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As office vacancies rise, GWLRA puts big focus on amenities

Toronto's 33 Yonge St., home to firm's head office, to get new lobby, add 5 new restaurants

33 Yonge St in Toronto. (Courtesy GWLRA)

Toronto’s downtown office vacancy rate exceeds 15 per cent for the first time since 1995, which is pushing building owners to come up with fresh ideas and concepts to retain existing tenants and attract new ones.

GWL Realty Advisors Inc. (GWLRA) is one such landlord that’s being proactive with its buildings, including the one that’s home to its head office at 33 Yonge St.

“We need to invest in our A-class office product to stay relevant and attract tenants,” GWLRA leasing vice-president Devan Sloan told RENX. “So we're doing that across the portfolio.”

Landlords have to earn commutes from their tenants – and their employees – Sloan added, which is why GWLRA is trying to provide more amenities.

The company is investing in new lobbies at 151 Yonge St., 1 Adelaide St. E. and 33 Yonge, which recently saw its office vacancy rate rise to almost 40 per cent after CIBC moved its operations out of the building. Commercial real estate services firm Altus Group remains a key tenant in the property.

33 Yonge

Five new restaurants will open over the next 18 months in 33 Yonge, a LEED Platinum-certified 13-storey building sitting on about two acres that was built in 1982 and acquired by GWLRA in 2003.

It includes 481,024 square feet of office space, 34,212 square feet of retail space, a 307-stall underground parking garage and an atrium that provides natural light to every floor.

The building hasn’t been significantly renovated since opening, so GWLRA has also added an end-of-trip facility at the P1 level that offers bicycle storage, lockers and showers. It’s also working on adding fitness and conference facilities.

“Amenitizing buildings has never been more important,” Sloan said.

“This includes activating lobbies, spending capital, investing in assets, adding items that people are interested in like end-of-trip facilities, fitness and those sorts of box checks, and of course a heavy focus on environmental sustainability.”

Filling street-level retail space

The additions that should have the biggest impact, not just at 33 Yonge but also for the surrounding area, are the restaurants.

The building had four restaurants heading into 2020 (prior to the pandemic), including two on the south side which Sloan said had reached their “best-before date” and space on the north side that was vacated by Pick 6ix after its lease was terminated for unpaid rent.

Looking to start fresh, GWLRA considered a variety of options to fill its street-level retail space.

“We looked at everything from a golf use to a pet store to clothing retail to a pharmacy,” Sloan said. 

Since 33 Yonge straddles the financial district to the west and the St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood to the east, it was decided new food options would offer the most appeal.

It’s believed that providing each operator with patios — on Yonge, Wellington, Front and Scott streets — should further entice customers to check them out.

New restaurant details

Deals were finalized with the restaurant operators over the past couple of months to take up approximately 28,000 square feet of the street-front retail space.

Café Landwer, a Mediterranean-style restaurant chain that began in Israel and offers three meals per day, will open its seventh Greater Toronto Area location on the southeast side of the building with a wrap-around patio facing Berczy Park.

The owners of Giulietta on College Street and the Michelin-starred Osteria Giulia on Avenue Road, including chef Rob Rossi, will open a uniquely branded Italian steakhouse in the current location of Biff’s Bistro on Front Street just east of Yonge.

Biff’s, a French restaurant that’s been in the building for about 15 years, will open a revamped location next door and take half of the space occupied by Oliver & Bonacini Café Grill

The balance of that Oliver & Bonacini-occupied space will become a still unnamed new Latin-themed restaurant. 

The northwest corner of the building, fronting Yonge and Wellington, will become a yet-to-be-named Oliver & Bonacini-operated mid-century modern American-themed restaurant.

Work will begin on the restaurants in the next month or two, according to Sloan. Café Landwer and one of the Oliver & Bonacini concept restaurants are expected to open in the first half of 2024, with the remainder to follow before the end of the year.

Casual restaurant Green Box and Tim Hortons will continue to occupy smaller locations in the building, while GWLRA is looking to fill other small street-front spaces on Wellington Street and facing Berczy Park.

“I really think that 33 Yonge will become a destination retail location for food,” said Sloan.

“We think it will service the neighbourhood and we think it will be a tremendous driver of traffic to the building for not only our own tenants but for office tenants in the neighbourhood.” 

Belief that more traffic will return to core

After office occupancy levels fell to less than 10 per cent through the first 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Strategic Regional Research Alliance downtown Toronto office occupancy index was up to 51 per cent on June 15.

There’s optimism it will continue to rise.

“The traffic downtown versus pre-COVID, from an office occupancy perspective, is down,” Sloan conceded. “But we're seeing a lot of people coming back for more than just office.

“It’s entertainment uses, it’s before a sports game, it’s before a concert. It's all the rest of it.”

Sloan added there’s more certainty among employers regarding their return-to-office strategies and how often each week they expect people to be there, which should also benefit the downtown core. 

“If you know you're bringing your people back three days a week, then you can execute on that plan,” Sloan said.  “But until you know, you do nothing.

"Doing nothing is the worst in our business because it leads to people making decisions at the last minute and short-term deals.”

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