Lansdowne's retail development: Still waiting for that 'wow'

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Aberdeen Pavilion reflected on the glass of the Local Public Eatery across the street at Lansdowne Park on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. JAMES PARK / OTTAWA

Robert Bostelaar, Ottawa Citizen

Lansdowne Report Card: RETAIL

Grade: C

WHAT'S WORKING:

  • Select venues: Whole Foods is a favourite for those who seek GMO-free produce and “responsibly caught” seafood, while the Cineplex VIP is a cushy place to catch a movie. Winners might not be a big overall draw, but it’s popular with the clerks and food servers who work in the park. Among bars and restaurants, the airy faux-industrial Local Public Eatery has a happy vibe.

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT:

  • Parking and promotion: Many in Ottawa think Lansdowne has only limited parking. Developers need to talk up its vast underground garage — with free parking for customers of the movie theatres and some larger stores — and how most spots remain open to shoppers on game days. Efforts are underway to brighten the underground space. Sacrificing a few spots to open some tight corners would also help.
  • Atmosphere: The developers and City of Ottawa can do more to enliven the zone with music, art shows and similar added-value attractions. The skating rink that opened last winter is a good start.

For shoppers, for diners, really for anyone tired of the same old same old, the 2010 report offered a candy shop window of inducements.

Just imagine, it suggested, a swath of Lansdowne Park transformed into a “unique urban village with interesting stores, cafés, restaurants, services, cinemas … ”

Imagine, it purred, a place where you can sign up for adventure travel, watch a chef prepare a new creation, take in a 3-D demonstration at a sports store or simply relax on a “see-and-be-seen patio.”

Follow our blueprint, promised retail consultant J.C. Williams Group Ltd., and watch this patch of sports stadium pavement just south of downtown Ottawa transform into “an awesome or wow-factor retail experience.”

One year in, that shopping zone has yet to deliver a wow.

Artist’s conception of Lansdowne Live’s proposed redevelopment for Lansdowne Park. IMAGE COURTESY OTTAWA SPORTS & ENTERTAINMENT GROUP

Or as Bank Street businessman Greg Best puts it, surveying a Lansdowne retail array that includes big brand-discounter Winners and ubiquitous electronics vendor The Source: “I was hoping for the best, and we got beige.”

Greg Best, who has co-owned Bank Street Framing in the Glebe with his wife for the past 30 years, is closing up shop. The Lansdowne development has hurt, although indirectly. Game days – with street closures, shuttle buses and no parking, etc. – doesn’t help businesses in the area. JULIE OLIVER / OTTAWA CITIZEN

And beige won’t bring crowds. Even in the Christmas shopping season, many stores appeared moderately busy, at best. All the restaurants can be packed on Redblacks game days and some thrive at other times, but others, especially those farthest from Bank Street, can be library-quiet when there’s no event in the adjacent sports facilities.

Retailers and restaurant operators interviewed by the Citizen, however, say they are pleased with their first-year business. And the private partners who spent four years working the complicated redevelopment project through City of Ottawa hearings and court and Ontario Municipal Board challenges — one coming from the Bank Street merchants group that Greg Best headed — view the zone as a hard-won success.

 “We had a huge challenge trying to lease out Lansdowne,” says Roger Greenberg of the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group.

TD Place in Ottawa, prior to the Redblacks’ CFL game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, October 16, 2015. JEAN LEVAC / OTTAWA CITIZEN

“Most tenants would say, ‘Look, when can you start?’ or more appropriately, ‘When can you give us occupancy?’ And we would say, ‘Well, we’re not even sure IF we can give you occupancy.'”

Thus, Greenberg says he is “thrilled” that the developers have leased more than 90 per cent of the 350,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space along cobbled streets adjoining the spiffed-up stadium and arena, even if not every tenant has moved in yet.

And he seems just as delighted that “new and fresh” businesses — which he defines as previously not operating in Ottawa or doing something at Lansdowne they don’t do elsewhere in the city — will occupy more than half that space, well above the city’s target of 40 per cent.

These include organic grocer Whole Foods, a Cineplex VIP luxury theatre, where you can order a glass of wine from your seat, and a pair of in-spot eateries — Local Public Eatery and Joey Lansdowne — that are the most eastern foray yet for Vancouver-based Joey Restaurant Group. Still to come is a Craft Beer Market.

Whole Foods at Lansdowne Park. PAT MCGRATH / OTTAWA CITIZEN

Greenberg, wisely, doesn’t call these stores and restaurants “unique,” a description bandied about by the city in setting out requirements for Lansdowne’s retail makeup, but one that hardly applies to the corporate-template approach of brands able to pay the rents that come with a $150-million development.

The 2010 Williams report on which the requirements were based even called for “functional” tenants like banks and drug stores to open outlets “clearly superior to the retailer’s present format or the competition.”

