London

Farhi's entrepreneur hub at former Free Press building fails to launch

Three years after a state-of-the-art redevelopment of the former London Free Press building on York Street was announced to much fanfare, the building has no tenants and the owner says he now has new plans for the site.

The London building owner said he was going to spend $20-million to retrofit 369 York Street

The block-long building on York Street is now completely empty. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Three years after a state-of-the-art redevelopment of the former London Free Press building on York Street was announced to much fanfare, the building has no tenants and the owner says he now has new plans for the site.

Dubbed Venture London in March 2018, 369 York Street was billed as one of the largest entrepreneurship hubs in the province by London landlord Shmuel Farhi, who at that time had recently bought the downtown building. 

Farhi held a widely covered news conference to say that his holdings corporation was planning a $20-million retrofit of the 180,000-square-foot facility in order to provide small businesses owners with one-stop access to supports, services and workshops. 

At the time, Farhi said he hoped to move tenants in by the end of 2018, including organizations who were with him the day of the announcement. But three years later, the building is empty, with all tenants previously occupying the building gone.  

Roy Oei, B+H Architects, Steve Pellarin, London Small Business Centre, Marilyn Sinclair, TechAlliance, Shmuel Farhi, Farhi Holdings, Erez Raphael, CEO of DarioHealth, and Amir Farahi, London Institute at the announcement of Venture London on March 16, 2018. (Travis Dolynny/CBC)

CBC News asked Farhi in early March about the property and why the entrepreneur hub didn't happen. He did not answer specifically but in an email said that he is now planning a 1,000-unit mixed-use community on the spot. 

"I truly believe our community is only as strong as the intentions and thoughtful actions of the people and leaders in it," Farhi wrote. "Each of us, when we are able to do so, must come forward to help our city be the best it can be."

The York Street property, which spans the block between Waterloo and Colborne streets, is bordered by rail tracks to the south. The building is assessed for property tax purposes at $3.8 million. 

Farhi's Venture London proposal was to feature office and event-space, on-site catering, a rooftop patio and a street-level green space. 

When the announcement was made, the building had tenants. The last three have since moved to other properties owned by Farhi Holidings Corporation. The London Free Press newspaper moved in April 2019. A consulting firm moved out in November 2019 and Cineplex Digital Media, the building's last tenant, moved out in March 2020. 

The company that predated Cineplex, EK3 Technologies, had renovated most of the second floor of the large building to create a tech-friendly space, said Nick Prigioniero, the company's former CEO. This was done before Farhi purchased the building and before the hub was announced. 

"When we were in that building, we ripped everything out, we had concrete floors, we worked to make it a really cool space, with tech flair," Prigioniero said. "We really thought it could become a tech space and I was excited when the hub was announced. It's really a shame that there wasn't anything done with it." 

A rendering Venture London, an entrepreneurship centre that was supposed to occupy the former London Free Press building on York Street in London, Ont. (Venture London)

Prospective tenants

But no building permits have been taken out at the property, city records accessed by CBC News show. They would be required to make the significant changes presented in 2018.

The London Small Business Centre which provides training and support for entrepreneurs had planned to be among the first to move in. It's since moved to 379 Dundas Street, another Farhi-owned property. 

"The Venture London project has come to an end," said executive director Steve Pellerin. "It was an ambitious plan, and as it evolved it's viability was reassessed. I hope the community can do something aspirational with that property." 

TechAlliance, which had also been looking for a move downtown from its location in the Western Research Park, made the move to 333 Dufferin St. in April 2020. 

DarioHealth, whose CEO Erez Raphael was also at the 2018 announcement, declined to comment for this story. The company makes devices that pair with smartphones for people living with diabetes and other chronic conditions. 

Amir Farahi, the project manager of Venture London and a close associate at Farhi's, referred questions about the project to Farhi Holdings Corporation. 

A project that would turn the former Free Press building into a hub for entrepreneurs called Venture London has not happened. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Farhi's vision

Farhi is one of London's largest landlords. At the time of the 2018 announcement, he said the entrepreneur hub project was part of his vision to make the downtown "a world class urban core." It's a message he stands by today. 

"We have made significant investments in our hometown of London, Ontario, as well as across Canada and around the world," Farhi said earlier this month. 

"Unfortunately, over the past three years, London has witnessed a steady departure of tenants from downtown to the suburbs. Identified in the City's Core Area Action Plan, the reasons for migration were chronic before the pandemic struck, and Covid-19 has further accelerated and intensified these trends."

Farhi cites an increase in crime, threats and harassment on the streets and a "chronic shortage of parking" as trends that need to be reversed if the downtown is to be revitalized.  

At the York Street site, there is a parking lot and a pay lot is located next door.  

Need to minimize vacancies

Vacancies in the core are a concern for everyone CBC News spoke to and there is widespread agreement that needs to change.

"This business hub could have been a key to the revitalization of downtown," said Arielle Kayabaga, the city councillor for the core ward where the building is located. "As we recover from the pandemic, we have to work together to recover the downtown." 

The York Street building is not strictly within the boundaries of the Downtown London business improvement area, but Barbara Maly, the BIA's executive director, said she too wants to minimize the number of vacancies. 

"These are tough questions that we're going to have to address as we move forward. We are going to have to look at these buildings in a different way going forward." 

Downtown London is starting a strategic plan process that will look at how to bring back foot traffic and vibrancy to the core, she said. 

Farhi told CBC News he was proud to help the city by allowing it to use a parking lot next to the Free Press building as a temporary homeless shelter for the winter. 

"In an effort to be responsive to the need for more affordable housing units, we are in the process of advancing plans to reposition our 369 York Street property to build a mixed-use community containing over 1000 housing units, including a substantial dedication of deeply affordable homes," Farhi said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.

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