Transformation underway for long-vacant Saint John storefront

Plans are well underway for an independent cafe in Saint John — and to do it, Chinese investor Xuemei Tian is working with local partners to transform a 138-year-old, long-vacant storefront.

Lot of new bars and restaurants have opened in Saint John lately — but no independent cafes

A 138-year-old storefront on Prince William Street, pictured in spring 2016, was boarded up in 2008. Over the past year, Chinese businesswoman Xuemei Tian has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to transform the building. (Photo: Julia Wright/CBC)

Lots of new bars and restaurants have been opening in Saint John — but no independent cafés.

Now, renovations are well underway to transform 240-246 Prince William Street, a 138-year-old storefront a stone's-throw from Saint John's iconic Three Sisters Lamp, into 10-seat café and lunch counter.

Xuemei Tian, a Chinese lawyer and condo developer, purchased the building for $292,000 from real estate agents Gary Vincent and Kathleen McNamara last November.

The previous owners bought the vacant building in 2008 with the hope of renovating it. But the level of investment required was daunting. 

A 138-year-old storefront a stone’s-throw from Saint John’s iconic Three Sisters Lamp has stood boarded up since 2008. Now, renovations are well underway to transform 240-246 Prince William Street into a chic cafe. 0:54

The total cost of the renovations is estimated at between $400,000 and $500,000, making the project "not for the faint of heart," according to Vincent.

"Half a million is a lot of money."

Attracting foreign investment

Enter Xuemei Tian, a Chinese lawyer and condo developer from Qingdao, in Shandong province, whom Vincent met when she was looking for a property to buy in Saint John.

Vincent sold Tian her home in Millidgeville, where she's lived  for the past three years.

Tian, Vincent said, was looking for a project to satisfy the requirements of her immigration business plan.

"I have an appreciation for the local history, and [wish] to continue doing business, and [living] here," Tian said in a translated statement.

The building features a number of distinctive, turn-of-the-century decorative touches which have been, as far as possible, maintained. (Submitted by Alice Fudge)

She both "fell in love with Saint John," according to Vincent, and had the capital to complete renovations on the building in the Trinity Royal heritage preservation area.

Vincent and McNamara have enlisted the support of two city councillors, Blake Armstrong and Gerry Lowe, as well as a translator from Y Settlement Services, to support Tian in her plans to purchase and renovate the building.

McNamara and project manager Brad Lockhart of Lockhart's Design and Consulting will complete the final design for the space.

One-time grocery store, antique shop

Built in 1878, the three-storey Italianate building still bears traces of a century-old painted sign for John Foster's Family Grocery on its Queen Street side.

More recently, the lower floors housed Baytown Hardware and Theriault Antiques.

When this photo was taken in 1991, the building at 240-246 Prince William St. housed Baytown Hardware. (Submitted by Alice Fudge)

The office space beside the 800-square-foot, 10-seat restaurant space will be home to real estate offices, according to Vincent. The upper floors will continue to house three apartment units.

The building's overhanging metal cornice and distinctive, decorative street-front pole have already been restored. New windows were installed at a cost of $100,000, and crews have spruced up the century-old brickwork.

The historic property at 240-246 Prince William in December 2016. Substantial renovations have been completed to the windows, brickwork and metal cornices. (Photo: Julia Wright/CBC)

A substantial investment was also required, Vincent said, to reinforce the original beams supporting the building.

Once this project is complete, "[Tian's] business plan is to keep this one, then buy some others, and do the same thing," said Vincent, although the businesswoman is "in no hurry."

Unanimous approval

Given the building sat vacant for so long, it was necessary to reapply to the Saint John Planning Advisory Committee to resume commercial use of the site.

The committee voted unanimously at its Tuesday meeting  to grant that application.

"PAC was very pleased with the project," said heritage officer Alice Fudge. "It was clear that the building owner and the people involved here in Saint John really understood that this was a project they could make a difference with on that end of Prince William — one building at a time."

Realtor Gary Vincent estimates the new café will open in spring 2017. (Photo: Julia Wright/CBC)

"That building has been given proper care, with a lot of good intention behind it," said Fudge

South End students, office workers, and tenants of the neighbouring Harbourfront Condos may not have long to wait. Vincent is hopeful Tian's café will be ready by the time the snow melts.

"We're hoping for an opening in spring 2017," he said.