In each interview that UrbanToronto has presented on Thursdays over the last several weeks, we have found that every developer we have talked with has their particular specialties, each providing new insights into the business of development in Toronto and surroundings. Today we turn our attention to a joint venture development - something we have not explored yet in much detail - as we sit down with Brian Brown of Lifetime Developments and Andrew Hoffman of CentreCourt Developments to talk about their project Karma, at 21 Grenville Street in central Toronto.
What can you tell UrbanToronto about the inception of Karma? Which one of the two partners would be considered the originator of the project?
Brian Brown: Well let me start with 21 Grenville. The actual site was one that Lifetime had looked at probably about 3 years ago, and at the initial review of the site we said 'The timing's not right, I think we're going to pass, we'll see what happens in the future'. We liked the site though, and about a year and a half ago the opportunity came back to us and we thought 'You know what, I think it's time that we move forward with this. There's some challenges with this property, but we think this would be a great opportunity we can work with.' We met with the councillor, and at that time we were working with Andrew, who had been at Menkes prior to starting his own company, and we were very comfortable with him, having a lot of experience with him through multiple projects. He was somebody we knew operated the same way, had the same vision, shared the same attitude and perspective on development as a whole, so when the opportunity came for us to partner on a site, this was the perfect site for us to work on. I don't think it's one group had the site or one group was the originator of it, just the timing worked and all the puzzle pieces came together at the right time, and it was a site we said we were going to go together on and move forward on.
Andrew Hoffman: Just to add to that, it truly is an equal partnership and really has its roots in shared core values, and those core values have really come down to caring about the details, caring about the design, caring about suite layouts, caring about the amenity package we're offering, caring about not only the buyers, but all the people involved in the development process; from brokers to consultants to the trades, and carrying that all through the process. Those core values really translated into the theme of the Karma project which we jointly created.
BB: You know, for both parties, for both Andrew and for Lifetime, we have the same attitude that it's great to do a great development, but years down the road we want the purchasers to be proud that they bought into a Lifetime or CentreCourt project. Same thing for renters and the community. Anyone that walks by the development; we want them to know that it's a Lifetime Development or CentreCourt development. There is this long term relationship that we try to establish with the neighbourhood, because when you put up a building like 21 Grenville - or Karma - it has a huge impact on the street which lasts for many, many years. It changes the flow of traffic on the street, it changes the way people walk on the street and it changes the way people interact with the neighbourhood as a whole. We're bringing people to an area and that new population, that new group of people want to be active, and be a part of the neighbourhood. So when we look at a site and then develop it, it's not just about 'what's the building's going to look like', it's about 'how is this building going to interact with and grow with the neighbourhood' where we're building it.
So you are saying you're not just creating a building, you're creating both a legacy for this neighbourhood and for your two companies.
BB: Yes, very much so.
AH: And what was exciting about this project was when it came to the marketing side, we jointly sat down and talked about core values and philosophies at a personal level and a corporate level, and that translated into coming up with our karma theme of caring and giving back to the community and really using this project as a testimony to how we can collectively give back. That translated into a number of programs that we're rolling out and the attitude of everyone on our collective team was to have that conviction of giving back and doing good work.
Are there certain strengths which come more from one company than the other? Do the two companies compliment each other in particular ways by working together?
AH: Well the great thing about the relationship we have is that we've all been in the business a long time. I'd been at Menkes for 20 years, the Lifetime organization had been around for decades, so we'd all seen a lot of different situations. To bring on-stream a development project there are hundreds, if not thousands, of challenges associated with that, and having 20-plus years of experience individually and hundreds of years collectively, there's definitely complimentary skill sets and experiences that we collectively bring to the table. So throughout the process there are not clear lines of delineation as to who or which group is doing what activity, but in each activity both the Lifetime team and the CentreCourt team have incremental skills sets that they can bring to the equation.
BB: The interesting thing is despite the experience we have, we each look at things in different ways. That difference helps to create a better project because we're constantly questioning the way that we're doing things and whether we should be doing the same thing over and over again, or if there's a new challenge or new way of looking at things. When you bring in new partners it gives you that fresh perspective. It's everything from building design to the way that we market a project, to how we conduct our sales. Each partner brings in different experiences, different skill sets and because of that it gives you the opportunity to see things in different lights, and quite often the different light is what makes the project better.
AH: And that's kind of a core value that makes for a successful partnership - being open to new ideas and new ways of doing things - rather than saying 'This is the way we've done it in the past and we have to do it that way in the future'. I know at Lifetime, and certainly me personally, being open to new ways of doing things or better ways of doing things applying that to a project is what makes it exciting and makes for a better project at the end of the day.
Any developer is going to want to create something that is above and beyond the last thing they did to set it apart. Are you always wanting to improve upon what you've done in the past?
