When the Great Fire of Saint John wiped out 80 hectares of the New Brunswick city in 1877, a post office on Prince William Street was one of the first buildings to rise from the ashes. Nearly a century and a half later, the Second Empire building has once again become a beacon of regrowth: Thanks to a pair of developers from Alberta, the heritage property is transforming into a luxury condo complex in the heart of the city’s core.
Long referred to as the “Old Post Office,” the three-and-a-half storey stone building is one of Saint John’s most recognizable architectural icons. It boasts a mansard roof and high Roman arch windows; when lit up at night, it’s impossible to look away from it while walking or driving along Prince William or Water streets. The waterfront-facing property was designated a historic place in 1982.
Two years ago, Edmonton developers Rob Fediuk and John Kupchenko bought the property for $2-million with plans to convert the upper floors into seven condo units. Enticed by the proposed Energy East pipeline, which would connect to the Atlantic Ocean through a terminal in Saint John, the developers saw a chance to invest in the city’s prospects for renewed growth.
“From an outsider’s perspective, it’s just an absolute rarity to see something like that,” Mr. Fediuk says of the Old Post Office, which has been renamed The Royal. Even if Energy East falls through, he’s confident he’ll be able to entice buyers to the building: “It’s got all the character in the world.”
This century, developers have rediscovered the boom-bust city’s core after years of suburban flight left many of its heritage buildings neglected. Much of the effort is homegrown: Historica Developments, for instance, focuses on creating loft-style rentals for young professionals. Commercial Properties Ltd., meanwhile, oversaw the restoration of a city block’s worth of heritage buildings to create the CentreBeam Place office and retail complex. The Old Post Office is a different, but welcome, addition to the mix: In a province where so many workers flock to Alberta, Alberta dollars are investing in history.
When TransCanada Corp. announced Energy East in August of 2013, Mr. Fediuk immediately “got on the horn” with Saint John realtors. Less than a week later, he was on a plane to the city, eager to view properties even though vacancy rates were high. “Some could look at that as a fear factor, others can look at it as an opportunity,” he says.
He had plans to convert an apartment property into condos, but didn’t like what was available. “There was little sex appeal,” he says by phone from Edmonton. “They were old and worn down and troubled.”
While Mr. Fediuk was in town, local realtor Jeremy Hallworth took him out for lunch on the patio of Prince William Street restaurant Bourbon Quarter, purposely seating the developer so he’d be staring at the Old Post Office across the intersection. It was late summer, and the city was bustling with cruise ship traffic; passersby couldn’t help but ogle the architecture. Mr. Fediuk, too, was smitten by the building.
Less than two hours later, he was inside. It was the right fit. He and Mr. Kupchenko soon bought the building for $2-million. While they held onto the street-level business tenants, including the 25-year-old Callahan’s Pub, they began converting its upper-floor space into condos.
On a misty day this past August, interior designer Judith Mackin and general contractor Jean Pierre Forget walk through the $410,000 third-floor model suite with 13-foot-high ceilings, and which Ms. Mackin helped mock up. She can’t help but marvel at what Mr. Forget’s team has done within the constraints of the 134-year-old building, down to oil-rubbed original floors and the baseboards he installed on the new walls to match the originals.
While many old Saint John buildings are decorated with gold, blue and yellow trim, The Royals designer Judith Mackin opted for a clean and minimal look. (Jennifer Irving)
The floors are supported by arched brick on steel rails, which provides a strong structure, but forced the contractors to find clever ways to install new plumbing. The walls in the two-bedroom condo, meanwhile, are painted Oxford white – a deliberate choice by Ms. Mackin to use clean colours to enhance history.
“You’ll go into some old buildings in Saint John and they’ve done the Victorian gold trim, blue trim, yellow trim – it’s awful,” she says with a laugh. “Whereas here, we’ve just left everything as much as we possibly can.”
The second floor of the building, a former event space called the White Room, holds three two-level units. The two penthouse condos each have second-level lofts, and the Prince William-side unit still has the original street-facing clock in the wall; Mr. Hallworth is in the midst of getting the mechanical parts back from the building’s previous owner. That unit, at $525,000, is the building’s most expensive.
Each of the units offer impressive views, including the waterfront, Fort Howe, and the city’s many rooftops and steeples. “A lot of people come through and say, ‘The water doesn’t really excite me – the views of the city rooftops excite me,’” Ms. Mackin says. “It’s like an old Gerry Collins painting or something. ... It’s just quintessentially Saint John.”
All the units are for sale. Most of them are finished to a primer stage, waiting for buyers to pick out finishes, flooring and kitchen design, though the model suite is ready for occupancy.
Mr. Fediuk has already bought an additional building down the street to convert to condos, and would consider buying more property in Saint John if sales go well. It’s hard to get a sense what kind of demand there’ll yet be for the units: The growth of condo sales is only a recent phenomenon in the city, which has historically favoured single detached homes, according to the Saint John Real Estate Board.
There’s also the issue of price: the Royal’s most expensive unit is more than double the average cost of a luxury condo in the city, which hovers around $250,000. But other new developments, such as Harbourfront Residences at Three Sisters Inc. just down the street, have been selling strong, says SJREB president Sheila Henry. “An awful lot of younger, more urban folks are looking for that condo market,” she says. After years of fanning out from the core, too, older residents are selling their detached homes, buying uptown and becoming snowbirds.
Mr. Fediuk believes the Old Post Office should, at least in part, sell itself. “From an Albertan’s perspective, it’s an absolutely gorgeous building,” he says from Edmonton. “It’s hard to compare the reality here with the reality there. We obviously don’t have an ocean, but a condo with a river valley view in that type of building would be worth well north of a million dollars here.”
In Saint John, which is flush with single detached homes, the average price of a condo comes close to the average price of all homes sold:
Average price of a condo in Saint John based on units currently for sale.
Average price of a “luxury” condo in Saint John based on units currently for sale.
Average price of all homes sold in Saint John in August of 2015.
Source: Saint John Real Estate Board