Deals of the Year: Rideau Centre’s long-awaited expansion becomes reality

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As the general manager of the capital’s largest shopping mall, Cindy VanBuskirk knows getting the best deal in retail often requires patience and persistence.

Cindy VanBuskirk is the general manager of the Rideau Centre.

By David Sali

Those qualities paid off in a huge way this year for the woman in charge of the Rideau Centre, where a $360-million expansion project got underway in earnest.

It’s an ambitious plan that was seemingly just around the corner for the better part of a decade, and when mall owner Cadillac Fairview’s board of directors finally gave its official approval for the deal this September – after the demolition of the adjacent Ogilvy’s department store had already begun – no one was happier than Ms. VanBuskirk.

“I was actually at a national operations conference in Vancouver with my ops manager and my security manager when word came through,” she told OBJ recently. “The buzz was that it had been approved and that we were good to go. There was definitely some euphoria.”

And for good reason. The board’s approval meant years of planning and negotiating, interrupted by more stops and starts than rush-hour traffic, were finally about to pay off.

Retail analyst Barry Nabatian said the Ottawa region is starved for upscale retailers, and the pending arrival to the mall of Nordstrom and Simons, as well as other high-end tenants such as J. Crew and Victoria’s Secret, marks a major milestone in the city’s retail history.

“In terms of magnitude of impact, it’s as big as when Walmart came to Canada,” he said. “Although it’s not going to impact as many people because not everybody can or would want to shop at Nordstrom, but in terms of keeping a very large portion of the shopping dollars that were leaving Ottawa, it has that kind of impact.”

It’s been no secret in the industry that the Rideau Centre, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, has long been in desperate need of more space. Previous owner Viking Rideau announced in the fall of 2005 that it would break ground on an expansion project early the following spring, only to see those plans fall through.

Then, the Congress Centre next door finally announced it was being rebuilt as the rebranded Ottawa Convention Centre, another long-awaited project that put the mall’s expansion on hold.

“There was no way that we could have had two projects of that magnitude going on simultaneously on a constrained site,” said Ms. VanBuskirk. “We sort of took a back seat.”

The turning point, she said, came when current owner Cadillac Fairview, the real estate arm of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, became sole proprietor of the Rideau Centre in December 2010.

“That set the stage for where we are now,” Ms. VanBuskirk said. “They’re really recognized leaders in the industry in terms of renovating, expanding and redeveloping their retail assets.”

With the new convention centre finished, the Rideau Centre’s time had come.

In September 2012, Cadillac Fairview announced that high-end U.S. fashion retailer Nordstrom was taking over the top two levels of the vacated Sears space, with a 157,000-square-foot store slated to open in March 2015. The following month, about 25 planners gathered at the Westin hotel, the first meeting of the group that would put together the expansion plan and pitch it to Cadillac Fairview’s board of directors.

Eleven months later, the dream was finally a reality. Cadillac Fairview officially announced at the end of September that the mall would add 230,000 square feet of retail space, featuring Quebec-based clothing retailer Simons and its 100,000-square-foot store as an anchor tenant. The project is slated to be completed by the fall of 2016.

“The process to get to that point had been extremely labour-intensive on the part of the project team,” Ms. VanBuskirk said. “We were all really excited to get the green light to go ahead. But it was really nice to come back to the property and to be able to let our retailers know, to let our staff know.

“Rideau Centre is very much a community centre. We’re a big part of what’s happening downtown. So everybody’s been tremendously excited and supportive and really looking forward to seeing what we’re going to deliver at the end of the project.”

In the end, she said, it was worth the wait.

“I never doubted that it would happen,” said Ms. VanBuskirk, who called the announcement the highlight of her 22-year career with the mall. “I firmly believe that things happen for a reason and they happen when they’re supposed to happen. It was obviously not meant to be … in 2005 and 2006. Frankly, what we’re building today is definitely superior to what we were proposing then.”

The project has faced a host of other challenges, including satisfying city and National Capital Commission design requirements, not to mention the logistical hurdles in doing major construction work on a building that is visited by 60,000 people each day.

“The approval … is really just the starting point. Now the real heavy lifting starts,” Ms. VanBuskirk said. “There aren’t many opportunities in a career in this industry to see a project of this magnitude and this complexity, to see it unfold and to be an active participant in it. I’m thoroughly enjoying every minute of it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s so worth it.”

Sidebar: Who's involved

The renovation project team includes:

Interior designer: GH+A Design

Project architect: Groupe Archifin Inc.

Construction manager: C.A.L. Construction

The expansion project team includes:

Interior designer: GH+A Design

Design architect: BBB Architects

Project architect: B+H Architects

Heritage architect: Barry Padolsky Associates Inc., Architects

Construction manager: PCL

Organizations: Rideau Centre, Cadillac Fairview, J. Crew Congress Centre Ottawa Convention Centre Ontario Teachers Westin hotel National Capital Commission Groupe Archifin Barry Padolsky Associates

Geographic location: Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria Canada U.S.

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