August 17, 2021

The Curator of Bentall Centre

Chuck We is a curator. His gallery is the Bentall Centre.

As a Senior VP, Western Canada, for Hudson Properties, his challenge is to keep the complex competitive with the changes coming at us (especially the changing work force).  Chuck is always on the look for social trends in the workplace, and how to integrate them into this behemoth of late 20th-century sensibilities.

Bentall, though still Class A, was built in the 60s and dominated the Class A office market.  Today there are millions of square feet of office space going up nearby, literally down the Melville/Dunsmuir corridor, from The Stack to the The Post.   Will the novelty of the new and shiny pull high-end clients eastward to a fashionable cluster of office buildings and a cultural infrastructure of theatres and galleries – particularly Amazon Land at the eastern end of Georgia?

For We, it’s not a threat: downtown isn’t shifting; it’s expanding.  The millions of square feet coming to completion will serve the thousands of new employees anticipated to fill them.  Downtown will expand in almost every direction even as it fills up.

If if he’s wrong and there’s a post-Covid glut in existing office space, Bentall still has a survival strategy: they aim to keep their own premium tenants while attracting clients out of Class B and C buildings – again, those literally across the street.

Bentall on the right, a Class A LEED Gold building, wants to attract tenants from the Class B buildings who are willing to pay the same price

 

If those prospective tenants need less space, they may still be willing to pay the same amount for less of it at a Bentall address.  (The buildings they leave in turn will become more attractive options for redevelopment – a trend already underway.  Think of Class B and C buildings as the surface parking lots and parkades that have disappeared in the last decade or so – like 1090 West Pender, 1133 Melville, and soon 1166 West Pender, all within a block or two of Bentall.)

Keep in mind that office space is a relatively minor cost when compared to what it houses: the staff who cost ten times as much as the floor space.  So the question then is what features a building must have to attract and keep staff, especially when they can work from home in a way not true before the pandemic.  Indeed, will they even want to come to a downtown location – and what will attract them?  It’s We’s job to assess and provide.

Here, he says, is what’s basic for a commercial offering like Bentall: “quality, uniqueness, cleanliness.”  (Right, “cleanliness.”  That wasn’t typical in any three-word vision statement before Covid; it was taken as a given.  Now it has to be a visible priority.  Plexiglass is here to stay.)

Then, after baking a lease-appealing cake, We can put the amenity icing on top.  (We’ll show more of that in the next post.)

But the big questions still lingers:  will many even want to come back downtown at all, or be required to work from home?

Chuck thinks what will bring his kind of tenant back to an office location is FOMO – fear of missing out, when colleagues have the advantage of personal contact and the serendipity of interaction, whether over the proverbial (and probably mythical) water cooler or the streets, restaurants and attractions of the core.   There’s also envy, from those at home or in a regional centre feeling out of the loop. (Does their employer and colleagues care enough about them, or even know who they are?)

Relationships need concentration and co-mingling – which is what Bentall as an early mixed-use centre was built for.

 

So who’s already coming back or planning to do so?

Smaller businesses and law firms are the first returnees – those who can make decisions locally.  Multinationals or those with head offices elsewhere don’t know local conditions or have to make decisions that apply across the firm.  And they’re unsure of what changing viral conditions will read to.

Who’s looking for new space?

Media/tech firms like Netflix – another one of the Gorillas, the biggest of which is Amazon.  “Gorillas,” notes We, “travel in packs.  One comes, the others follow.”   Then a whole jungle ecology emerges – often seen in mid-sized American cities like Austin or Nashville.  “Vancouver,” says We, “is the Austin of western North America.”

Chuck is also looking at those overlooked customers literally walking by: tourists.  Bentall has been a hole in a tourist-attracting doughnut since there’s not been a reason for those from conventions and cruises to stop at the centre.  Maybe a roof-top attraction above or a transparent roof to the food hall below might pull them in, making the businesses that serve the office clients more viable.

 

A happier staff extends the likelihood that they’ll stick around with the same employer – not a small consideration when intellectual property and experience is of high value.  Imagine a senior lawyer who, tired or bored of her working life, retires early.  That’s an expensive loss for the firm.  A better working environment may extend her longevity – and be worth the extra cost of the amenities (and extra floor space) she demands.

Up until now, the amount of office space per worker, like condos, has been continually shrinking – down to about 150 square feet person.  But resistance has been met – over privacy especially.  The pendulum has swung.

So if offices have to be more expansive for post-Covid sensibilities by providing more space per employee, but there are less of them located in a central office, aggregate floor-space demand may not change as much as expected, if at all.

The clients stay, pay the same, and Bentall keeps it status (and profitability) as the Class A Act of Burrard Street.

 

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