We resume our conversation with Sam Crignano, Part 1 of which was published on Thursday, October 6, as we continue to talk about the L Tower, and then move on to the Cherry Street waterfront site, Pier 27, 154 Front Street East, and the future of Cityzen.
Tell us what you are currently looking at with the test panels behind the Sony Centre [as of interview in mid-August]?
Initially they were set up so we could finalize the colour of the glass and the metal. There are some spandrel panels, so we wanted to make sure that the colouring was right. The other is in order for our people to test how these panels get installed and fastened to the structure itself, so they're looking at the logistics of doing that. The actual testing of the panels themselves is happening in Pennsylvania at a laboratory, and that will take place over the course of the next two weeks.
When might we see cladding on the building?
Probably as early as October we could start to see some cladding. If you look at the cladding system it's beefy, it looks commercial, and that's because it's curtain wall. Even the window wall (portion, around the balconies) is a modified curtain wall system, so it's a hybrid. It's a much better system.
Are you saying that the one on the left is a window wall hybrid, and the one the right is curtain wall?
No it's all the same, but we took the curtain wall and modified it so it becomes a window wall. The only difference between the two is that curtain wall sits on top of the other, and with window wall it's the slab itself that supports it.
So both of these panels going up on the building in different spots?
All those elements are on the building, not exactly like that, but all those various components are going to be used in the building. If you go the scale model, you'll see the variations, and it will be true to the scale model.
Tell us about the 'Name Our Condo' campaign for what became Backstage condominiums. Were you surprised by some of the submissions that came in?
The campaign was Blackjet's idea, and yes it was amazing how people caught on to it. I forget how many submissions we got. It was in the thousands, so it was a great campaign. I'd like to do it again, but I never like to do the same thing twice. Some of those names were just off the wall.
We were top 20.
What was your name?
UrbanToronto Tower. One of these days!
The other reason we held this contest was because we really didn't know what to call the building. Some of the marketing people were saying "why don't we call it L Tower 2", and we didn't think that was appropriate because it wasn't going to look at all like L Tower. L Tower was designed by Libeskind, and this was another architect, so we wanted to keep it separate. At that point it became difficult coming up with a name. That's when Rob from Blackjet came up with this contest idea, and it was awesome.
Let's talk about the Cherry Street waterfront site. You have assembled what looks like an all-star team of architects: you have Foster from London who has an impressive record with avant garde designs, and you have aA and KPMB who are some of the most sought-after architects in Toronto. Tell us a bit about the vision.
There's a fourth one actually, his name is Eric Kuhne. The company is called CivicArts - also based in London - and his focus is on the retail. His focus is basically that ground floor plane because we have a very substantive retail component to it. We wanted someone who had that experience.
Will each architect focus on their particular areas of expertise?
Right now it's collaborative because the current focus is the site plan. We're not at the stage where we're articulating towers. We're focused on the master plan: site plan issues, some technical things with respect to traffic, the Queen's Quay realignment, Cherry Street is also going to be realigned. We are looking at all those aspects and once we have something that works, we'll start articulating what happens above it. The placement of the towers is also critical, so that's something else that they're all working on right now.
Is a lot of that not already articulated in the conceptual master plan that the City put out some time ago?
It formed part of the City bylaw that they approved, but we're changing it. It's ok, but we think that we can do a lot better. We've taken some of those principles, but it's what I do in every project. I tell the architects to draw the best possible design. So if you have to wipe the slate clean, then do that. Produce the best possible design.
What happens to Cherry Street? Is it going to be one continuous street?
Cherry Street is being realigned. Right now it sits right where the Keeting Channel widens, and the realigned Cherry is further west. So it's in the wider part of the Keeting Channel.
So you won't have to use Lake Shore any more?
No, it's a straight alignment. Queens Quay will come through the site and it will have this southeasterly movement, and it'll connect into what's now Lake Shore as you move east of Cherry. The realigned Cherry, and the new Queens Quay effectively create these four districts, four quadrants. Then what's important to us is those north-south linkages as well into the Distillery. We've got Cherry, we've got Parliament, and there's nothing in between. If you're on Trinity in the Distillery, a logical north-south connection is through the berm. It won't be vehicular, it'll be pedestrian, but it's an idea that we're promoting. We've met with the principals at the Distillery, and they've been wanting to find a way to get to the water. Waterfront Toronto have been preaching these north-south linkages forever and we think it's important.
