Nokia’s plans for new Kanata campus: Retail, restaurants, residential

Assuming the plans become reality, Nokia would solidify its status as a lynchpin of Kanata’s growing tech sector.

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A corner of the Kanata North Technology Hub appears set for a dramatic makeover.

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Tech infrastructure giant Nokia, which employs about 2,300 locally, is seeking city permission to build a major new campus along March Road, just south of its current location. The proposed 500,000 square-foot office and laboratory complex would include a base of retail and commercial stores, topped by two office towers. There would be parking for 1,344 vehicles.

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At the same time, Nokia intends to raze its existing office buildings and replace them with 11 residential towers ranging in height from 13 to 29 storeys — some of which exceed the current height limit of 144 feet. The new development would include space for retailers, restaurants and sufficient parking for 2,410 cars. Current plans call for 1,900 residential units. The Nokia site requires rezoning to permit residences, retailers and restaurants.

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Assuming the plans become reality, Nokia would solidify its status as a lynchpin of Kanata’s growing tech sector. It is also a vote of confidence in the future of the office. And, not least, the addition of sufficient residential units to accommodate more than 4,000 people would help alleviate some of the pressure in Kanata’s tight housing market.

The 26-acre parcel of land has been witness to much high-tech drama since 1988, when it was acquired by Newbridge Networks — the telecommunications technology firm founded by Terence Matthews. Newbridge, one of this region’s most successful startups, hired thousands globally as its revenues soared to $1 billion annually during its first decade (All figures USD).

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Bowing to the need for massive scale in its industry, Newbridge sold its shares for $7 billion in 2000 to French telecommunications equipment giant Alcatel, which later merged with Lucent Technologies of New Jersey. There followed an even bigger transaction in 2016, when Nokia shelled out $17 billion in shares to acquire Alcatel-Lucent. Ever since, Nokia has relied on its Kanata workforce for expertise in optical and internet protocol networking technologies.

Nokia is a case study on how to navigate a tumultuous industry. The Finnish tech giant in the late 1990s was the globe’s number one provider of mobile phones. But when its main business was overwhelmed by the iPhone and Samsung’s Android devices, Nokia launched Plan B — it diversified into making the heavy-duty equipment and networks that allow smartphones to communicate with each other.

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Nokia last year posted $2 billion in profits on revenues of $26 billion. Its most profitable and fastest-growing unit, which includes the Kanata group, builds network infrastructure.

This makes Nokia a key part of a cluster of tech firms locally that are building out the globe’s communications infrastructure to support fifth-generation wireless technology. 5G software and gear offer faster, more reliable connections for a wide range of electronic devices, from cars to appliances. The three local giants — Nokia, Ericsson and Ciena — collectively employ more than 5,000 in Kanata. They are surrounded by hundreds of other tech firms with a combined workforce of more than 25,000 in the area.

The economic impact of this technology hub was obvious in the most recent census. Kanata’s population grew 16 per cent between 2016 and 2021 — double the rate for the region as a whole. The southern and northwestern perimeters of Kanata have swarmed with construction crews for much of the past decade to accommodate new home buyers.

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The hiring and house construction have exacerbated traffic congestion. Indeed, employees of Kinaxis, a supply chain software company, voted pre-pandemic to locate their new office facility in south Kanata rather than the more densely traveled North Kanata tech hub.

That’s one more selling point for the new residential units being proposed by Nokia, assuming workers do return to their offices. Will they? That’s certainly the underlying assumption of Nokia’s planning. By the time its proposed new campus is ready to be occupied, it’s likely several years will have passed and the world could be a much different place.

The timing, of course, may be affected by the severity of the ongoing stock market crunch, and whether it presages an economic slowdown or contraction. While communications carriers such as Telus and Bell Canada are expected to invest in 5G technologies for many years to come, the pace of spending will depend on how quickly subscribers and corporations buy the related services.

Tech firms with long history understand very well how quickly things can turn. In 1997, as Newbridge’s Kanata workforce topped 2,800, the company unveiled plans to build multiple new office towers to accommodate even more hiring. As it turned out, the company was already near its peak.

Despite having to adapt to a string of new owners, the Kanata core thrived because it remained competitive. Last year it spun off nearly $1 billion in economic activity, based on its contribution to Nokia’s global output. It’s why Nokia is returning the favor with new digs.

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