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Saint John’s uptown hole holding up two other projects — and for who knows how long | CBC News

The City of Saint John receives at least one complaint every week about a giant hole left at the corner of King and Charlotte streets, says Mayor Donna Reardon. 

It’s the site of the former Woolworth’s store and future home to a 12-storey, mostly residential building being put up by Saint John developer Percy Wilbur. 

Amid much optimism for the new iteration of the prime real estate location, the old buildings were torn down in June 2021. 

And then everything stopped. 

For two years, the giant hole has remained untouched, and Reardon said it’s holding up two separate revitalization projects in the area. One of them is a bilateral project with funding that will be lost if not used by 2026. 

Man in hard hat and a safety vest in front of an excavator tearing down a building.
Developer Percy Wilbur during demolition of the former Woolworth’s building in 2021. (Shane Fowler/CBC News)

On Tuesday, Wilbur said his project will proceed. He’s just not sure when.

“Oh, absolutely. Look, nobody wants this to start more than me,” Wilbur said when reached by phone in his vehicle.

“I’ve got several million dollars in the ground there and it’s not bringing any return whatsoever, so it’s imperative that I get this project going, but at the same time, it has to be a success.”

WATCH | This prime piece of real estate in uptown Saint John has been vacant for 2 years:

Big hole holds up 2 Saint John construction projects

The delayed construction of a 12-storey building at the corner of King and Charlotte streets in Saint John has left a hole in the ground that’s holding up two other projects the city would like to start.

He would not commit to a timeline “because we have to make sure that all the ducks are in line before we make a commitment to start.”

“We’re not making any commitments at this point. We have to make sure that the project is going to be a success. And until we do that, we’re not going to make a commitment as to when we’re going to start or finish.”

He said supply chain issues are still a very big problem. Transformers, for example, are “almost impossible” to find, he said.

“So you can’t start a project [if] you can’t get the materials to complete it,” said Wilbur, who recently completed the Wentworth, an apartment building several blocks from his current project. 

A boarded up building on a city street corner, with a vehicle driving by in the foreground.
The former Woolworth-Bargain Shop building at the top of King Street before it was demolished in June 2021. (Connell Smith/CBC)

And some things will have to be adjusted to make up for costs added to the project in the last couple of years.

For example, said Wilbur, labour and materials have added $8 million to the original price tag. 

“You can’t work that into a budget as a contingency plan to have an $8 million deficit. So that’s where we are now — is trying to bring our cost back down and at the same time ensure that our supply chain is solid.”

Despite the increased costs and supply chain issues, Wilbur said he won’t pull out of the project. 

Drone picture of an empty lot with a giant hole in the ground waiting for construction.
Developer Percy Wilbur plans to erect a 12-storey, mostly residential building on the vacant lot. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

“No. What would I do with the land if I pulled out of it?” he responded. 

“No. Something has to happen on that piece of property. It’s an iconic piece of property and it’s important that the proper building go there.”

Wilbur said he’s already spent more than $2 million. 

Since the design isn’t complete, Wilbur said, there’s no estimate for the entire project. 

Some design changes already made

There have been design changes made to adapt to changing economic factors. 

The original idea was to put office space on the second and third floor, but that’s now been changed to residential units.

That means roughly an additional 20 units, bringing the total “somewhere in the vicinity of 100 to 115” apartments — and perhaps more “if we design it slightly different,” said Wilbur.

With so much empty commercial space in the city, Wilbur said, it didn’t make sense to include commercial space that might sit empty upon completion, especially when residential units are in such high demand. 

Drone picture of an empty lot with a giant hole in the ground waiting for construction. Taken on a foggy day.
Mayor Donna Reardon said the corner of King and Charlotte is one of the city’s premiere locations and should be developed soon. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

“A lot of buildings are vacant. So we don’t want to put up a new building and have a bunch of vacant office space. So we’re converting it to what we know we can fill it with, and that is apartments.”

He said the new apartments on the second and third floor will be one-bedroom units. 

But “at this point,” Wilbur said there’s no plan to make the other units smaller to save money. 

And, there will still be retail on the street level, as originally planned, he said. 

Wilbur said he’s working with the city to get the project started. 

Holding up two other projects

Reardon said the city is eager for Wilbur to complete his project since “King’s Square is really your premiere address in Saint John.” 

But delays with his project are impacting the city’s plan to “pedestrianize” South Market Street and complete upgrades to Charlotte Street’s sidewalk and aging infrastructure.

In fact, the city is at risk of losing money from a bilateral agreement for the Charlotte Street project that includes sidewalks, bike lanes and green space, said Reardon. 

Head and shoulders picture of a woman standing in front of a fenced off construction area without construction.
Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon said the city receives at least one complaint every week about the giant hole at the corner of King and Charlotte streets and the missing sidewalk in front of the hole. The city has created a new walking area from the former turning lane onto King Street. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

“We can’t tear up that street right now because it’s not supported. So we either need to get a foundation put in there or we need to have some supporting backfill put in there.” 

Reardon said the money from that bilateral agreement has to be used by 2026. 

“So we need to move that project forward as well. But that also borders on this huge vacant space that is at risk of collapsing if you start digging into the street above it.”

Wilbur said he wasn’t aware that the city was at risk of losing money. 

“This is the first I’ve ever heard that they’re losing out on funding,” he said. “I haven’t heard of that being the case.”

A giant hole at a city street corner with large metal beams bracing concrete walls around the perimetre.
Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon says the giant hole left at the corner of King and Charlotte streets is holding up two revitalization projects the city would like to begin. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

But until Wilbur fills in the hole or progresses far enough with the foundation for his project, neither project can proceed, said Reardon.

She said the city could always take Wilbur to court over the delays and potential losses, but she said, “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

She said the city will continue to work with Wilbur and help find ways to get the project done, including moving to higher density, or changes that would qualify the project for federal housing grants. 

The revitalization of South Market Street is part of the City Market’s 10-year strategic plan. 

The recently released plan would see South Market Street turned into a more pedestrian-friendly area, according to the document, which describes the future areas as “walking priority space, with outdoor vendors, bike racks, public art, seating, weather protection, and greenery.”


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