We've brought on Claude Cormier. He's a thinker. He's a landscape architect, but he looks at the big picture. He just doesn't look at our site in isolation, and it's not just a matter of adding jewelry to architecture. That's not how he perceives landscape architecture, so I think he's going to do some really interesting stuff for us. We really haven't seen much from him yet because we need to figure out what we're doing with the retail component, the placement of the buildings, the roads, the access to and from the site, the placement of the ramps is critical, and then loading. If in fact we end up with 350,000 to 500,000 sq ft of retail, which puts us into a regional category in terms of retail play, you've got people who are going to be coming specifically for that retail. You have to make it convenient for them, but you also have the logistics of moving a lot of materials around the site. It's difficult.
Is LRT being worked into the plans along Queens Quay and down Cherry Street?
Well, you've heard from the Fords, they don't like streetcars. Obviously no one likes buses. I know they are feverishly exploring, and Doug is involved firsthand. They're looking for a solution. It's not like they don't want public transit, they're big supporters of public transit. They want the right kind of public transit, and we're all for that.
That's been floating out there. Tanenbaum has his idea that he's floated out there which is a rail system of a sort, but streetcars are clearly an antiquated technology. It's not a new technology, but let's see what presents itself. Obviously Corus are counting on a public transit system, and George Brown has how many thousands of students?
I believe it's part of Hines contract with Waterfront Toronto that some rapid transit be built.
Everyone is reliant on public transit. We're an urban location, and it's not like the Fords don't agree with that, they do. They just don't like the idea of using this antiquated technology - the streetcar - in a modern day application. I don't disagree with that either, but we need a solution so let's find a solution that everyone is happy with, and it boils down to cost as well.
Are your architects involved in trying to find a possible solution?
Everyone has ideas. As you know, Bruce Kuwabara and Peter Clewes are involved with Waterfront Toronto, they're on the design committee. Everyone is keen on finding a solution, but trying to find that balance between a technology that's clearly state of the art, and trying to make it work within the budget parameters. It may require the involvement of the Province and at the Federal level, but if you're going to invest money in infrastructure, what better place to do it than the Toronto waterfront. Everyone speaks about the mistakes of the past that we made, on the western part of the waterfront. Well let's not make those mistakes again, let's try and correct them. I love our waterfront. I don't see anything wrong with our waterfront. Sure I take issue with some of the buildings that were built on the waterfront, but it works. People flock to the waterfront. I now live here. I walk there. I cycle down there frequently, and it's always filled with people. There are always people on the streets and there are things to do. HTO and Sugar Beach are magnets, and on a hot summer day they're filled to capacity.
People forget that Centre Island is fantastic, and when you get over there you go 'Oh, this is Toronto, look at what we have here'.
That's an amenity at our doorstep that we take for granted.
Harbour Castle was the one that sort of made the bad impression. At the foot of Yonge Street - and the big parking garage - before you even get to the ferries.
But once the waterfront gets built out, it softens the impact the Harbour Castle may now have, because all you're seeing there right now is that. Pier 27 will soften it, and you move further east it's all part of that same fabric. I think you'll view it a bit differently once it's all built out.
There are rumours floating around that a next phase at Pier 27 is coming up shortly. Can you say anything about that?
We're currently moving the administration from the current sales office to a temporary sales office, and we are gutting out the Pier 27 sales pavilion. We're building a model suite that we actually have left in Phase 1. We don't have too many units left in Phase 1 - I believe we only have 40 or so - but we wanted to build a model suite that was somewhat substantive. We decided to take one of our larger units, and it's actually one of the bridge units that we've chosen. It's in preparation for the next phase. We're still working on the approvals of the next phase, and I think we're close to finalizing. As you know we went to council and got approval there, and hopefully by mid-fall we should have them ironed out and that will put us in a position to launch. The only issue I have is - let's say it's October - do I really want to launch the next phase of a waterfront project in November/December? That's something that we haven't concluded yet. Nevertheless, we've started to prepare for it, and definitely by early next year we'll be in the market selling the next phase of Pier 27.
We mentioned Sugar Beach earlier and some of the infrastructure investment that the City put into the East Bayfront area. What kind of investments are you looking for from the City for your site as well?
We now have the new Sherbourne Park, so I don't think we need another park. Whatever improvements we require for our site, we will build them and we will pay for them. I'm not looking to the City for that. I definitely want a solution to the transit. I want public transit, there's no question. I'd like a solution. I'll do whatever I can to help out.
