Saint John city hall decision reveals UNB plan to sell old bank building

Saint John council's decision to keep municipal offices in the current City Hall has shown how close the University of New Brunswick came to selling a landmark property in the uptown.

Former Bank of Nova Scotia building on uptown square deemed too expensive to buy and renovate

UNBSJ's Grand Hall occupies a key corner on Saint John's King's Square. (CBC)

Saint John council's decision to keep municipal offices in the current City Hall has shown how close the University of New Brunswick came to selling a landmark property in the uptown.

The Grand Hall is a former Bank of Nova Scotia building occupying a key corner at Charlotte Street and King's Square North.

The university uses the building for special events, with some upper floor office space rented out to commercial tenants.

Last summer, on the city's behalf, real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield Atlantic published a call for expressions of interest from property owners in the uptown.

Tenant relieved

Managing director Bill McAvoy said the Grand Hall building got on the list following a response to the ad.

A spokesperson for UNB said no one was available Tuesday to speak on the matter.

Tenants of the building, including lawyer John Riley, said they were notified the university was in negotiations to sell it. Riley is glad the deal fell through and he won't now have to pack up and leave his centrally located office. 

"They're great landlords, they're very nice people," said Riley.

Hard to make accessible

The longtime city lawyer said he can appreciate it would have cost a lot of money to make the building, with its tiny elevator, accessible as a public space.
 
He believes the long-vacant former Woolworth building, also on King's Square, would have been a better option.

He says that building — known to many Saint Johners as the "Five and Ten" — could have been connected by an overhead walkway to the City Market tower, which is now under renovation and will also house municipal offices. 

"That was the best one," Riley said. "It would have been an excellent place to have the city hall."

The Woolworth building was considered by city officials but did not make the short list.

Councillor favoured move

Coun. Gerry Lowe, who represents a ward that includes the entire uptown, was one of five councillors who voted Monday to move city hall to the Grand Hall building.

The cost to purchase and renovate the building was estimated at about $10 million.

Lowe believes putting city hall there would have led to the revival of other Charlotte Street buildings.

"I voted to move here," he said. "A lot of people didn't know it was for sale."

Five others voted to remain in the current building at 15 Market Square. The tie vote was broken by Mayor Don Darling who preferred the less costly option of the present City Hall.

Suspects fear of risk

Lowe believes other councillors were unable to accept the risk that comes with renovating an older building.

"This would be a risk, and where we're staying isn't a risk," he said. "Five people, including the mayor decided not to take a risk."

The decision to remain in the current building with 40 percent less space could save the city a projected $625,000 to $700,000 annually off the current lease of $2 million per year.

City officials say it would have cost about $2 million more than that over the next 15 years to move into the Grand Hall building.