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Old nightclubs boogie to a retail beat Add to ...

It's a building that used to be known for thumping bass, swirling lights and hundreds of bodies dancing into the wee hours. Soon it will be a space where urbanites can find sleek sectionals and aluminum barstools to decorate their condominiums.

At the corner of Queen Street West and Bathurst in Toronto, the nightclub formerly known as Big Bop will turn into CB2, Crate and Barrel's condo-oriented furniture and decor store. The move from nightclub to retail space is a growing trend in Toronto as U.S. retailers clamour for access to a steadily growing population in the downtown core.

"It's becoming a burgeoning real estate mecca," said John Crombie, senior managing director of national retail services for Cushman & Wakefield, which brokered the Big Bop/CB2 deal. "The retailers have pretty much blanketed the malls, the big-box centres, the power centres, and the next area is urban," he said. "And with the [downtown]population growing, they are asking, 'How do I get in there?'"

With little retail space available and real estate prices rising, former nightclubs are turning into hot properties, Mr. Crombie said. In the case of the Big Bop/CB2 transformation, Crate and Barrel was interested in getting into a "funky, transitioning area," in particular Queen Street West. They looked at locations in the higher-priced Queen and Spadina area, but they decided to take a gamble on a location farther west.

"I call it a bit of pioneering real estate," he said. "You may take a little hit in the first couple years, but you're first and you develop your clientele base."



The attraction to warehouse-style nightclubs seems mostly about desirable location and ample size - they have square footage, high ceilings and floor load that big box retailers are looking for.

Another former Toronto nightclub that is going retail is the former Circa space in the massive RioCan building at John and Richmond streets, in the heart of the city's entertainment district. What used to be a three-storey nightclub will be transformed into a Marshall's, a U.S. department store (which will join a movie theatre, Chapters bookstore, health club and another nightclub, Republik, already housed in the building).

The move from nightclub to retail space can benefit not only retailers seeking to get into the neighbourhood, but landlords and even city council, said Jordan Robins, senior vice-president of planning and development for RioCan.

"We would much rather have a Marshall's covenant than a club covenant," Mr. Robins said. (A covenant is a promise in a written contract between a landlord and tenant.) "The likelihood of success and us collecting our rent is greater. And nightclubs are considered by many to be a nuisance. And I would suggest there is a push from the councillor's office and a desire to move away from nightclubs and more toward retail and/or residential space."

Adam Vaughan, city councillor for the Trinity-Spadina area, said that though nightclubs are a bad thing, it's important to "mix up the retail experience" in Toronto's entertainment district, which at one point was home to nearly 100 nightclubs and was plagued by late-night, alcohol-fuelled fighting and vandalism.

"If you get a street with four or five nightclubs on it, you've got no activity during the day or weeknights," he said. "And the surrounding businesses, restaurants and residential areas are not well-served by the retail uses," he said. "It leads to the sterilization of the neighbourhood."

Many big nightclubs are disappearing as the city's nightlife turns into something more eclectic, Mr. Vaughan said.

"We're now in the era of smaller venues," he said. "That's why newer areas like Ossington and Dundas are taking off. They don't create the same level of hostility that comes out of the big box nightclubs. They're safer and friendlier."

Renovating nightclub spaces has its challenges. The process requires flexibility from U.S. firms, who generally have a very specific retail prototype in mind, Mr. Crombie said.

"A lot of retailers say, 'This is the size I want to be, I want this dimension by this dimension to showcase my product.' But if you can't find enough ground floor space, you have to go multi-level. A lot of retailers say, 'I need 23 feet of frontage and I need this amount of depth,' and we say, 'No, you're only going to get 13 feet but you'll be long and skinny.'"

"When there's very little vacancy you need to adjust," he said.

Among the challenges of working with an older building are increased power demands, sound issues, limited space for escalators or elevators and structural features that are difficult to build around, Mr. Crombie said.

"On the lower levels there are more columns because they are supporting a lot of weight above. And although these huge wood columns look great, boy, they really cut into the flow of the store," he said.

The Circa/Marshall's building had another issue common with older buildings in Toronto's downtown - the exterior of the building had been designated a heritage site by the city. Though a previous tenant had refurbished it, the designation will require modifications to the store's signage, said Mr. Robins. As well, the retailer will turn a four-story nightclub into a two-story store, and the heating and cooling system will need to be revamped for the whole building.









But with the condo boom showing no sign of a slowdown, Mr. Robins thinks the move to refurbish old spaces will continue as retailers seek to reach this rapidly expanding market.

"There's growth in the GTA of 100,000 a year, and they have to have somewhere to live. Condos offer a reasonably affordable opportunity to have a home in the city," he said. "And as traffic gets worse, the interest in living downtown and not being as reliant on a car gets more appealing."

As well, Mr. Robins thinks that the downtown population is looking for the amenities of the suburbs at their doorstep. "I think most people would prefer to walk to IKEA," he said, "as opposed to driving."

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