That hasn’t happened, despite OSEG’s hopes that Winners and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario would bring in upscale formats they’ve tried elsewhere.

The report sternly set out what the retail district should NOT be, as in “not a shopping centre, fake village or rowdy entertainment zone.” (It’s difficult not to consider Lansdowne’s commercial area an entertainment zone, though, when 14 of the spaces currently leased are restaurants or pub-style eateries.)

Yet is it even possible to conjure up something new and different and special from the paving stones, plate glass and brushed aluminum cladding that are the stock materials of every new retail development? And even if the design could be unique, could the artisan-type businesses that would give the area its own flavour afford to be there?

Lansdowne Park redevelopment. JANA CHYTILOVA / OTTAWA CITIZEN

“Well no, and that has always been sort of the disconnect,” says Capital Ward Councillor David Chernushenko, who has been trying to referee between the developers, Bank Street businesses and Glebe neighbourhood residents since his election in 2010.

“And unfortunately, the critics who were pointing out that disconnect were easily dismissed as, well, ‘You’re just against it and a bunch of naysayers.'”

Retail analyst Barry Nabatian believes Lansdowne has the ingredients for retail success: a strong location, a high profile through its sports events and concerts and an attractive design that opens to green space he describes as “probably one of the best urban parks I have seen anywhere.”

He expects the shopping zone will become livelier as the condominiums and offices that are other parts of the project fill up.

Timing worked against the developers, says Nabatian. Lansdowne arrived in the midst of one of Ottawa’s largest retail expansions, with one million square feet of retail space added over 18 months in big projects like the Tanger Outlets and Rideau Centre expansion and numerous smaller developments.

Shops and restaurants that are part of the Lansdowne Park redevelopment in Ottawa on September 27, 2015. JANA CHYTILOVA / OTTAWA CITIZEN

And even as all this new space competes for renters, spending in many categories is dropping as consumers cope with rising taxes, service fees and other bills. Businesses at the centre of the market are feeling the pinch.

“Some of the things that will be cut first are many so-called average-restaurants, mid-priced, mid-quality-retailers, things that are discretionary,” says the Shore-Tanner and Associates research director.

These, he notes, are often independent, Main Street-style businesses. Along Bank Street, the “for lease” signs in some two dozen storefronts could support his assessment.

Merchants who remain on Bank say it’s in their interest to work with Lansdowne to try to make the overall area a bigger draw for shoppers.

“It doesn’t help us to have it fail,” says Gilbert Russell, owner of Brio Bodywear.

GoodLife Fitness: Shops and Restaurants that are part of the Lansdowne Park redevelopment in Ottawa, September 27, 2015. JANA CHYTILOVA / OTTAWA CITIZEN

Within Lansdowne, a new promotion offers free parking to noon-hour restaurant patrons. Tom Christie, a co-owner of Milestones Grill and Bar, is counting on such measures to get people acquainted with the park.

Christie said in a November radio interview that “it hasn’t been everything that we expected it to be, for sure.” Last week, however, he said he remains positive about the location.

“Event days are fantastic,” he said. “Once all of the office space fills in and everything hits its stride, I really think this will become a premier destination for Ottawa.”

Sporting Life, one of the first big retailers to open, soon realized it needed to market the site along with the sports gear and clothing it sells, says David Russell, president and co-founder of the Toronto-based firm.

The location is excellent, he says, but “what we’d didn’t understand or appreciate, and we’ve come to appreciate, is that everybody knows where Lansdowne is in Ottawa but it’s never been previously known as a shopping destination.”

A young girl runs past vacant retail spaces that are part of the Lansdowne Park redevelopment in Ottawa on September 27, 2015. JANA CHYTILOVA / OTTAWA CITIZEN

Russell says sales have been building as more people find their way to the park and more outlets open: “We are quite happy with the way it’s all worked out.”

Chernushenko, the councillor, believes the city most do more to “fill out” the Aberdeen Pavilion, the great Victorian barn just south of the new stores. It houses a farmers’ market foreseen by the retail report as a key contributor to a vibrant shopping district, but which has struggled since returning from Brewer Park.

Retail and otherwise, Chernushenko notes, Lansdowne remains a work in progress.

“It’s going to be five or 10 years from now a heck of a great case study — hopefully ultimately a positive one — but right now we’re still in the middle of trying to figure it out.”

Jack Astors: Shops and restaurants that are part of the Lansdowne Park redevelopment in Ottawa on September 27, 2015. JANA CHYTILOVA / OTTAWA CITIZEN

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If you don’t find the information you need on these pages, please visit ottawa.ca/newlansdowne, or to contact the City directly by email at newlansdowne@ottawa.caor by calling 3-1-1 (press 1 for English, then 5 for the Lansdowne line). If necessary, you may also contact the project manager, Marco Manconi, at 613-580-2424 ext. 43229, or by email.