed by some city politicians and downtown advocates, who have seen the city’s central retail and business core battered by two years of the pandemic.
The Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association president, Nolan Marshall, says his organization “is incredibly optimistic and encouraged by the investment.”
City councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung, one of several local politicians who came out to the formal announcement at the store, said she saw it as the next evolution of downtown – one that could help bring a different kind of life to the nearby Granville entertainment district.
“Having people energizing it is important,” Ms. Kirby-Yung said.
Hudson’s Bay, with its real-estate development arm Streetworks Development, has been redeveloping or departing from various historic properties across the country as retailers struggle to survive in the online world, depending on the potential in each market.
The Victoria store was redeveloped almost 10 years ago, with rental apartments added. In Alberta, the Calgary store is being downsized to only three floors and the Edmonton store has been closed. The Winnipeg store has been shuttered since November, 2020, and, while the city would like to see it redeveloped, there are no takers yet. And there are redevelopment plans, with an added office tower, for the Montreal store.
The stores are often the biggest buildings in Canadian central cities – the legacy of both the grand department-store era and the trading company that is considered a pillar of colonial Canada.
The Vancouver store, with an assessed value of $222-million this year, will follow the path of two nearby buildings if the redevelopment is successful. The one-time Eaton’s, kitty corner from the Bay, was transformed in 2015 to a smaller Nordstrom department store that incorporated a restaurant and a bar into its layout. The top floors became offices. Vancouver’s historic main post office, down the street from the Bay on Georgia, is also being restored in the Post project, but with an office tower on top.
Both have seen big tech clients like Microsoft and Amazon move in, as part of their effort to appeal to young employees who prefer to work in urban settings with lots of attractions and in spots easily reached by transit, walking or bike.
There’s hope among those planning the Bay’s transformation that the Post project, which has proceeded at an unusually fast pace for a major Vancouver building development, will encourage the public and city planners to be confident about combining heritage with new additions. One heritage expert says he believes the Bay’s current design for its new building is even better than the Post’s.
“I like it. If it’s handled well, it can be successful,” said John Atkin. “So far, it looks good. It’s not trying to swallow the building below. It’s respectful.” In contrast, the additions to the post office and to the Hudson’s Bay in Victoria were both “lumpy” in comparison, he said.
The store’s exterior, terracotta walls with Corinthian columns, is protected by a heritage designation. The design plan is to preserve those and build a new building inside those walls.
Little of the interior has heritage value and likely won’t be saved. But Mr. Atkin is hoping that one element will be: the passageway and stairs made of Manitoba limestone on the north side of the building, which was originally designed as a memorial area for store workers who died in the First World War.
“I’d hate to see that little piece lost,” he said.
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