Big box developments a new fact of life in New Brunswick, but at what cost?
By Justin Piercy and Kate Wright
As early as this fall, building will start in the UNB woodlot on what the city and university hope to be the best big-box retail area in Canada.
The proposal calls for a 60 acre portion of the woodlot near the Regent Mall to be sectioned off for 500-thousand square-feet of retail space.
Fredericton’s Development and Planning Manager Ken Forrest says this new development is needed and the partnership with UNB will ensure it proceeds with the best interest of residents and the environment.
“There was a natural fit in terms of the university and city bringing about a development that is needed in this community,” he says.
“Certainly there is a requirement for additional retail space in Fredericton… and to make sure it is exemplary in a number of ways, accommodating public transit, pedestrians, and bicycles, good site planning and protecting the environment.
All of those priorities were taken into account as we arrived at a development proposal.” Fredericton resident Bob Seymour says he has enjoyed the natural beauty of the UNB woodlot for over 35 years, largely in the area that is to be developed. Seymour says he doesn’t know if many of the council members have visited the area, but urged them to do so.
“I am an alumnus of UNB and have contributed several thousand dollars over the years, but this breaks my heart,” says Seymour. “I can’t believe there wouldn’t be other areas [of the city] that wouldn’t be less affected by this development.” UNB Associate Vice President Mike Ryan says talks to develop the land have been ongoing because the university needs extra funds to carry out some programs, but Seymour’s predicts the plans will yield a drop in alumni donations to the university.
“I think if you put it to your alumni, you’d be surprised by the number of people that don’t support this, and unfortunately you’re going to lose some dollars as a result.” None-the-less Ryan says revenue from the proposed development will help off-set other costs the university is currently incurring.
“We can’t continue to rely on government grants and student tuition for all the needs that we have, the property was given to the university as an endowment for its support, that goes back to King George the Third over 200 years ago,” says Ryan. “We’ve got a lot of things we want to do…and we need money to do it.” Ryan says they expect a windfall of 3 million dollars from the project to begin with.
Earlier this year amendments were made to the city’s municipal plan that allowed for the development of 50 per cent of the woodlot, while the other half would be set aside for conservation.
Ryan says they can’t be specific on possible tenants until they have secured them, but the agreement between the city and the university allows for retail establishments ranging from banks, restaurants, daycares, movie theatres, drug or grocery stores and many others. An extra amendment from the city’s Planning and Advisory Committee would be needed for the inclusion of a gas bar.
But what will the effects of having the ‘best big box’ area in Canada do to business – both local and in other urban centres across the province?
Many ‘big-box’ type stores are not New Brunswick, or even Canadian based. Will this development draw people away from the Downtown-area, will local businesses feel the pinch of having a big-box centre uptown, and will other retail centres in the province take a hit? Reactions are mixed.
Fredericton city councilor Scott McConaghy thinks the project will benefit the city because it will have a funnel effect, bringing people from around the province as well as tourists. He says it will put Fredericton on the retail map, so to speak.
“It really puts this part of the city on a provincial level when it comes to retail,” McConaghy says.
Mark LeBlanc, president of the Downtown Fredericton Inc. believes they will take an early hit, but agrees with McConaghy that in the long run the big boxes will draw consumers in and hopefully they will venture downtown.
“We’re in support of any development that betters the city as a whole. We would view this as something that will keep Fredericton shoppers in the city rather than have them go to other cities like Saint John or Moncton,” he says. “Also it would attract visitors from other parts of the province.” But Rolande Chiasson argues that Metro Moncton will still be the centre of it all. The property manager of the Wheeler Park Power Centre, popularly known as Trinity Drive, says Fredericton’s plans to develop a big box shopping centre hub won’t affect the shopping empire that’s already been built in Moncton.
“It’s not an issue for us,” she says. “Moncton is the centre and everyone knows that. We have people come in from northern New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island. We’re the destination centre.” When Trinity Development Group, based out of Toronto, came to Moncton in the early 1990’s looking to develop a shopping Mecca of sorts, it was clear that the Wheeler Park region was the place to build, says Chiasson.
“I thought, ‘what a place for a shopping centre?’ and look at us today,” she says. “Mapleton Road has developed and people have views and projects in mind to continue to expand this space. You need to take risks – sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not. In our case, it was good.” Chiasson says the group developing the UNB woodlot site should aim to attract national retailers if they want to truly become the best big-box retail area in Canada. She says the three exsiting retail centres in Fredericton, Regent Mall, Fredericton Mall and Brookside Mall, already have “good names.” And like Leblanc and some Fredericton city councilors , Chiasson believes the downtown shopping district in Fredericton, long hailed as one of the last true downtown’s of the province, won’t be fazed by the big box park.
“If you work downtown, all these people who work for government and whatnot will shop downtown during the day but on nights and weekends, they need somewhere else to go,” she says.
Mark LeBlanc says the development will force businesses in the downtown to strive to improve and play on their individuality so people will drift towards the city’s core.
