Instead, when the finance committee meets next Tuesday, OSEG will have the names of three — maybe four (they're working on finalizing a deal) — major tenants. Fine, but that's not the 75 per cent we were promised.
By Joanne Chianello, Ottawa Citizen
It was supposed to be a "unique urban village," a distinct shopping district that would be an "extension of the local community" that would "wow" us.
So far, though, as we slide into city council's final vote on the Lansdowne Park deal, all we know about the stores and restaurants coming to Lansdowne is that they will include a Whole Foods grocery store, a big LCBO and a 10-screen movie theatre (with possible bar).
And that's not the way it was supposed to happen.
By the time councillors were putting their stamp of approval on the city's agreement with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group to redevelop Lansdowne, we were supposed to be told who'd be moving into three-quarters of the 360,000 square feet of commercial space planned for the site.Knowing exactly who is moving into Lansdowne isn't just a matter of curiosity on the part of shopoholics, it's integral to the success of the whole project. Everyone agreed that for the commercial portion of Lansdowne to be a hit, it would have to attract people all the time, not just on days where there's an event. If Lansdowne is full of places that can be found elsewhere — say, shopping malls, most of which will have free parking and are on the transitway — what will be the allure?
As the retail consultant report that formed the basis of Lansdowne's retail strategy stated, "If this project is to succeed, it must be exceptional, unique, and world-class."
(My favourite part of the report: "40% of retailers should be classified as interesting." I wonder who gets to make that judgment.)
Earlier this year, the Citizen obtained a retail plan for Lansdowne. It included a long list of chain stores like Children's Place, The Source, Sunglass Hut, Wind Mobile, Milestones and Lululemon. At the time, OSEG partners said those names were "place holders," merely the sorts of stores OSEG was pursuing. But maybe those are exactly the kinds of retailers headed to Lansdowne. Again, who knows? What's certain is that we have yet to be "wowed."
Peter Hume, the councillor who's been the lead politician on this file, said Wednesday that "there's a lot to know about commercial leasing" and that the way "this project developed didn't lend itself to lining up a whole bunch of tenants."
But we don't expect councillors to know the ins and outs of the commercial leasing business — we expect OSEG to know about it.
The uncertain economy — which faltered in 2008, well before the Lansdowne deal — the expansion of other Ottawa shopping centres, the legal battles, the length of time it takes to sign up retailers, none of these things could have been a surprise to OSEG's leasing specialists.
The fact is, OSEG shouldn't have made promises it couldn't keep.
According to Hume, council can and should hold OSEG to its commitment to the retail mix to which both partners previously agreed. To be fair, Hume should get the credit for much of what is good about the Lansdowne redevelopment, from the urban park to the design review panel.
Still, what does Hume mean when he says that it's OSEG that's taking all the risk on the commercial side of this venture? Indeed, OSEG is taking chances on this project. But if it's unable to fill the place with interesting enough retailers, if it turns out that OSEG can't find enough small, unique businesses to move into Lansdowne at the rents it wants, what will council do? Make OSEG take a loss on those spaces? Leave them sitting empty? Of course not. Remember, some of the complicated financials of this deal mean that the city makes money when OSEG makes money.
We understand that OSEG can't release the names of retailers before they've signed on the dotted line. And no one blames them for the fact that Crate and Barrel, once interested in coming to Lansdowne, decided not to open new international locations anywhere.
It's also reasonable for OSEG to say that smaller, independent retailers — be they local restaurateurs, coffee shop owners, or boutique clothiers — aren't able to commit to a lease two years before the place opens.
Christine Leadman, who was a non-Lansdowne supporter in the previous council and now heads the Glebe's merchants' association, says her group is collaborating with OSEG — "We have a great relationship," she said — to make the Lansdowne project workable for both their interests. Apart from the known three, Leadman hasn't seen who the other Lansdowne tenants are, although she says she expects OSEG to fulfil its commitment to the retail strategy.
Let's hope she's right. But there's no real way of knowing before council signs off on this. And there's no real way to ensure that OSEG sticks to the original plan.
Maybe Lansdowne still will be a unique, wonderful place. But at this moment, we're being asked take that premise on faith, which is in short supply when it comes to the Lansdowne process.
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