We’re back this week with Part II of our 3-part interview with Gary Switzer, CEO of MOD Developments. Following-up on the in-depth look into his early years in Toronto last week, in this installment we focus on his years at Great Gulf and MOD’s first project, FIVE St. Joseph.

When we broke we were talking about your move from the City Planning Department into private sector development.

Yes. In 1987, Great Gulf Homes hired me with the intention of starting to do downtown developments. The driving forces behind the idea were the owners of Great Gulf, Norman and Elly Reisman.  I regard both of them as mentors from a business point of view, and I loved the fact that they were (and still are) as passionate about design as I was. We started the high-rise division at Great Gulf in '87 and I stayed there for 21 years.

Gary Switzer talks with interviewer Alex Corey, image by Craig WhiteGary Switzer talks with interviewer Alex Corey, image by Craig White

The recession hit in `89 and the condo market slowed to a halt. Through the strong partnerships we had, we started to build  non-profit housing. The condo world came back in the summer of '95, coincidentally when the new government under Mike Harris cancelled all of the non-profits. Our first new project at that time was at the south-east corner of Jarvis and King, which at the time was a parking lot. It was kind of a full circle to my architecture school days in that one of my school projects was set in that area, and I had extensively photographed the neighbourhood in the mid-70s when it was primarily parking lots and machine shops.

Sportsman Shop, northeast corner of Jarvis and King TorontoSportsman Shop, northeast corner of Jarvis and King, image courtesy of Gary Switzer

I remember George Baird at the time saying that the St. Lawrence area in the 1970s was like Berlin after the war, given the mass demolitions of the 1950s and 1960s. This site became The Saint James, designed by Quadrangle Architects, and I think was one of the best buildings we did for both its attention to its context and its way of meshing into the historic block.

Streetview of the Saint James (top right) and its 3 heritage neighbours at King Streetview of the Saint James (top right) and its 3 heritage neighbours at King and Jarvis, image from google maps

It was also the only building I’ve ever done that was totally within the zoning by-law; it didn’t even require any variances at the Committee of Adjustment.  The positive thing about the existing zoning was that its angular plane encouraged terracing, and the terracing at Saint James allowed us to charge more money for those suites than anyone had achieved at that point in the neighbourhood.  The building was very successful, and I still remember the ward councilor at the time, Kyle Rae, telling me that he would bring other developers down to the site and tell them to build buildings as good as the Saint James.

The Saint James Condominiums in Toronto by Great Gulf with Quadrangle ArchitectsThe Saint James Condominium, image by Robert Burley courtesy of Quadrangle Architects

From there we did The Morgan, on the northwest corner of Spadina and Richmond, one of the first building to take advantage of the loosening of the zoning at King and Spadina. Similar to Saint James, I asked the architects (Quadrangle again), to design a building that respected the context, in this case those wonderful Spadina art deco buildings like the Tower Building, the Fashion Building and the Balfour Building. We used the new King/Spadina zoning envelopes as a starting point and went beyond them in terms of terracing on Richmond (which wasn’t required) while at the same time respecting the 11-storey benchmark of the surrounding heritage buildings.  We also went way beyond what a typical condominium would have done at that time in terms of brick and stone detailing, in order to achieve the art deco ambience.  Surprisingly, some people asked me afterwards if The Morgan was a renovation!

The Morgan in Toronto by Great Gulf with Quadrangle ArchitectsThe Morgan, image courtesy of Gary Switzer

I loved the King/Spadina area — maybe it went back to my childhood and remembering when clothes were actually made in these buildings.  Our next site was the northeast corner of King and Spadina, at that time another parking lot. This time I wanted to do something different from the retro-style Morgan, and hired Diamond Schmitt Architects to do their first residential building since the 1980s. I knew Don Schmitt from architecture school and had always admired their buildings; their earlier incarnation as Diamond and Myers were early heroes of mine. Don designed a very modern building, which we called The Hudson. The design was contextual in its massing and materials, making reference to the brick warehouses of the area, and yet remained very contemporary. I remember that John Bentley Mays described the building as “muscular” in how it held its own in the neighbourhood, and we got lots of positive comments on how it met the street.

The Hudson in Toronto by Great Gulf with Diamond Schmitt ArchitectsThe Hudson, image courtesy of Gary Switzer

The perception really has changed over the past two decades; retailers and developers are now focused on actively finding the new cool area rather than staying within specific boundaries, and you must have seen this evolution in how people perceive Downtown. Where do you see that going in the future in terms of peoples’ perceptions of what is and isn’t Downtown?

It shows you how things have changed - around 2000 when we were doing retail at The Morgan our guys approached Starbucks, and Starbucks responded that it was on the wrong side of Spadina, too far west. You look at it today and Starbucks are everywhere, but at that time the west side of Spadina was perceived as being too grungy!

