Sun Life towers set to get new look for LRT’s arrival

One of downtown Ottawa’s prime office complexes is undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation in an effort to attract new tenants and accommodate a major LRT station.

The Sun Life Financial Centre at 99 Bank St. and 50 O’Connor St. has launched a series of projects that will give its main Bank Street entrance and Albert Street atrium a completely new look while clearing more open space for the thousands of additional pedestrians expected with the arrival of light rail in 2018.

“Right now, (the atrium) is a bit of a jungle,” said Dave Pridham, the centre’s director of leasing, noting the space currently includes a mass of palm trees and subtropical foliage, along with a waterfall and a large podium seating area.

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Most of those features will be removed over the next few years to create an easier path for commuters using the Confederation Line’s Parliament station, which will be directly connected to the Sun Life complex and is expected to be the busiest LRT stop in the city when it opens in three years.

“We do have some pedestrian traffic, but nothing like what we’re likely to see once the LRT opens,” said Mr. Pridham.

The Parliament station is projected to see more than 10,000 passengers an hour embark and disembark during peak periods, which would create a “serious bottleneck” if commuters tried to navigate through the current layout, he said.

The atrium will still include some water features and a “green wall” consistent with the complex’s LEED Gold designation, he said. But the darker earth tones that currently dominate much of the decor will be replaced with a brighter look.

The atrium’s connection to Parliament station will also include an annex with a rooftop patio, he added.

“It’s not just an LRT station,” Mr. Pridham said. “That’s a big part of it, but we’re doing this for our tenants moving forward. We really like the atrium design. It’s a much brighter, lighter environment than is there currently.”

The current decor was designed about 20 years ago when earth tones were in vogue, he said, but tastes have changed.

“A lot of our common area detailing, stonework, et cetera, kind of reflects that mid-’90s sensibility,” Mr. Pridham said. “At the time, that’s what was in style, but now if you go to buildings in larger metropolitan centres, there’s a real thrust towards creating more light.”

The Sun Life Financial Centre is actually two buildings – a 376,000-square-foot, 15-storey tower at 99 Bank St. built in 1977 and its larger, 552,000-square-foot, 17-storey neighbour at 50 O’Connor St. constructed in 1984 – joined by the atrium.

The centre’s landlord, Bentall Kennedy, believes the new look, which was designed by Montreal-based NEUF architects, will make the buildings more sought-after in the rental marketplace.

“I think that ultimately it will increase tenant retention, it’ll increase tenant attraction,” Mr. Pridham said. “It’s been proven that buildings with direct connections to mass transit typically are able to achieve higher (rental) rates than those that don’t. We don’t have an underground city here the way that they do in some major cities. We think it’s a real advantage being able to take your coat off when you jump on to an LRT train and be able to leave your coat off and seamlessly enter into your building, your address of business, warm and dry.”

Like many towers in a downtown market with an office vacancy rate of just under 10 per cent, the Sun Life centre is nowhere near full capacity. Two floors of 33,000 square feet each and another 21,000-square-foot space are sitting empty at 50 O’Connor, while 99 Bank has one 16,000-square-foot vacancy and two other 13,000-square-foot areas available to rent.

“A landlord is never happy until his vacancy rate is somewhere around two and a half per cent,” Mr. Pridham conceded. “The downtown core right now is having a few struggles, but these things are cyclical.”

Once the dust settles after the federal election later this year, he believes the federal government will loosen its purse strings and the real estate market will once again pick up.

“As the public service will start to grow, the private sector will start to grow,” he said. “In this town, they are inextricably linked. We’ve seen this sort of thing before and things recover.”

The redesigned entrance and lobby at 99 Bank St. are slated to be completed by this fall, with the other projects occurring over the next couple of years.

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