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Pardon our dust: Why some businesses remain open during a building renovation

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An eight-storey scaffold was constructed at CF Toronto Eaton Centre two years ago for work that is currently being done to the skylight roof. Despite the disruption, the centre has remained open for business.Shay Conroy/Cadillac Fairview

Crowds of shoppers at CF Toronto Eaton Centre have doubtless marvelled at the giant scaffolding – multitiered like a wedding cake – that climbs to the centre’s iconic skylight roof.

It’s been two years since the scaffolding was built and the construction crew is now working on the second phase of the skylight’s glass replacement. Yet even now as Sheila Jennings, the centre’s general manager, walks around it, the enormity of it still impresses.

“It’s probably the largest scaffold structure I’ve ever seen,” she says.

Each tier of the eight-storey scaffold has an enclosed floor, Ms. Jennings explains. “So, if a hammer drops it’s going to hit the scaffolding floor and not somebody walking through the shopping centre.”

The decision to keep a business running rather than closing down shop while a building undergoes a major capital improvement is a strategic choice laden with variables.

Sometimes a retrofit is so invasive it’s more efficient and cost effective to complete the work in an unoccupied building.

Vancouver’s massive Oakridge Centre redevelopment closed down earlier than planned when mall landlord QuadReal Property Group decided to fast-track the construction timeline by about two years, for a 2025 grand opening.

If we were to close the centre, it would just become this [huge] non-functioning entity.

— Sheila Jennings, general manager, CF Toronto Eaton Centre

Also in Vancouver, Pacific Reach Properties, owners of the Rosewood Hotel Georgia, closed the luxury hotel rather than risk subpar hospitality during this year’s five-month refurbishment.

But for businesses that stay open, benefits include maintaining the flow of goods and services and retaining valued employees. In addition, many enterprises can even boost revenue, according to retail-design giant CBSF, whose clients include Canadian Tire, Loblaw and Pet Valu.

“As counterintuitive as it may be, keeping your store open during a renovation is shown to increase sales,” the company states in an article on its website. “Time and time again, a mix of curiosity” and potential to score “discounted goods” draw increased traffic to its projects.

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A rendering of the ROM’s main floor design shows an oculus opening up to the dinosaur gallery. The museum’s renovation planning team decided to install a temporary viewing platform into the closed-off space so that visitors will still be able to see the ancient specimens.Hariri Pontarini Architects and the Royal Ontario Museum

At the Eaton Centre, where vast lengths of hoarding wrap around Cadillac Fairview’s $77-million upgrade, which also includes staircase, elevator and parking improvements, Ms. Jennings says, “we have not seen any sales erosion whatsoever.”

But cash flow wasn’t a main reason to remain open amid the disruption, she adds.

“If we were to close the centre, it would just become this [huge] non-functioning entity … a detriment, whereas if you can leverage the work in a respectful, safe way, then it’s a win-win.”

A strong communications plan was key to the success, Ms. Jennings says. “This meant getting in front of our clients, walking them through what was going to happen, and showing them the before and after.”

Retailers such as Aritzia, Aldo, Warby Parker, Banana Republic and others then transformed the hoarding into an opportunity for brand enhancement. “Right now, for example, Lululemon is marketing their Olympic gear on it: You get to see who our Canadian Olympians are. It has become a messaging board, which is terrific.”

For all of Eaton Centre’s upgrades – totalling $1.6-billion since 2010 – crews adhere to a construction manual detailing strict requirements around site access, tidiness, tasks necessitating after-hour work and safety – “our number one priority,” Ms. Jennings stresses.

Admiring the work of construction firm EllisDon (with RJC consulting engineers and plans by Zeidler Architecture Inc.), Ms. Jennings enthuses that the new eco-friendly skylight “has taken the centre to a whole new level. It’s so beautiful and bright, on a sunny day you feel like you’re outside.”

At another Toronto building open amid transformative revitalization, keeping people safe is one concern, but keeping rarefied vases from vibrating off plinths during heavy drilling is another.

Royal Ontario Museum’s $130-million renovation involves a remake of the entire main floor and major changes to the museum’s controversial Crystal. The light-filled new design, by Hariri Pontarini Architects, will completely open up the space to accommodate large public events.

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Royal Ontario Museum’s $130-million renovation to its entire main floor includes a major remake of the entrance to the building.Hariri Pontarini Architects and the Royal Ontario Museum

“Vibration monitoring was top of mind, as vibration could damage fragile artifacts and specimens,” says Josh Basseches, the museum’s director and chief executive officer. “That’s why we’ve installed sensitive, vibration-detecting equipment that is constantly monitored.

“To further safeguard our collections, we also removed some objects from galleries next to the construction areas,” he adds.

At the same time, Mr. Basseches needed to ensure that guests to the country’s most visited museum could enjoy as close to the full-museum experience as possible – especially when it comes to dinosaurs. But with parts of the ancient mammal galleries in direct vertical path of construction, they needed to be closed off.

Enter a temporary viewing platform offering fantastic sight lines to the mastodon and Tyrannosaurus rex.

“The platform allows visitors to see over and into the inaccessible space,” Mr. Basseches says.

Buildings are always being upgraded; it’s part of maintaining operational excellence. Whether landlords who stay open will go to same lengths as the ROM to maintain a great visitor experience remains to be seen. But one thing looks clear: Canadians are set to experience more renovations.

Hefty costs and environmental effects of ground-up construction have pushed Canadian construction starts for some types of buildings to lowest levels in years.

For example, the number of office buildings that broke ground in Q1 2024 was zero, CBRE reports. That asset class has seen softening demand, but even new builds for the thriving industrial sector have fallen 30 per cent since peaking in Q3 2023. As for new malls: “I can’t see any more ever being built,” Ms. Jennings predicts.

With fewer new builds on the horizon, property owners are focusing on upgrading existing assets, says Bri-Ann Stuart, vice-president, portfolio management and national retail at Colliers Real Estate Management Services.

“We’re going to see a huge amount of transformation,” she says.

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