What sells condos? Apparently grocery stores

Across Vancouver, mixed-use development – especially ones with specialty food markets or full-service grocery stores on the ground level – are popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain.

Condo purchasers want a new kind of lifestyle – one of convenience. As living space shifts downtown, municipalities are shedding old zoning models in which homes were placed in one spot, retail in another, industry in yet another, and everyone drove from one to the other. In Toronto, the movement is ramping up. In Vancouver, where space is at a premium, it’s rampant.

Yaletown was a decaying industrial area before Vancouver designated it as a mixed-use residential-commercial hub and made it a priority for redevelopment in the late 1990s. First, a highrise condo went up, then Choices Markets Ltd. won the lease to provide groceries in a structure adjacent to the residential building.

“The original developer approached us for tenancy as both a means of providing service to the neighbourhood and adding a selling feature for their condo development,” says Tyler Romano, director of marketing for Choices, a retailer known for natural and organic foods.

The developer approached national chains, but at the time they did not have a format for a grocery store with a smaller footprint. Choices won them over with plans to stock the shelves in only 11,500 square feet, a 10th of the size of a suburban big-box grocery store.

Over the past 13 years, as at least 15 condo towers were added, the area has morphed into a vibrant, upscale oasis, “a perfect fit for our brand of socially conscious, community-minded green retailing,” Mr. Romano says. “This works perfectly for the car-less urban dweller who adheres to the two-bags, six-blocks shopping pattern.”

The grocer has adapted its offerings for the clientele – many of them younger single people and busy professionals who want to pick up dinner right where they live – with grab-and-go items from the salad bar and deli making up a high proportion of sales.

“It’s unbelievably convenient when it’s nine o’clock at night and all you have to do is go straight down the stairs and walk into a store and grab products,” Mr. Romano adds.

In Toronto, grocery was always part of the plan of the massive Concord CityPlace development which, when complete, will be home to 20,000 people. Tucked in a downtown corner off Spadina Avenue, a vibrant 20,000-square-foot Sobeys grocery store offers benches outside for patrons to take the sun, with a flower shop up front.

“It’s quite quickly becoming the heart and soul of CityPlace,” says Gabriel Leung, director of development for Concord Adex. “Financially, if we could have landed a retailer sooner, we could have leveraged on that and included it in our marketing materials. People always appreciate these kind of things in an urban centre.”

Concord Park Place, the developer’s second Toronto highrise neighbourhood at Sheppard and Leslie streets in Toronto’s North York area that will boast 10,000 units when complete in 2018, does not yet have a grocer. “We’ve been talking to a few other mainstream operators,” Mr. Leung says, adding that it takes a long time to negotiate with national chains.

Originally, though, the grocery store was not part of the plan. Home Depot Inc., which had wanted to get closer to the downtown condo market, had signed a lease agreement with developer RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust, but when the economy in the United States sharply contracted in 2008, the hardware giant was forced to lay off employees and close stores. It broke its lease with RioCan. Almost immediately grocery stores lined up to fill the vacancy.

David Speigel, vice-president of operations at Tribute Communities, which partnered with RioCan to work on the residential portion of the project, recalls welcoming the switch to a grocery store. Tribute wasn’t keen to have residents live on top of a hardware store.

Mr. Speigel thinks residential can co-exist right next to retail – although mixed-use planning is more complex and there are few developers with the expertise to construct both. “It becomes very complicated because you have floors that are servicing both retail and residential.”

A small development, epecially, makes more sense financially when combined with retail stores beneath, Mr. Speigel said. “It’s less important when you have a 40-storey building; the retail at the bottom of it becomes less significant.”

He maintains downtown condo buyers are happy to live above the grocery store. He even knows of one, happy to wander down to the store to grab his dinner in his “boxers and flip flops” on a cold winter day.

Source: Beverley Smith, The Globe and Mail

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