British Columbia

A decade into construction, Port Coquitlam development still trying to attract businesses

A swath of retail spaces has been sitting empty since the residential towers opened in 2019. Now, the developer is asking for for a rezoning that would permit smaller retail outlets.

Swath of retail spaces sitting empty since residential towers opened in 2019, as developer asks for rezoning

Advertisements reading 'prime retail opportunity' line the windows of vacant shops in the southern complex of the Fremont Village in Port Coquitlam. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Nestled within a row of vacant storefronts, the Hive Climbing and Fitness club anchors a recently developed complex in Port Coquitlam.

It's meant to be a cornerstone store inside a growing retail and residential community, and owner Andrew Coffey says he's in it for the long haul.

He just hoped that there would have been more businesses settling in once he opened his doors.

"We sort of expected there might be a little more movement," he said, standing in front of one of the many towering walls inside the large commercial space. "I think the pandemic slowed a lot of that growth. No one is super excited to jump into things."

The Hive is one of the newest businesses inside Fremont Village, a large retail and residential development by Onni. But finding commercial tenants to support the southern portion of its complex has been a challenge, with many units still empty after a number of years.

Andrew Coffey, the self-described king worker bee of The Hive Climbing and Fitness, owns and operates several gym locations in B.C. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

The struggles have pushed the developer to apply to have the area rezoned to allow for smaller retail outlets, but for now, realtors say it's still a challenge for businesses to break even in the growing residential area.

At the end of last year, two restaurants in the northern portion of the complex — chains Harveys and Swiss Chalet — shuttered their doors. The developer is now on the hunt for additional tenants in that space, which is anchored by a Walmart that opened there more than 10 years ago in 2011.

Further afield in the neighbourhood, rows of recently constructed warehouse and office space also sit vacant.

Empty store fronts are pictured at Fremont Village in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia on Monday, March 15, 2021. The Fremont Village will house more than 565,000 square feet of retail space, according to Onni. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"My understanding, in speaking with commercial brokers in the area, is that a lot of the vacancies — it's just because it's hard to make the numbers work here," said Mariko Baerg, a real estate agent with the Tri-Cities based Bridgewell Real Estate Group.

"If you're a very budget conscious person looking to rent a retail space, this may not be the area for you, because, obviously, you're going to be paying a premium for it being a newer space," she said.

Planned growth

According to an Onni brochure targeted to prospective commercial tenants, the expected population of the planned community once it's completed is 34,000 residents. Right now, about 12,000 people live there.

Two two-year-old residential towers boast large signs advertising vacancies that read "move In today." Online listings offer perks like free parking to entice tenants.

Empty store fronts are pictured at Fremont Village in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Onni did not say how many vacancies there are in its residential buildings, but more towers are on the way.

In an emailed statement, Onni chief of staff Duncan Wlodarczak said the company feels "very positive about the current and future direction of the project."

The company has applied to have its site rezoned to eliminate the minimum 3,000 sq. ft. retail threshold that currently exists.

"By eliminating this minimum threshold, we will be able to open up the opportunity for neighbourhood-serving retailers to occupy the site," wrote Wlodarczak.

According to the city, council is considering a bylaw amendment that would permit commercial and vocational schools at the site, with a public hearing planned for March 26.

Baerg says, with the Tri-Cities among the fastest growing regions in the province, she expects the project will find its footing — particularly with the completion of the Fremont Connector, a major thoroughfare that will connect the area to Burke Mountain.

"From a residential standpoint, this is a very desirable community, and it's a place where a lot of people want to be," she said. "It does offer a lot of bang for your buck for a very new product."

For business owners like Coffey, it's all about the long game. Additional residential buildings are planned for the site, and some retailers are starting to trickle into the vacant units.

"We still believe in this location as a really, really great spot," he said. "For us, we're banking on 10 years in this spot."

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