BB: You touched on it earlier when you talked about legacy development, and it's even more so a truth today than it used to be because we're all looking at development as - especially with high-rise development - you're looking at a large number of purchasers for a single development. Your reputation hangs on the opinion of a small group who have a large voice, who can communicate that voice throughout the development process. So it's important to make sure you're focused on not just the initial design, but the final execution, delivery of the building. You want people that buy in one building to talk about buying in the next building, and we've started our own purchaser database because we understand that the strength of these purchasers and their ability to talk about the experience they had with Lifetime or CentreCourt is so important. The way communication goes today, it's very easy to share that opinion.
UrbanToronto is a part of that.
BB: Yeah, and so legacy development to us is about making sure we build the right building, that we deliver on the promises we make early on in the development process, and we go out to market and say it's going to have these kinds of finishes or it's going to be delivered to these standards. It's important to us to deliver on that: as developers we consider all of our sites to have an impact on each other. And not just that, but Lifetime's getting into a new area where it's not just about building a residential building and then moving on to the next project. A lot of the projects we're doing, and that Andrew is doing, are mixed use developments, so you're adding additional layers that ensure that the developer themselves is a part of the project for a long term basis. We're adding office space quite often, which we're maintaining ownership of, and doing the leasing and doing the on-site management of those pieces of property. We're doing commercial development; commercial parking in some of these developments, and Lifetime just recently launched our own hotel brand and our intention is to grow that brand into multiple locations and countries. So it's about growing a legacy, it's about making sure that every development helps to build our reputation and help to reinforce what Lifetime or CentreCourt are able to develop and deliver upon.
Tell us a little bit more about this project - Karma's specific flavors, I suppose - and what you're looking to create here.
BB: With Karma, very early on we met with the Downtown Yonge BIA - it was a very important step for us to get the community involved very early on - even before we'd purchased the property - we sat down with them and we asked them what they saw as the right development for this neighbourhood. For them, great retail was important. They said there was a high amount of pedestrian traffic, very low car traffic, but high pedestrian traffic especially along the laneway - St. Luke's Lane, which is just to the east of the property - and that they would really like to see strong retail. So long as they saw strong retail, they were very satisfied with the development. So for this it was as much a mixed-use development as any, it was about making sure the ground floor and the podium and the retail really had a strong connection to the pedestrian experience, so that as people were walking by the building it was no longer an empty parking lot with cars being parked there, and a walkway towards Yonge and College for the subway, which had very little to give back to those people.
BB: That pedestrian experience is very important to us. Beyond that, making sure the tower was positioned on the right part of the land, that it related properly to the buildings around it, and that it took other buildings into consideration with its shape and setbacks. So there were a lot of things that we worked on very early on.
AH: For CentreCourt - while I've been in the business for 20 years, this is really the second project under my new CentreCourt name - what was incredibly exciting about the opportunity to jointly develop this project was it's right in the core of the type of projects I want to do. I want to be focusing on urban locations that are close to the subway. This one being right on the Yonge subway line, doing a sustainable development, located in this downtown neighbourhood, and offering the type of product mix that we've offered, it's really right in the sweet spot of the type of development I want to be doing. We have a heritage house on the property that's been nicely integrated into the development while being respectful of the history, and bringing forward, beautiful, modern architecture into the mix. Looking at the tower itself, it's a beautifully designed building by architectsAlliance. We've brought on best-in-class consultants Cecconi Simone - as good a designer as there is really worldwide - and we’ve got a suite mix that really caters to the local demographic, and then we've layered onto that an amenities package that is outstanding. The type of amenities that we've incorporated into this project are probably as good as any project in the city, from outdoor terraces with barbeques to a great fitness and steam room, what we call the 'Player's Club Lounge' with billiards and ping pong and card tables, to a sound room, where people can sing and jam, to a theatre room. It's really an amazing amenity package that people who live in this building are going to be able to take advantage of.
The sound room struck me as a unique offering amongst the condomimium developments in the city.
BB: We started to talk about that for people living in condos, they have to think of their suite as a small section of where they live and that the amenities within the building are just as much a part of their ownership; it's an extension of their unit. So when we started to think about who's moving into these buildings: if they were in a home what would they be doing? What are they missing by living in a building like this? So we started to throw around a number of ideas of people taking music lessons. We talked about how there's no space for people that live in a condo to go and take lessons without interfering with your neighbour, and so developing a sound room was one of the concepts we talked about. Then we took it a step further, saying there's a lot of people who like to sing Karaoke and they don't want to do that in their suite because it may interfere with their neighbours as well. So the sound room has a dual purpose. There's a number of different amenities that we - and we always try different amenities for different buildings - but we spent a lot of time focusing on what the lobby is going to look like and what the amenity package is going to be, because those are two key elements for people when they're choosing a building to buy into and live in: the lobby is the first impression of the building as soon as you walk in, and it's as much for the purchaser as it for the person coming to visit the purchaser, because they want them to have the right experience when they come to visit as well.
You said earlier that you want people to be proud of having bought here. If the lobby says nothing about them, that's a stumbling block, so that's a very important first impression you're building.