I think the city is, to use a cliché, always evolving. I go to Cecconi Simone’s office located at Dundas and Lisgar over by Dufferin. There used to be nothing much out there to even have lunch at and now look at Dundas today. Even streets like Ossington have changed. I remember as an architecture student going behind the hoarding around John Howard’s Provincial Lunatic Asylum at 999 Queen Street West when it was being demolished; this was not an area you wanted to linger in! Things are always changing.

Lunatic Asylum at 999 Queen West in Toronto by architect John HowardDemolition of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, image from CAMH

As far as “Downtown”, prices have gotten to the point now that you’re paying $700 per square foot to live centrally — affordability is declining. Units are getting smaller as prices rise, forcing you to go further out to get more value and it then becomes a trade off. Neighbourhoods are no longer as closely associated with ethnic or religious groups making it much easier to move around. My father grew up in ‘The Ward’; I remember asking him about what Jarvis was like back in the '30s and he said he wouldn’t go there because you’d get beaten up if you did. If you were from this part of town you wouldn’t go to that part; it really was a different way of perceiving the city.

In 2009 you left Great Gulf to form MOD Developments. Tell us about the genesis of the company — the motivations behind it and challenges you’ve faced — and the team you have subsequently built there.

By 2008/09 I’d been at Great Gulf for 21 years and I was happy; we were doing great buildings, had won a lot of awards and acclaim for 18 Yorkville (one of Toronto’s first point towers), we were finishing X Condos, doing Charlie and we had X2 on the plate. We had sites in Denver as well as Dallas. At the same time, I felt the need for more challenges. A business opportunity came up that allowed me to form my own development company and do my own projects. It takes a lot to change gears that dramatically but I made the decision to strike out on my own. 

I’m the CEO of MOD and my President is Noorez Lalani, a lawyer by profession who has an MBA in Real Estate from Schulich and who previously worked at TD’s financial capital division. Our group is small but growing, and we’re now located on Price Street near Summerhill.

FIVE St. Joseph in Toronto by MOD Development with Hariri PontariniProject rendering for FIVE St. Joseph, image courtesy of MOD Developments

Our first project became FIVE St. Joseph. It's a joint venture with Graywood, and it encompasses a number of themes that had always interested me, namely heritage, modern design, and city-building. It went on to win the top awards from BILD in 2011, including Project of the Year and High-rise Design of the Year.

FIVE is located on a stretch of Yonge Street that is now seeing quite a bit of development pressure, much of which is responding to the tone you are setting there. Tell us a bit about acquiring that site from Diamondcorp, the vision that you had for it, and the hurdles you faced along the way in creating a new style of development there.

I think that Steve Diamond did an excellent job in terms of his zoning of the site. I remember that site from back in my days as a planner because I was involved with all the rezonings on Bay Street (which were transforming the area), and this was always seen as the challenge site because of all the heritage buildings on it. Every building on the site was listed including the warehouses on St. Nicholas. It was a challenge as to what you could build there and I think that what Steve did to unlock the value of that site was to tie it in with the preservation of five historic buildings on Yonge Street. By saying “well we’re not just going to do a façade” he went ahead with David Pontarini to come up with a brilliant design that integrated the block.

When we bought the site we looked at what David had designed and thought that from a constructability point of view, it would be much more simple and beneficial to the heritage to actually set the tower even further back from Yonge Street than what was in the original design. Instead of just propping up the front walls and rebuilding the back we decided to have a smaller underground garage and leave the three- and four-storey portions on Yonge as-is, thereby creating a lower level roof garden to separate the tower from the Yonge heritage buildings. That gave more integrity to the Yonge Street buildings.

FIVE St. Joseph in Toronto by MOD Development with Hariri PontariniTower set-back and terrace at FIVE St. Joseph, image courtesy of MOD Development

Those buildings are challenging in terms of retail and are part of a larger issue on Yonge Street, a stretch where it’s akin to some third-rate strip mall in the suburbs in terms of the quality of retail. One of the challenges is the fact that the spaces are quite small. Even having said that, they’re no different than shops on Queen West, King West or north Yonge Street. It’s not just the physical space though — there’s been a cumulative neglect south of Bloor Street with a number of buildings having bad renovations, or no renovations at all. We saw an opportunity with ERA Architects to deal with heritage in three separate ways. First was the exterior restoration with brand new interiors on Yonge Street; second was the preservation of the four-storey 1905 Gothic-revival Rawlinson façade on St. Joseph. (That is — I’ve been told — the largest façade retention in Toronto; people are agog when they see that steel frame. The façade is actually floating above the ledge!) The third part — and here’s where I think the brilliance of Diamondcorp and HPA came in — was to convince the heritage folks that the balance of the site could be demolished and then reconstructed in a way that reflected the qualities of the original buildings. The original buildings weren’t great, they were really just background buildings, but they had a certain vibe, similar to a back street in London or New York. Some of the windows were small and they had varying floor heights, so you couldn’t really work with those buildings as-is.

