A much-loved space along Front Street will get another look at potential development this year, according to a representative for owner InSight Holdings Ltd.
With dazzling waterfront views of the harbour, it’s no surprise that Front Street is home to a variety of prominent buildings in Nanaimo, including the courthouse and Service Canada’s public access point.
The properties at 10 and 28 Front Street near Georgia Park have gone through many incarnations over the years. They have hosted crowds to watch bathtub races and fireworks in the harbour, housed busy automotive repair shops and featured restaurants like Chez Michel’s, a French restaurant that served high-end entrees like fresh seafood pasta and duck à l’orange.
Decades ago, the lounge at Chez Michel’s was where a teenaged Diana Krall not only got her start as a musician, but also where she was discovered, so to speak, by legendary jazz bassist Ray Brown, according to Jamie Reid’s book Diana Krall: The Language of Love. Krall’s manager tells a story about how Brown phoned her to talk about “this joint in Nanaimo,” Times Colonist reporter Adrian Chamberlin wrote in a 1996 article about the singer.
“We all have to start somewhere,” says former owner Michael Stamoulis with a laugh. He started the restaurant in 1977 with his friend Gerry Michalaos. It closed in 1983, after which Stamoulis moved to Vancouver and started Scoozis, a Mediterranean bar and grill he still runs today. Michalaos returned to Greece, where both men are from, and continues to run restaurants.
After closing up at night they would often go across the street to Katerina’s Place, run by their friend Katerina Andreanopoulis her husband Andreas, says Stamoulis, to play cards and drink ouzo.
“The restaurant had big plate glass windows across the front [that] looked right over the Newcastle channel: Gabriola, Protection, Newcastle Island. It was a fabulous view, as you can imagine,” said Nanaimo’s former social planner John Horn, who worked at Chez Michel’s as a young busboy and dishwasher.
“The pianist sat with her back to Front Street, looking out over the ocean, playing to the restaurant. Between the grand piano and the plate glass windows was the actual restaurant seating, and it wasn’t chopped up with big walls, it was an open restaurant with tablecloths, beautiful silverware, a classy kind of feel, you know?”
Before it was Chez Michel’s, the venue was a well-known nightclub called The Longhouse that also featured live music and was allegedly the site of a shooting. Horn recalls taking his breaks down in what used to be the bands’ green room and reading the names of all the bands who had carved their names into the wall.
“It’s all torn down now, but they had Heart and BTO (Bachman-Turner Overdrive) and Loverboy, just all these great bands that came through there. A lot of them played this little nightclub in Nanaimo,” said Horn.
Going back further in time, the area was considered to be the automotive district of Nanaimo. At 28 Front Street was Tom Brown’s Autobody, now listed in Nanaimo’s heritage registry. Built in 1937, it was designed by prominent architect Thomas McArravy, who also designed City Hall and the Jean Burns building downtown.
“That’s where all the car dealerships and gas stations were. It was our auto strip in the ‘20s,” says Nanaimo Community Archives manager Christine Meutzner.
From community hub to hole
Today, the former restaurant site at 10 Front Street is little more than a demolished hole. Along with the empty and derelict building at number 28, it stands as a representation of the more recent history of the area, which is littered with the fits and starts of abandoned projects.
“It’s just a fabulous site, and nobody wants to see that hole sit there much longer,” says Darwin Mahlum, manager of projects and development for Nanaimo-based owner InSight Holdings Ltd.
“What I can say is that we are revisiting it in 2021 to take a serious look at moving the project forward. The timing is better, things are changing,” he adds, referencing Nanaimo’s “extremely busy” real estate market. “Now, we might look at a bit of a change of use, […] maybe more office, maybe more condo, less hotel – however it works out.”
InSight is actively looking into the project but what is possible for that site is unknown until they sit down and discuss plans with city officials, which has become complicated due to COVID-19.
“Will our dreams coincide with the city’s reality? We don’t know,” says Eileen Barker, manager at InSight Holdings.
A fraught history
The properties have a fraught history. As far back as 2004, the city approved InSight’s plans to build a 24-storey residential tower on the site, despite strong opposition from some residents regarding this necessitating the removal of a 16-storey height restriction from the city’s official community plan.
The fears about poor planning and a potential proliferation of highrises in the area weren’t entirely unfounded. Around the corner, two condo towers between 16 and 20 storeys had been proposed for the old Civic Arena site, though the plans eventually fell apart. Up the street, the Pacifica condo project at the old Malaspina Hotel site then bumped up their number of storeys from 15 to 18.
After some delays, work on the Front Street sites started in 2008. The building at number 10 was demolished, excavated and the foundations grouted to fill an underground mine void, a process that required huge amounts of concrete, according to Bill Corsan, the city’s director of community development.
“[InSight] spent months pouring concrete and doing geotechnical work on that site. So you know, it looks like a big hole, [but] they actually spent a lot of money and time getting it ready for development,” says Corsan.
This is a common hurdle for many projects in the downtown area, especially in older parts of town where what lies under the ground — oil tanks, mine shafts, or unknown fill from mines themselves — is unknown. And the process of environmental testing, remediation, and geotechnical work is costly.
Labour shortages and rising construction costs delayed work on the sites. As the global economic recession hit, financing dried up, and work on the 24-storey tower had ceased, according to news reports at the time
“That was a huge amount of money, and then you have the economic downturn of 2008 and the whole thing was put on hold. And then we revisited it again and came back and said, well, it’s not enough building for that site,” says Mahlum. “That is probably one of the most phenomenal view sites and waterfront sites in North America.”
A new proposal
After languishing in limbo for years, by the spring of 2014 a new project was proposed for the sites: a 32-storey hotel managed by the Hilton brand, with the idea that tourists from Asia would visit the area and help fill the rooms.
It was all part of a wave of foreign investment incentivised by the B.C. government at that time, says Corsan. “There were a lot of projects around here, and all over B.C. that were being funded that way and it kind of slowed down at that point.”
Finances still needed securing, and in August of 2015 InSight president and owner Charles Koo asked mayor Bill McKay to go on a trip to China to help seek investment for the Hilton project, as well as for a hotel slated to go in next to the new Nanaimo Conference Centre that did not get built.
In the end the Hilton project was also ultimately shelved.
“In 2014, it was getting the financial end of it to make sure that it was going to work,” says Mahlum, when asked what exactly had caused the deal to fall apart. “Tell me, what would you do with 300 more hotel rooms right now?”
Construction costs for any future development could run in the tens of millions, he adds. Other factors include adhering to current seismic codes and the shift towards energy-efficient building codes. “The aim is to hit net-zero energy. And the seismic requirements are huge. Any of the old buildings… the original plan that was ready to go to construction in 2008, you couldn’t build it now. I’m not saying it’s wrong, it’s just the reality.”
Across the road at 15 Front Street, there are different owners but similar problems.
In 2017, the owners secured a two-year municipal tax break worth $2 million and a development permit to build a six-storey hotel with 89 rooms across the road on the site where Katerina’s restaurant used to stand.
By June of 2018, the owners put it up for sale again, citing an inability to find an operator for the hotel and rising construction costs. In early 2019, a building permit for the new owners was issued, but by March 2020 the permit was revoked due to inactivity, says Corsan.
The property is now listed for sale again.
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