BB: That's where I think Cecconi Simone really did an amazing job making sure that the front entrance - the first experience when you walk in - that you're not hit by a concierge desk the moment you enter. You're given the chance to walk into a room and experience that room, to feel almost an artistic, architectural element that is the lobby, which as soon as you walk into it you know that you're in a very unique space.
AH: And the talent of Cecconi Simone extends through the suites as well. The trend has been for smaller suites, but we're been fortunate with these designs. The suites have been very efficiently designed. The kitchens for all the suites are all the same dimensions as larger ones, with efficiently intergrated European styled appliances. The nature and the lifestyles of the buyers which occupy Karma will be an active lifestyle, where they're really taking advantage of the location's attributes; the restaurants, the Y, and all the different amenities that are in the area together with the amenities that are in the building. The entertaining nature of today's lifestyle is really outside of your own home - or where you want to entertain within your home, you can do so in an extension of your home in the amenity space that we're offering in this building.
Can you tell me more about street level and the heritage home on the site, and what you want to do with the ground floor?
AH: We are looking for retail that will be complimentary and additive to the great residential program we've developed. We could see a great restaurant being incorporated into the heritage house, we could see within the ground floor of the retail program a café.
BB: It's very difficult at this stage to say this is the exact mix of retail that we see in the space because we're really talking about 3, 4 years down the road when we'll be finding the right tenant. What we can say is that we've always been very careful about who we put into the buildings, and it's not just the first tenant that comes along that gets the space.
AH: It's certainly not being actively marketed at this stage. We know we're going to have retail that's additive and complimentary to the residential, but delivery of this will be in the fall of 2015, and retail trends change in the meantime, so really our focus will be getting great retail that's supportive of the overall development, but it's not a priority to fill that retail tomorrow.
I am interested in the move of the house from the west side of the site over to the St. Luke's Lane side, and how the street level is programmed.
BB: We spent quite a bit of time talking about the heritage house with the community. We had four different working groups from the community on the project, where the heritage building and its location was one of the key topics that was discussed. We also spent a lot of time with the heritage department talking about things as well, and with our own heritage consultant and our own architect. The most important thing that came from these meetings was that the heritage building needed to be moved to a location where it could be more visible, that it would have more of a chance to be celebrated on the property, and that the current position on the property had it positioned too close to another building: it would almost be tucked away in the development and lost through the process. From the beginning we always said we thought this was a piece that would be great to incorporate into the development and that it could become a feature of the development. Where it ended up on the north-east corner of the property, along the laneway, it gives it a chance to be seen by the most eyes, it gives it a chance to add a new characteristic or new element to the laneway, which is heavily walked upon by people avoiding walking along Yonge street. So they walk along Grenville or the laneway just north of us, and we've seen more and more of that in the last few years. A lot of councillors are pushing us to make sure the laneways aren't seen just as the roads being used for delivery trucks and for garbage pick-up, but they're actually being used for pedestrians to walk along, so the finishing of those laneways today is as important as the finishing of the roads. We have a special treatment that we're applying to the laneway itself, lighting and paving it to make it more of a walking-friendly street. It's about adding a degree of life to the laneway, and that's why we thought the heritage house would be perfectly positioned in that space.
AH: We're just very proud of the nature of the architecture, how the heritage house has been integrated on the eastern corner of the site by the lane, and then we have this glass jewel box at the ground level.
I love the huge panes of glass on Grenville; I think that's great.
AH: The tower itself has this interesting fritted glass on the balconies, but clear glass on the corners that switches over halfway up, and there's an element of an over-hang that creates this illusion of movement in the tower itself that is quite special.
One of the members on our forum called it a deferential move towards The Gallery, the building just to the west of you, a friendly gesture from Karma.
BB: It was something architectsAlliance played a lot with - we wanted this building to stand out since it was going to be very visible from Yonge and College - and so the frit pattern on the glass was both to give that shifting of the building as it goes up, but it also adds a degree of privacy, and hides some of the furniture or other elements that are put on people's balconies. It cleans up the external appearance of the building. This frit pattern was actually carried over a little bit onto the east and west faces as well. It's a little hard to see in the building model, but there is a bit of a frit pattern, almost like a DNA line that run across the glass of the 2 sides. That's also to give the building a little bit of a unique appearance as well since it's more of a statement. That's why we work with architects like architectsAlliance and Rudy Wallman and CORE Architects, because it's really about making something that will stand out in the city's skyline: we want people to drive by and say that's one of Lifetime's buildings, that's one of CentreCourt's buildings. We want it to stand out and not just blend in with the other buildings that are surrounding us.
The oval mechanical penthouse at the top is a nice touch.
BB: That's always a challenge, but it's an important element. How do we finish it off and make sure that it is just as much an architectural element as any other piece of the building? We don't want it to look like it's just a mechanical shed at the top, so the oval shape that surrounds the mechanical in addition to some additional feature lighting that we're going to put up there, was something we thought was really going to make the building unique.
This is the building's signature on the city's skyline and how people will locate Karma from a distance. You want something that doesn’t look like anything else.
BB: It's almost like it's an art piece and that's the finishing touch.