What's happening to the old Woolworth's department store in Saint John?
Tearing down former Saint John department store an option, says developer
It was a feel-good moment Saint John had anticipated for years.
The old Woolworth's department store — once the heart of the uptown retail district, in recent years a high-profile eyesore — had sat vacant since 2010.
On March 29, 2018, it finally had a buyer.
And not a moment too soon. Graffiti and old posters covered the cracked and boarded-up windows. A musty smell wafted from the building, which in 2016 ran as the main photo with a Maclean's magazine article bleakly titled "Can anything save New Brunswick?"
All that was about to change, announced Partners Global Real Estate and Develop Saint John, with Roo Chang and Siobhán Riley of Integrity Real Estate Investments.
The mother-daughter team had spent more than $2.7 million to purchase not only 91 King St. but 22 King St. — a four-storey former bank built in 1901 — apartments and retail space at 70, 74, and 76 King St., plus several single-family homes on the west side.
Commercial tenants would be secured to occupy the street level of 91 King, a 44,050-square-foot space, with residential units on the upper floors, and parking in the basement, Riley said.
"We are eager to start work immediately," Chang said in a Develop Saint John news release at the time, "cleaning up the inside and exposing the original exterior."
"We like to move quickly," Riley said in March. "We would like to have a tenant in by the end of the year."
Six months later, Chang says, that's no longer the case.
The exterior of 91 King has continued to fall into disrepair.
The move-in date for prospective tenants, none of whom have been secured, has been postponed indefinitely.
The architecture firm formerly engaged for the project is no longer involved.
"Nothing really has occurred just yet, other than that we have gone in and looked at it and done some very minor cleanup," Chang said. "That's about it."
The lack of progress has led many Saint Johners to wonder: What's going on?
Who is Roo Chang?
Chang has frequently spoken publicly about her 25-year career in finance.
Originally from Taiwan, she moved to Canada in the 1980s and has described working her way through industry ranks to become a bank vice-president, credit underwriter, and treasury manager for a consumer financing company.
She was laid off from her job as a treasury manager in 2011, at which point "my whole world crumbled," she said in a 2017 conference speech.
She acknowledged that she had "come close four times" to bankruptcy.
"I got through it each and every time," she said. "When things happen and it gets tough, you get through it and you don't give up."
Chang said she has "done some 40 fix-and-flip projects in B.C. and [has] other projects in other provinces."
Since moving to Saint John from Vancouver with her daughter and business partner, Siobhán Riley, Chang has founded a series of lunch-and-learn events called Stay and Grow, hosted a series of private parties at 22 King St., and spoken at local networking events.
In addition to her work as CEO of Integrity Real Estate Investments, she is listed online as independent distributor at Kangen Water, a controversial alkaline water ionization technology that claims to "restore your body to a more alkaline state, which optimizes health."
Could 'take out the entire building'
The original vision for 91 King, Chang said, was to gut the 1950s concrete-and steel-building and build upward — as many as 12 additional storeys permitted by the city's zoning bylaws, Chang said.
But after the deal closed at the end of March, that perception quickly altered.
In addition to substantial leaks and moisture damage, there were other issues with the building.
"We came to the realization if we were going to have one or two good anchor tenants in there, the structure itself was probably not conducive to accommodate what they have in mind," Chang said.
There are now three options, she said, ranging from the original plan, to a reduced number of additional storeys, to "potentially [taking] out the entire building."
"The benefits of tearing it down would be you start with a brand new, clean slate," she said.
The goal, she said, is to attract "national brands [as tenants]," Chang said.
Chang declined to discuss what brands she hopes to attract, where negotiations stand, or when a decision might be made on the future of the building, citing confidentiality reasons.
"As much as I would love to provide more information, my hands are tied at this point … I can't give a date," she said.
The firm EXP Architects, which had been engaged to work on the architectural planning for the project, is no longer working with Integrity Real Estate Investments.
"Officially, EXP is no longer involved in the project at 91 King Street," said EXP practice manager Morgan Lanigan.
EXP declined to comment on when or why its involvement ended.
'Nothing to hide'
Down the street at 70-76 King, Integrity Real Estate Investments seemed to be making good progress renovating the multi-unit brick building into "high-end apartments" with retail units on the bottom.
But earlier this summer, the work abruptly stopped.
After stripping the building down to the frame, Chang said, "we overlooked the requirement from the city to put in the new sprinkler system and the new fire exit."
The cost of the renovation, she said, jumped to $500,000 from $250,000.
In July, a claim of lien, along with a pending litigation certificate — fairly standard in large construction projects — was filed by JTR Dumpster Services after Integrity Real Estate Investments didn't pay a $10,550 bill.
"Roo Chang … has represented to JTR that the debt will be paid once the Defendant has obtained additional financing," according to a statement of claim filed with the Court of Queen's Bench.
Especially in this city, most of the residents themselves are not optimistic about their own future. So it is inevitable for people to be leery of people coming in, trying to do something, and then it ends up nothing happens. - Roo Chang, CEO of Integrity Real Estate Investments
"It's very common to have a lien," Chang said. "There's nothing special about that.
"There's nothing to hide."
She declined to discuss whether that bill has been paid.
"This is a private project, a private situation."
As for 22 King — a striking, 3,000-square-foot stone building on the national Register of Historic Places, built in 1901 and recently home to a bank and a law office — a potential tenant could be in the works, but no final decisions have been made, Chang said.
"They are unable to make a decision right now," she said. "So our decision hinges on their decision."
The power has been cut off to the property. Chang said the plan is to "check on it from time to time" to guard against frozen and burst pipes.
Even if a tenant is confirmed, she said, "nothing is going to happen until next year."
Realtor, city agency involved
Stephanie Turner of Partners Global Real Estate, who represented both the seller and buyer in the transaction, said the future of 91 King hinges on finding a strong anchor tenant willing to sign a minimum 10-year lease.
"The project is taking longer than the owner expected," she said. "No new date in mind at this point."
Develop Saint John, an independent city agency that assisted with the transaction, said any further updates about the property will have to come from Integrity Real Estate Investments.
"We are very careful to leave the project updates in the hands of the developers," said CEO Steve Carson.
Saint John Mayor Don Darling said there could be room for improvement in the way the city vets developers.
"I believe we have a great opportunity to enhance the way we do business in the city and improve the likelihood of success for all parties," Darling said.
"In terms of 91 King, I'm anxious, along with many citizens, to see reinvestment in this location."
Despite the lack of firm plans for three properties, Chang said the people of Saint John need to remain optimistic.
"Especially in this city, most of the residents themselves are not optimistic about their own future," Chang said. "So it is inevitable for people to be leery of people coming in, trying to do something and then it ends up nothing happens."
She said her company has made a "a huge amount" of investment in the city.
"It would be hard for us to take the $2.7 million and say 'No, nothing is going to happen, we're just having some fun.'"