Byline: Paul French

TORONTO — Designer stores and major brands are refashioning midtown Bloor Street West from Avenue Road to Yonge Street, a vibrant commercial stretch here fast becoming known as the Rodeo Drive of Canada.
International fashion names are jostling to scoop up choice space, while veterans of the block have relocated or undergone major renovations.
The expanded Holt Renfrew, Chanel and Louis Vuitton boutiques in the past year have set precedents for others to renovate, putting a new face on the city’s premier shopping district.
Prada’s first freestanding Canadian boutique will open in the next few weeks, followed by Lacoste’s and Plaza Escada’s in September and Nine West’s next year.
Designers Wayne Clark, the first Canadian designer to open a store on Bloor Street, and Marc Cain, a German designer, opened on the street last May.
And two additions — a 20,000-square-foot Nike store at 110 Bloor Street West and a further expansion by Holt Renfrew — are expected in 1998. Nike had no comment.
“Bloor is one of best streets in the world for shopping, and though it has been in a moribund state for a while, it has clearly come back,” said Sol Nayman, executive vice president for Club Monaco, which opened its 10,000-square-foot flagship at 157 Bloor West in 1996 and already has plans to double its size.
While the boutiques proliferate, there are rumors that large American department stores — Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s — are heading here. Officials from each chain confirmed they were eyeing Toronto.
After a protracted recession, carriage-trade retailers Creeds, Lipton’s and Bretton’s disappeared from Bloor Street, and real-estate developers and property managers are now getting competing bids for leases at rents approaching the peak of almost a decade ago.
Recently, 20 feet of Bloor Street frontage on a lot 100 feet deep sold for $1,000 a square foot in what one commercial real-estate agent called “the highest price paid for land ever in Toronto.” The secured tenant for the new building, whose neighbors include Tiffany and a new Gianni Versace boutique, is Nine West, which will open a 2,100-square-foot store and carry a net rent of $125 per square foot, according to sources. Nine West could open next year.
“Toronto likes to think of itself as a world-class city, at least when it’s not in recession, and clearly others see it as such,” said retail analyst Richard Talbot of Thomas Consultants International.One property manager sees the growth as a result of pent-up demand.
“There’s been no real expansion on Bloor Street for the past five to six years; in fact, there has been contraction,” said Mark Robinson, senior property manager for Revenue Properties Co. Ltd., whose two-story Colonnade shopping complex at 131 Bloor West is fully rented for the first time since the Eighties.
Chanel, a tenant at the Colonnade for eight years, more than doubled its space to 8,000 square feet last April. The boutique added a 400-square-foot salon, patterned after Coco Chanel’s Paris apartment on Rue Cambon, which will be used for private showings and lunches. Chanel has only three similar salons — in New York, Beverly Hills and Paris. Robinson said Chanel’s expansion was “the key” to attracting Prada and Lacoste to the center; both plan to open by late summer. Lacoste’s 1,500-square-foot store is its first wholly owned freestanding unit in Canada, as is Prada’s 2,400-square-foot boutique. Other Colonnade tenants are Hermes, Max Mara and Mont Blanc, which opened last spring.
Escada is making its presence felt across the street from the Colonnade, with a 13,000-square-foot Plaza Escada, scheduled to open by mid-September. Anastessia Bettas, Canadian marketing manager of Escada, said the company needs a proper space to showcase an expanding line.
“We looked at other locations, but this was best, right across from our competitors. We feel our name isn’t that common, and by being on Bloor Street, we’ll get the exposure we deserve,” she said. Two existing Escada boutiques in nearby Hazelton Lanes will close. This will be the third Plaza Escada in Canada; the others are in Vancouver and Edmonton.
Escada moves into 110 Bloor Street West, where commercial space was renovated. Louis Vuitton used the opportunity to change locations in the building.
Store manager Kevin Bolton said the move has brought increased traffic in the three months the store has been open, which he credits to the bold Indiana limestone facade on the 1,800-square-foot space.
“We’ve been on Bloor Street for 15 years and most people didn’t know we had a store here before the move,” he said. Tourists make up a significant portion of store traffic, as they do for most retailers along the street. “Our ratio is 50 percent tourists, only now we’re getting much higher local walk-in traffic,” he said.
Sources said Nike will take 20,000 square feet for a two-level store in the same building. The space does not front on Bloor Street, but opens onto a city park at the rear of the building, looking onto Cumberland Avenue and the trendy Yorkville shopping district. The sources said Nike could also have a separate entrance from the subway platform beneath the building.
Karen Leyland of the Bloor-Yorkville Business Improvement Area said the local market is the most important, but tourists can make or break the year. “This is an outdoor affair, so good weather is important. Christmas is not as significant a selling period,” she said, adding the area has taken cues from Chicago’s Magnificent Mile by adding a winter-season lighting display that has been favorably received.
Despite the enthusiasm on this half-mile stretch of Bloor Street, some retail watchers question the profit and volume potential here.
“A store on Bloor Street creates cachet, it’s a theatrical marketing event, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the stores are making a profit. I bet you they aren’t,” said Stuart Smith, a commercial real-estate agent with CB Commercial Real Estate Group Canada Inc. He said he doesn’t see many customers coming in and out of the tony boutiques and pointed to one recent failure on the street — Koolhaus, an upscale men’s wear boutique financed in part by MAC Cosmetics co-founder Frank Toscan that closed after less than three months.
Still, newcomers praise their positioning. Canadian designer Wayne Clark opened his first retail store in the Manulife Centre on Bloor Street last month, selling activewear and jeans that retail for $275, and ballgowns price from $1,400 to $6,000. Spokesman Ed Gurney said, “There’s no other place we could be. The market is there. We went into retail because a lot of the stores we used to sell to aren’t in business anymore, and we prefer not to be at the whim of store buyers who seem to change jobs every few months.”
While rents are climbing for frontage locations, this is not the case just off the street. Commercial real estate agent Hilary Gait of John W. Combs (Toronto) Ltd. said even a block away on Cumberland Avenue and Yorkville Avenue, rents can drop to “around $30 a square foot from $80 to $90 for comparable quality space on Bloor Street.”
“Holt Renfrew is grabbing up everything available,” said another real-estate agent. A Holt spokeswoman said the firm has secured the lease for the 5,000-square-foot space recently abandoned by Koolhaus, and will relocate its Emporio Armani boutique to the 50 Bloor Street West address.
There is one remaining piece of prime, undeveloped land surrounding the hulking facade of an old cinema no longer in use. With its water-stained wallpaper still visible around the projection booth, the building has been the bane of the district since a large commercial venture failed to get off the ground. It serves as a reminder that Bloor Street until recently just wasn’t ready to be a shopping mecca.
The developer of the 38,000-square-foot property, Brookfield Commercial Properties Ltd., said it is working on a mixed-use project that would include entertainment components and residential units, and 60,000 to 70,000 square feet devoted to retail on two or three levels.
Saks made a play for the Brookfield location in 1993, but failed to reach an agreement with the developer.
However, John Sullivan, senior vice president at Brookfield, said, “We’ve talked to several U.S. retailers. Let’s say that as we speak, it doesn’t appear that one of the big American department stores will be a tenant in this project. It just doesn’t work for us or them, and this is not exactly the cheapest rent in town and typically department stores can’t afford to pay high rent.”
In addition, Sullivan sees the retail component comprising stores of between 5,000 and 20,000 square feet. “At that size, we’ve got plenty of interest from American and other international companies.”
The space could accommodate a small Saks format, but not a Neiman’s or Bloomingdale’s, which do not have smaller formats.