By Perry King
RioCan, Canada’s largest real estate investment trust, has purchased a 1.4 acre property in the Christie-Dupont area.
740 Dupont St., currently occupied by luxury car dealership Grand Touring Automobiles, was one of four Canadian properties purchased by RioCan in late 2010.
Acquired for $10.9 million, RioCan announced the purchase in January.
“The idea of a box store going into that plot caught my attention because, who knows? It could be a Walmart,” said local Mark Evans, who informed the Gleaner of the acquisition. “But a box store on Dupont? There’s issues of traffic and parking. There’s no doubt in my mind that Dupont needs some TLC, the question is: does it need a box store? Is that the best use of that piece of land, considering there is the Galleria Mall, which is not that far away and could probably be redeveloped?”
While officials for RioCan, including CEO Edward Sonshine, could not be reached for comment, their intentions to expand US-based retail stores in downtown Toronto are well documented.
According to a January Globe and Mail article, RioCan and Tanger Outlet Centers Inc. agreed to a $1 billion partnership that would help RioCan attract more US retailers to Canada. Tanger has a number of retail clients, including Saks Fifth Avenue and Nieman Marcus.
Centrally focused on developing big box retail stores, and with a portfolio of 296 properties across Canada, RioCan’s top retailers include Walmart, Famous Players theatres, and Canadian Tire.
“I think it’s worrisome that things like this happen and neighbourhoods don’t know about it,” said Seaton Village Residents’ Association (SVRA) chair Jennifer Hunter, who was informed of the aquistition by the Gleaner. Hunter said she will avoid being “alarmist” about what this will mean for the area.
She notes that there is already a Walmart franchise closeby, and a number of grocery stores like Sobeys (840 Dupont St.), Loblaws (630 Dupont St.), and Fiesta Farms (200 Christie St.) to serve the community.
Hunter says she hopes to better understand RioCan’s plans. “At what point does it become something that the community does get to actually comment on and have some kind of decision making ability in? It’s not to say I’m being fatalistic and thinking that they can do whatever they want because it’s their property. At the same time, I don’t want to get my knickers in a knot.”
Councillor Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) hopes the community makes sure the new development “fits the neighbourhood”.
“You want to make sure it doesn’t overwhelm the existing neighbourhood. Just north of the tracks, it’s the same deal. It’s not all big buildings around there, so you want to keep some kind of balance,” said Layton.
While space for big box retailers in downtown Toronto is scarce, RioCan has witnessed a rising demand from retailers to travel up to Canada. US retailers were telling Sonshine as early as spring 2010 that they could not find adequate space for expansion.
Last year, Layton was contacted by Riocan and asked for his opinion about a “car dealership” on Dupont. They did not allude to Grand Touring specifically, but they asked whether Layton would be open to changing a property to include a residential component.
“We don’t want to take away all the areas that provide services to our residents,” said Layton. “Could it be better used? Probably. We could probably find some kind of use that would be a little more suitable and contribute more to the neighbourhood. What that exactly is, I’m not entirely sure.”
Because Grand Touring is still operating, specific plans for development have not been tabled at this time. Layton met with officials from RioCan in March, who confirmed they have no immediate plans for the property. “These statements [acquisitions] are not guarantees of future events or performance and, by their nature, are based on RioCan’s estimates and assumptions,” reads a RioCan news release.
The release adds that management are confident that further development is possible, and will proceed with the acquisitions under the “reasonable assumption” that the purchase would lead to some future endeavour.
Dupont-Christie residents are no strangers to big retail. In the 1990s, the Seaton Village neighbourhood and George Weston Limited had a long documented dispute about the Loblaws property at the northeast corner of Dupont and Christie. Led by the SVRA, neighbours were primarily concerned about increased traffic and density from the grocery store, and consultation between parties took many years. Many of those same issues may arise again if RioCan moves forward with a similar development.
The Gleaner reported last December on plans for a hotel and condo by the Wynn Group at Dupont and Walmer Road.
“We need more people to help create better and more dynamic businesses. Instead of it being industrial, of that nature, maybe if we had some more [small] stores, it could be a good thing,” said Hunter.
BIA advisor David Hessels says that Dupont is a city planning challenge. In Toronto’s Official Plan, it is currently zoned for employment lands on the north side and for mixed-use, mostly residential, on the south side. “It’s not your typical mean street area, where you can get a real shopping atmosphere, it doesn’t have that,” he said.
The Dupont property is set to be the third significant RioCan project in downtown Toronto. RioCan Hall—which houses the Scotiabank Theatre and Chapters bookstore in the Entertainment District—and the Loblaws store at Queen and Portland are two other RioCan-owned downtown developments.