After years of languishing in a commercial torpor, the four corners at Yonge St. and St. Clair Ave. are undergoing a retail revitalization it’s hoped will transform the area by 2018.
“It’s kind of like a time capsule,” said Lucas Manuel, chief operating officer of Slate Asset Management, referring to the neighbourhood, home to a hodge-podge of struggling retailers in what was once a prime destination for luxury shoppers.
A series of incremental losses over the years, including the 2004 migration of local employer Imperial Oil to Calgary, has robbed the area of pep and vigour.
“Most reasonable people agree Yonge and St. Clair looks tired,” says local councilor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s).
Slate Asset Management has been buying up properties in the neighbourhood since 2013, starting with a parcel of five buildings that included two at the corners of Yonge and St. Clair, said Manuel.
Five transactions later, the company owns 10 properties, including buildings at the four corners of Yonge and St. Clair.
Slate paid about $500 million for the eight properties on and near the four corners, said Manuel.
Matlow says he had reservations when he learned the properties were being bought up by one company.
“I was really concerned that they were going to rush in with some goliath development,” said Matlow.
Instead, Slate has taken what Matlow calls a respectful approach that included hiring an internationally celebrated street artist to beautify a barren wall overlooking St. Clair Ave. W. this summer.
The artist, Phlegm, was a bit of a hard sell, but the resulting mural was well-received. Phlegm drew the outline of a woman and filled the space in with representations of Toronto neighbourhoods.
Slate is about 80 per cent done renovating the property it owns at 2 St. Clair Ave. E., the building over the subway entrance.
A warren of hallways on the concourse level has been removed, Rexall has moved into a bright new location and a Starbucks opened recently facing the street. Work on a giant skylight is underway. A dark awning over the intersection has been removed.
“That was an important place for us to start — it’s kind of the gateway, because that’s where people get off the subway and enter Yonge and St. Clair,” said Manuel.
Part of the complex is owned by the Weston family, which is planning to renovate its portion of the building, said Manuel.
Slate is hoping to unify the exteriors of the buildings at the four corners, the streetscape, street furniture and paving, to create a more pleasant experience for residents and shoppers. They’re hoping to draw independent store owners and kickstart a local business improvement association.
“I think it’s a good idea. The neighbourhood had to be freshened up a bit,” said Viviana Schindelheim, owner of The Saddle Bag at 1470 Yonge St. at the corner of St. Clair, another property owned by Slate.
Two St. Clair Ave. W. will be the next building to be renovated. There are plans for a chef-driven, multi-level restaurant in the spot now occupied by a store selling magazines. A café called JJ Bean recently opened up inside the lobby.
“Change is good,” said resident Joel Greenspan, CPA, citing job creation as one of the benefits of the revitalization.
“I guess the concern as a resident is, if prices go sky-high for retail, if it leads to a significant increase in the cost of living, that would be bad for long-term residents,” he added.
Of greater concern is a proposed 42-storey condominium tower just south of the intersection in an area zoned for midrise, according to Matlow. That project is being disputed before the Ontario Municipal Board.
The neighbourhood abuts two of Toronto’s wealthiest nooks – Forest Hill and Rosedale, but to be successful retailers need to look beyond just location, said Marc Smookler, co-founder and CEO of Idealspot.com, a commercial real estate platform.
They need to look at social media and online search trends to pinpoint what people are interested in doing and buying.
“Retailers make assumptions based on demographics, but more important than demographics is figuring out what gets people off the couch,” said Smookler.
“For example, if there’s a spike in demand for yoga, that tells you something about the area. It says that the community is interested in health and wellness. Same thing with an increase in searches for organic food or prepackaged healthy meals.”
Manuel expects that once 2 St. Clair West is done it will change the tone of the neighbourhood.
“The big goal is to take what is a sleepy 9-5 energy to something more sustainable 24-7,” he said.