At Uptown, construction crews are installing finishing touches – plants and trees, the centerpiece mosaic fountain, and faces of the clock tower. Vast, untouched parkades still smell of fresh paint.
Town and Country’s four year transformation from a worn out strip mall to a major shopping hub is quickly rolling toward completion. By the end of the month, businesses, restaurants and retailers will begin setting up shop in Uptown's Phase 2 – some will open for Christmas and others by next spring.
The majority of heavy lifting for the $350-million development is effectively finished. In a few weeks, Uptown will open its main boulevard to vehicles and pedestrians, even as retailers transform empty building interiors. Additional vehicle access points from Carey Road and Blanshard Street should also ease traffic congestion that can build at the entrance through Saanich Road.
“If traffic can only go halfway in, it won’t flow. That’s the challenge of operating a site while constructing it over top,” said Geoff Nagle, a director of development with Morguard Investments, the owner of Uptown.
For Nagle, the public face of Uptown and who has spent more than a decade working on the project, shepherding Uptown through a recession, keeping tenants open during construction – Wal-Mart didn’t close once – and while achieving a LEED gold standard, are points of pride.
“At all projects across the city, (in 2009) the cranes stopped turning for six months. We did not,” he said. “Through the global economic recession, our cranes never stopped.”
That kept hundreds of people employed. Over four years about 3,200 tradespeople have worked on the site, about 250 to 300 each day, without a lost-time incident.
The recession though has taken its toll in terms of finding tenants. Phase 1 of Uptown is about 90 per cent leased overall, but about 35 per cent of the office space remains empty.
Uptown has found major office tenants for Phase 2 – Western Union is leasing about 12,000 square feet, and an orthopedic surgeon is taking 10,000 square feet – but only about 30 per cent of office space is spoken for to date. Retail uptake in Phase 2 is higher than office space, but Nagle said there remains healthy competition for retail outlets across the region.
“In a competitive market, we’ve got a quality product, but we never expected to be immune to market realities,” Nagle said. “We have been successful at attracting private sector tenants, government tenants because of the LEED gold buildings, because it’s a desirable space.
“I’d say 85 per cent of the space (in Phase 2) is under negotiation of one form or another,” he noted, which includes four restaurants. "We are very pleased with the progress being made.”
The residential phase in the northern two acres of Uptown remains on hold until Morguard finds a new partner with deep pockets. Once eyed for two 36-storey towers, that piece of land will be blasted and dug out until it sits level with Uptown Boulevard, and then it will wait.
Saanich council, in its love-hate relationship with Uptown, has criticized the project as “imposing” and and car-centric, but appreciates the benefits of reaping more property taxes. Nagle said the opening of Phase 2 and the lowering of construction barriers will create the kind of open-air shopping community envisioned from the get go.
He is also quick to point out that the Morguard quadrupled the retail and parking space from Town and Country, but using less land. Building the same floor space under a traditional suburban sprawl model would have taken 86 acres, he said.
“Building density is a huge regional benefit. State of the art 1959 will never be built again.”
“This is a spectacular result,” Nagle said while overlooking the central pedestrian square. “It’s been a huge amount of work, but the results are incredibly satisfying. It’s why I’m in this business, to create change for the better.”