Brasswater is creating a workplace “with the feeling of a vacation” at the iconic former Holt Renfrew building in downtown Montreal as a way of getting employees back to the office says Gil Kastner, the company’s chief leasing and business development officer.
The vacation concept will include a rooftop terrace for work or play, a lobby where employees can congregate and a small park alongside the building.
It’s a concept that has worked for the building at 1300 Sherbrooke St. W. Now dubbed 1300 Sherbrooke Ouest, the 115,675-square-foot property is 100 per cent leased in advance of its opening next year, Kastner said.
One of the tenants will be Brasswater, which acquired the building in 2020.
It’s “a small victory in the post-Covid office world” and proof positive that with the pursuit of big-time thinking “there is a future for office.”
Kastner was speaking at a session on ways to attract office tenants during the Montreal Real Estate Strategy and Leasing Conference, held Sept. 27 at the city’s Palais des congrès convention centre.
The history of 1300 Sherbrooke Ouest
Brasswater acquired the Holt Renfrew building for a reported $25 million from former owner George Weston Ltd. Ian Quint, Brasswater president and founder, told RENX in 2020 the company planned to invest about $20 million to transform the then-vacant building.
The building became available when Holt Renfrew moved into the Ogilvy department store at 1307 Ste. Catherine St. W. in downtown Montreal.
Built in phases in the 1930s and 1990s, the building consists of sections of four and seven storeys.
The art-deco section of the Holt Renfrew building, completed in 1937, was designed by the architectural firm Ross and Macdonald, which also designed several of Canada’s château-style hotels, including the Fairmont Château Laurier in Ottawa.
“When you have a building from 1937, you’re kind of handcuffed,” Kastner said, noting the building’s exterior façade could not be touched.
While the building does not have a lot of fenestration, its benefits include its ceiling heights, location and history.
Among the changes Brasswater can make include a new lobby hall Kastner said will not be a pass-through, but rather a place for employees to congregate.
The new rooftop terrace will serve as a three-season business class lounge for tenants.
“It’s an exceptional experience,” he said. “The first warm spring day, I’m going to be out there shaking martinis.”
In a section of the building that is home to a 20-foot-high section of wall – and once housed a fur vault – Brasswater will create a participatory work experience in which employees will be able to project visuals that could be changed daily.
“This is what makes people get off their couch,” Kastner said.
In addition, a multi-use outdoor park will be created alongside what was once the Holt Café.
Opportunities arise from the pandemic
Kastner said the pandemic has been akin to a hurricane for downtown office assets in North America but it has created opportunities for developers to adapt to a changed world.
“If we don’t take the opportunity to improve what we do on a day-to-day basis, we’re idiots.”
Developers must elevate their game because if they’re competing to get people out of their homes and sitting in their cars for 45 minutes for their daily commute, “you’ve got to be good.”
The current environment is one in which it’s the building owner and tenant versus the employee who wants to stay at home, he said. Therefore, the goal must be to not create a white box, but a place that’s better than what employees have at home.
When there’s a culture of fun in the workplace and employees feel like they’re having a good time, they will want to spend more time in the office.
“We’re creating an environment that elevates the workplace to a bit of a vacation,” Kastner said.
“The idea is we’re working in a setting that is part work, part play. That’s what makes an office experience unique.”
Allied's plans for Montreal retail space
During another session on retail at the conference, Andrew Rankin, director of leasing at Allied Properties REIT, said the developer is working on a “super important” repositioning of the retail space at 747 Rue du Square-Victoria, part of the Centre de commerce mondial (World Trade Centre Montreal).
Allied (AP-UN-T) has owned the retail and office component of the development since 2019.
“It’s an unbelievable asset,” Rankin said. Occupied by institutional users since it was built in the 1990s, “it’s a little bit off of everyone’s radar as it relates to office space.”
Rankin said Allied is known for converting former industrial space or character space into high-end office and “we’ll take care of that; that’s straightforward.”
However, Allied also has the potential to transform the retail space, including “a very dated food court that’s perfectly serviceable, but just not in keeping with modern standards and the expectations of office users and the community at large today.”
Working with “a global leader in hospitality and food service,” Allied hopes to transform it into a flagship food hall.
Banking on the history of the space – the city of Montreal’s fortification walls once stood there – Allied plans to develop a spill-out indoor patio experience on the site. The developer hopes to make an announcement by the end of the year.