The original plan to build a 160-unit retirement residence in the heart of Sarnia’s downtown has been abandoned and the developer is working on a new concept.
The CEO of Seasons Retirement Communities, which purchased the old Bayside Mall site in 2017, says his company remains committed to the Sarnia market and is “working hard with our building consultants to find ways to make (a development) work.”
CEO Michael Lavallee responded to a Sarnia Journal inquiry asking if the plan announced in 2022 to open a retirement residence in 2026 was still moving ahead.
City hall staff has completed site plan work for an eight-storey, 161-unit building on the former mall site and is waiting for Seasons Retirement Communities to finalize an agreement, says Sarnia’s Planning Manager Eric Hyatt.
A site plan agreement is necessary before a building permit is issued.
However, Lavallee said the company has switched gears and is now considering other options.
“The current economic environment with elevated interest rates and construction costs has made some of our previous plans and assumptions unfeasible,” said Lavallee in a written statement.
“This is consistent with what many other senior housing developers are experiencing across the country.”
Lavallee didn’t want to elaborate on what alternate plans Seasons is considering but said he hoped to have updates “in the near future.”
“…I would prefer to not discuss what our considerations are at this time as things could change,” he said.
It’s been seven years since the Oakville-based company purchased the 3.5-hectare (8.5-acre) former mall property bounded by Christina, George, Vidal and Cromwell streets.
A year later, Lavallee was at city council outlining his company’s plan to spend $40 million on commercial and residential development. He talked about a 12-storey tower with retail space facing Christina and 140-160 suites for a retirement facility.
At the time, Lavalle told reporters, “We’ve come to the table saying we’ll carry this through to the end.”
Construction was originally slated for 2020.
But first a deal needed to be reached between Seasons and the County of Lambton, which historically leased a portion of Bayside Mall for its shared services. Negotiations took more time than anticipated, the pandemic came along, and labour and building supply shortages delayed the project.
But in November 2022, officials gathered in a newly-renovated shared services building on Lochiel Street and said they were extremely impressed with the facility, which was redeveloped by Seasons at a cost of $20 million. The county has a 20-year lease to rent the building from Seasons.
That same year, the rest of the old mall came down, leaving a large underground parking lot intact that Seasons had said would accommodate the vehicles of seniors living in its new development.
From the beginning, downtown business owners heralded the Seasons plan as a great way to bring hundreds of new residents to the area and attract new commercial ventures.
Some business owners even moved downtown in anticipation of the growth and some invested in renovations.
For instance, Lillian Tang-Smith said she decided to renovate her family’s Chinese food restaurant in 2023 partially because of the promise of so many more residents living directly across the street.
She said she is still hopeful development will happen but right now Tang’s China House on Cromwell Street looks out onto Seasons’ large empty lot.
“When we heard that development was happening, we got very excited,” Tang-Smith said. “We thought, this is perfect for us. Our price points are senior-friendly.”
As it is, downtown restaurants can’t rely strictly on nearby customers. It’s important that more people move into the core, said Tang-Smith.
“The added population would definitely help.”
The property that Seasons owns in Sarnia was once occupied by the Sarnia Eaton Centre, which opened in 1982. At first, the mall thrived, but fell on hard times when Eaton’s closed and mall occupancy rates fell to 30% or lower.
Numerous owners and wannabe owners have tried to get projects off the ground over the years. But it wasn’t until April 2017 when Seasons announced major residential development that downtown boosters grew optimistic.
“It would be a game-changer,” said Tang-Smith.
Seasons owns 22 retirement residences in Ontario and Alberta. Recently, the company opened a new facility in St. Catharines and is currently “finishing up” a London project, Lavallee said.