'Sterilized' former BlackBerry campus may get more urban feel
In late 2013 and early 2014, BlackBerry announced one of the largest commercial real estate sales in Waterloo Region’s history.
Buyers were found for many of the properties, but more than a year later, much of the space the smartphone maker once occupied at the fringe of the University of Waterloo continues to sit empty.
Those working to fill the buildings admit they’re looking for larger tenants – partially because bigger companies are interested in setting up near the University of Waterloo, with its steady supply of graduates and co-op students, and partially because smaller firms are more likely to be drawn to downtown Kitchener.
“That’s a fantastic area,” says Karl Innanen, managing director of Colliers Waterloo Region, which is leasing three former BlackBerry office buildings, as well as its old manufacturing facility in Cambridge.
“It’s really worked very well for people, and people are attracted to that. That’s the sort of community we’re trying to build up here.”
Craig Beattie would like to hear that.
He’s a partner in Perimeter Development, which has redeveloped a number of properties in Kitchener, including the Breithaupt Block complex.
One of Perimeter’s more recent projects is the high-rise at 305 King Street West – a building Colliers helped sell them, and then moved its own office into.
Built in the 1960s, it had gone through a number of previous owners. By the time Perimeter took over, the tower contained 70,000 square feet of empty space.
In the past year, more than half of that space has been filled – much of it by young companies in the midst of expansions.
“We’ve come in … turned it upside-down and created a real cool atmosphere for tech and creative companies,” Beattie says.
Asked about the strengths of downtown Kitchener, Innanen points to its urban feel, proximity to residential options and proliferation of restaurants and shops – a stark contrast to the experience around the BlackBerry campus.
“They almost sterilized this area,” Innanen says.
“They gobbled up all of the amenity space and made it into office space.”
Slowly, there are signs the BlackBerry campus will offer something more likely to keep people in the area around the clock.
Inside some of the buildings, cubicles and walls are being taken out in order to show off open concept office space.
There’s also talk of adding in retail and restaurant options – and potentially even some housing.
“We want people to come and be at work, but also enjoy themselves while they’re here,” Innanen says.
Beattie says he sees potential in the BlackBerry campus – especially if its owners are able to turn it into a more “urban-focused” environment – but he’s not sure it will ever hold the exact same appeal as downtown Kitchener.
“Yes, you can place a restaurant or café here or there, but it doesn’t replicate the feel that you get in a real downtown, urban environment,” he says.