“We still have to work towards enhancing our services and products that we sell and once the [big boxes] are in, we have to attract [shoppers] to our downtown core,” he says. “We see our shopping experience as something different from what you would experience in a strip mall or an enclosed mall in the uptown area.” Ken Forrest, Fredericton’s planning manager, says the university also asked to create office space on the site but the city will limit the amount under the development agreement. It’s an effort to keep downtown a vibrant part of the city.
LeBlanc says this measure will help, but is confident there will always be a demand for space in the downtown area.
“There will always be a market for downtown tenants to locate in the downtown core because of all the conveniences that it offers,” says Leblanc. “Anything we can do to protect that obviously we’d be for it.” A staying trend in the retail industry, big box centres across the country have proved they are here for, at least, the time being. Chaisson suggests consumers embrace the sector’s growth.
“It’s bound to happen – it’s the way the industry is going now,” Chiasson says. “I assume [developers] will approach the same people, but maybe they’ll [Fredericton] go for some American names since they’re closer to the border. Maybe L.L. Bean or something – there’s always room for other types of stores.” Across the province, it seems the three major centres are jockeying for position and retail super-powers, each sure they can out do the others.
Fredericton and Moncton officials seem fairly optimistic about the plans, each instant that they will thrive with the development, but where does Saint John fit into the picture?
Saint John’s recent foray into big box retail may be somewhat smaller scale than that of Moncton and the plans in Fredericton but Mayor Norm McFarlane has high hopes for his city’s growing big box district.
Located on the east side of the city, McFarlane has said he believes his city’s big box retail sector could someday rival that of Moncton or Halifax.
But Saint John Mayor Norm McFarlane believes each city has room to create a big box retail centre of their own.
“A few more feet of retail space and we’ll be there,” said McFarlane, in comparison to Moncton’s big box retail space.
“I say good luck to Fredericton and I hope they succeed. If another part of the province can do it, it helps all of us.” McFarlane said big box retailers like Michaels, Winners Home Sense, Old Navy, Kent and Canadian Tire have already set up shop in the port city, while other retail giants like Costco and Wal-Mart have been eyeing the city to build new locations as of late.
“There’s great industry here,” he said. “We’ve issued more building permits last week than ever before in the city’s history. Our growth rate is above the average for the province. Saint John’s population has always been decreasing and now, we’re on the increase – things are going the other way. We didn’t keep up at first, but now the expansion is here and we’re moving ahead and welcoming investors.” McFarlane maintains any retail competition between the three major cities will be purely friendly.
“Each city has a different area they’ll draw from,” he said.
Neil Murphy is a corporate communications spokesperson for Cadillac Fairview, the company that manages Saint John’s McAllister Place, Fredericton’s Regent Mall and Moncton’s Champlain Place, the largest shopping centre in the Maritimes. He says on the whole, the new big box developments planned for the capital city won’t hurt the New Brunswick retail landscape.
“We don’t look at it in fear – it’s just another element of our business,” he says. “It’s healthy competition because it indicates that our economy is strong and New Brunswick is a viable place for retail.” While big box stores offer destination shopping, Murphy says traditional shopping centres compete in a different league.
“We don’t believe in retailing en masse, not the bigger is better theory. We look at what our customers want. Each centre is different in each of the three cities – our centres are community places. Each year, we invest millions on our facilities to make the comfortable and appealing,” says Murphy, adding it’s much too early to comment on how the Fredericton development will affect retail vendors throughout the province.
But while there’s plenty of talk of economic benefits for Fredericton, and the province, and little mentions of drawbacks, Bob Seymour is concerned about what’s not being discussed. He thinks all this talk of revenue is ignoring the environmental issue.
“The tree stands in this area are unlike many, they are still old growth,” he told Fredericton’s Planning and Advisory Committee. “I see all kinds of animals when I am up there with my dogs, frankly it breaks my heart to think that this area will be lost forever, you will not get this land back again and I am profoundly disturbed by this.” But Mike Ryan says the project isn’t going to jeopardize the environmental characters of the area. He says UNB started the project by examining the environmental concerns.
“Where we started was with the entire 35 hundred acre property and engaged… a complete environmental assessment of all its unique environmental features.” Seymour says he realizes that he probably won’t change anything but he needed to speak out and he has spoken with other people who feel the same way, the development is a bad idea.
“It’s not a win /win situation; some things will be irreparably lost, the wildlife that is in that area have no voice in this, they have no other place to go,” he says. “If you sell that woodlot to commercial ventures, that’s gone, you won’t get it back.” Ryan is careful to point out that the land is actually going to be leased, not sold but Seymour says this still makes no difference, once it’s developed, the environment will be irreversibly altered.
“How do you turn paved land back into 100 year old trees? If it’s leased, it’s gone,” he says.
“100 years from now, if that land were left, it would be invaluable. It would be like New York City parceling off Central Park for commercial development,” he says. “It’s one of the big draws for Fredericton; we’ve got a lovely river, a couple of nice parks and a woodlot in the middle of our area.” It’s expected that following initial building on the proposed site this fall, full scale construction will begin in fall of 2006, with the extension of the Knowledge Park Drive to Alison Boulevard, near the site recently unveiled for the city’s new arena complex.