THUNDER BAY — Businesses in Thunder Bay's Victoriaville Mall are gearing up for a years-long transition, with work to prepare buildings for demolition of the mall set to begin this fall.
That preparatory work, which includes façade upgrades for buildings currently facing into the mall, will be the first in three distinct phases to demolish the mall, said Joel DePeuter, the city’s director of development services.
Tasks already complete or underway include surveying, borehole drilling for soil testing, and some work to expose walls to determine the structure behind them in areas where renovations will be required.
Demolition of the structure is scheduled for 2024, while reconstruction of Victoria Avenue and the pedestrian boulevard along the Syndicate Avenue right-of-way will occur in 2025.
The city is still developing designs for those reconstructed areas, but all designs under consideration will open Victoria Avenue as a two-way street and create more space for pedestrians, markets, patios, and events.
The city will solicit feedback on design concepts for those areas in an open house in May held at Victoriaville. That public feedback will inform a final report to city council recommending a preferred design later this year.
City council voted in 2020 to tear down the mall, which was built in 1980 and plagued by chronic losses and vacancies, hoping to spur a reinvigoration of Thunder Bay’s south core.
DePeuter said the redesign will preserve and expand upon Victoriaville’s traditional role as a gathering place.
“What will be constructed will be a new public space that has different opportunities — there will be outdoor amenities, places to gather, places to hold events — a setting that is conducive to business, available seating and patios, and so forth.”
Until demolition work on the mall occurs in 2024, DePeuter said it will be “largely business as usual” for its tenants. He said it’s “not anticipated” that businesses will necessarily need to close during that process.
“We’ll have to determine the schedule precisely and have everybody well-coordinated in advance,” he said.
“It definitely will be disruptive — the Victoria Avenue section will be in some state of renewal for a few years, but most of these properties have alternate access, and that’s being worked on.”
The city will cover the cost of upgrading façades of abutting businesses to prepare them to face the elements, DePeuter said. He added the city encourages property owners to make additional upgrades, and has some grant programs available to assist.
While the term ‘demolition' may conjure images of dramatic implosions that bring down a building in an instant, DePeuter said the process at Victoriaville will be more akin to a piece-by-piece dismantling.
“This will take some time. It’s probably better expressed as a deconstruction of Victoriaville, rather than a demolition,” he said.
Some tenants are already preparing their moves, like the Friends of the Thunder Bay Public Library, who will relocate their used book shop to a new space in the lower level of the Brodie Library in June.
The friends group has maintained the shop in Victoriaville for over 20 years, and is sorry to say goodbye, said president Fran Duke, who also sits on the Victoriaville board of management on behalf of the organization.
“None of our volunteers want to leave Victoriaville. It’s been a wonderful place for us to be,” she said.
“There’s a lot of walk-through traffic. We’re in the neighbourhood of the courthouse, the city is nearby, lots of local businesses, and we have a huge variety of people who walk through here. Families come in all the time looking for books for children.”
Duke is hopeful the public will still be enticed to visit roughly a block away at Brodie, and said she also sees the positives in reopening Victoria Avenue.
“I understand they’ve got wonderful plans, they plan to open it up and do lots of streetscaping,” she said. “It’s going to be really interesting to see how it all turns out — but still, we’re going to be sad to go.”
Other tenants are betting on the success of the city’s plan in boosting traffic to area businesses.
Scotia Kauppi moved her Sweet Cherry Spa from a storefront in Victoriaville that will be displaced, to an abutting building that will open to the pedestrian boulevard along the Syndicate Avenue right-of-way.
While Kauppi initially hoped the city would keep Victoriaville open and pursue the idea of hosting a farmers market there, she said she’s come around to the planned demolition.
“I was initially for the market idea, just so I wouldn’t have to move,” said Kauppi, who is also interim chair of the Fort William Business Improvement Area and vice-chair of the city’s Downtown Fort William Revitalization Committee.
“I’m now very excited to see the plans and be working with the city to see what’s going to happen down here — lots more green space, lots more market and activation area. Opening up the road again is also a good idea.
“I think it’ll add a lot to the area. For one, the mall itself disconnects an entire downtown core. There’s good shopping and businesses on [both sides].”
She’s hoping the changes will bring more gatherings and events to the area, and make people feel more comfortable walking there.
Kauppi anticipates she may close temporarily as work on her façade is completed, and is considering temporarily relocating her business to a space nearby.
While she understands planning is still underway, she added that area businesses still don’t fully understand the project and its timelines.
“I still would very much like us as the BIA to have a little bit more information brought to us, so we can bring it to our business owners who are going to be impacted,” she said. “So far, the business owners themselves don’t really know what’s going on still, unfortunately.”
Kauppi hopes the community will continue to support area businesses during the transition.
“As much as people think there’s not much down here, there’s a lot,” she said. “People are moving in constantly; we have brand new businesses opening up. Supporting local is the most important thing you can do to show you love this area of the city.”
Residents can follow the progress of the project, and ways to submit feedback, at the city’s Get Involved website.