Kyle Rae also felt very strongly that he wanted the vehicular entrance and exit on St. Joseph and not St. Nicholas because he wanted St. Nicholas to maintain that feeling of being an almost quasi-pedestrian street where it’s the cars that are interfering with pedestrians. That allowed us to open up the bottoms of all those buildings for retail.

FIVE St. Joseph in Toronto by MOD Development with Hariri PontariniProject rendering for St. Nicholas Laneway, image courtesy of MOD Development

Those are the three aspects of heritage we are dealing with FIVE.  We’re leaving the Yonge Street portion to the end; there’s no point fixing it all up right now with all the construction and noise and dust, but we have submitted a very detailed heritage plan through ERA.

The existing retail landscape here could be described as a hodgepodge of neighbourhood, tourist and very niche-market stores, many in need of some refreshment. Some retailers on Yonge are worried about changes that are coming as a result of this upgrade - who do you expect as tenants, and how do you see the FIVE restoration affecting the area?

What I’ve always found so surprising is why the retail is so good along Church Street, just one block away, and so awful along Yonge. I can’t say specifics but we’re looking at some pretty interesting retailers who could bring a bit of that Queen West vibe in to the area. I think that’s sort of what it needs — somebody has to start it, and nobody seems to want to be a pioneer. You go to Church Street and you’ve got shops like Cumbrae’s and Pusateri’s, all these great retailers and restaurants, and I wonder why can’t you do it here. Perhaps it’s because Church Street has more of a village feel and allows on-street parking, so you don’t feel as though the cars are going 60 miles per hour all the time.

FIVE St. Joseph in Toronto by MOD Development with Hariri PontariniHeritage buildings along Yonge Street and future retail, image courtesy of MOD Development

I remember all the complaints about the “mallification” of Queen West, when Le Chateau, The Gap, and American Apparel came in. I was walking on Sainte-Catherine Street in Montreal for the first time in 10 years recently and it has improved so much — some of those buildings are just gorgeous. You’ve got Jacob in a beautiful little office building and it almost reminded me of San Francisco.  Where the old Eaton’s and Simpson’s used to be, the quality of retail seems to be a lot better than what we have on Yonge Street, near Wellesley.

Yonge Street up in that area is unique as it has a reputation for being a tourist attraction with a variety of souvenir stores, but there is clearly an influx of new residents moving into that neighbourhood who will require a different retail environment.

It’s not even that interesting for a tourist; I look where my office is up by the Summerhill LCBO and I would say that primarily the retail that does the best up there are restaurants, food stores, or furniture/ antique stores. Could that not work at FIVE? Obviously the demographics in Summerhill are different but what are the demographics on King or Queen West? Why is it so interesting on Queen West but so boring on Yonge near St. Joseph? The Yonge/Wellesley area is no doubt evolving and has evolved. It still has a lot of vitality but it can definitely be so much better.

When we did 18 Yorkville (at Yonge and Yorkville) we saw first hand how good design (architectsAlliance) could attract good retailers and transform a block. I think we’ll do the same at St. Joseph.

18 Yorkville in Toronto by Great Gulf with architectsAlliance18 Yorkville by Great Gulf, image coutesy of Gary Switzer

You are working with ERA Architects on the heritage elements, Hariri Pontarini on the tower, Cecconi Simone on interior design and Janet Rosenberg on landscaping. You’ve subsequently carried this team with you to your second project at Massey Tower. Can you tell us about the creative process and collaborative effort required to pull these projects off?

I’m a big believer in the team approach – there’s no such thing as superstars in this business, especially as a developer. At Great Gulf I was using a number of the same consultants as I am now. I often use an analogy when it comes to explaining my role, saying that I’m like an executive producer making movies. You’ve got your movie stars, your director, set designers, costume designer, music guy, etc. FIVE was a huge success, and I credit most of the success to my team. When I look at how successful FIVE was, both from a marketing and architectural point of view, I want to take the same team to the next one.  This is what I did at Massey Tower, particularly because it’s the most complicated development I’ve ever worked on and I needed a very experienced team to bring it to fruition.

That concludes Part II of our interview with Gary Switzer. Stay tuned next week for the final installment of our three-part interview, where we delve into MOD Development’s second project, Massey Tower, and talk about the current dilemmas affecting heritage preservation in Toronto.