I'm hoping all the money that we pay in the form of development charges - cash-in-lieu of, the park contribution - and it's a lot of money… I'm hoping that more of that money will be spent in the neighbourhood and not squandered. I don't like the fact that it goes into this slush fund, and there's really no local benefit. If there is an area that really needs it, it's this neighbourhood. It needs that money. We don't mind paying it, we'll pay those moneys, but for instance: public art. Enough with these stone sofas, or these sculptures that are scattered throughout the city. Why don't we take that money and do something more important. Maybe build a cultural centre that is art focused. Let's pool these funds together and create something, perhaps at the foot of Parliament adjacent to Parliament Quay. There's a sliver of land there owned by Waterfront Toronto. Why don't we pool those art contribution moneys and put it towards something cultural on that land? Or, these linkages that everyone talks about. This linkage that we're talking about through the railway berm, and maybe overtop Lake Shore. Maybe that money is spent for that infrastructure, because it doesn't just benefit Cherry Street, or the Distillery, it benefits the surrounding community, and those other communities that connect to it.
What kind of timelines are we looking at? Give us an idea of when you would like to see shovels hit the ground, and how long you would expect for the community to fully take shape?
We're hoping to have our approvals within two years. We're looking at a marketing campaign that could start in year two or three. We understand that following Great Gulf, Hines is thinking of coming to market with their first phase next spring or summer. If they do well, they will quickly come forward with their next phase, so within two to three years, you're at Parliament. By then we should be ready and in a position to launch ours. Right now we're going through this redesign. By redesign, I mean that right now there's an existing bylaw and we want to tweak it. Then we have to engage in this approval process which could take one to two years, and then we have to prepare to come to market. For us, it's realistically a two to three year cycle. To build that out, I would suggest to you a 12 year cycle from approvals. Say we're two years away from approvals. From then we're probably about 12 years.
I can't wait to see what they're going to do with the Portlands. Some of those views looking back at the city are pretty amazing. A lot of people think that the Distillery and even Cherry Street is far out there. What they don't realize is that if you look at it on a map, Cherry Street is half the distance between the Financial District and Liberty Village. It's a lot closer than people think.
It always feels further when you have parking lots to pass by. As soon as you knit the fabric of the city together, you go right from one spot to the next.
Early on I tested the consultants. We were on the site, and I said to them, 'where is the Distillery?' When they looked for Distillery, they're looking west already because they think we are much further east, when actually not only is it north, but northeast, and the athletes village is on the east side of Cherry Street.
Your project at 154 Front Street East: what's the progress there?
Again, that's going through the approvals process. We've been meeting with the community, the local stakeholders, neighbours, and Peter Clewes is quite involved in that process. They like what they've seen to date. I think you've seen some of those images, so we're just tweaking that, and we're probably going to launch that project in February/March.
Any idea what we might expect from some of the tweaks and changes that you're looking at right now?
Well we want to maintain the design - everyone likes the design - so we're distributing height over the site: some of the setbacks, podium conditions, those sorts of things. I think we're close to coming to an agreement with the City.
What challenges do you foresee for Cityzen as remaining empty downtown sites quickly become acquired? Where do you go from here in the future?
That's a good question. I'd like to continue my pursuit of highrise residential condominiums, but we're also growing our Dominus construction company and we're bidding on P3 projects [Private Public Partnerships]. We were recently awarded the project in Brampton which is the expansion of City Hall, and that's Phase 1 of many phases of development.
We're currently building at Patricia and Bathurst. We're building a seniors affordable housing project. We're doing that with B'nai Brith as our sponsor group. I like that sort of thing. We may want to do more senior housing.
I like the retail world, but I like retail in terms of multi-use. I think I'm going to be paying close attention to the retail component of our residential buildings. Maybe that component gets a little bigger, because there's a real need for retail in the city. Most developers have just shunned it away, but it's also a different environment now because of all these US retailers that have come to Toronto and see the value in these urban locations. A lot of the Canadian retailers, even though they have these urban formats, were reluctant to change the way they did business in the suburbs. I think what's going to happen is that these US retailers are going to lead the way. I want to pay closer attention to that, and maybe other uses as well that we're incorporating into these buildings.
I understand our office vacancy rate is getting lower, but I'm not sure what that means. Does that mean stand alone office buildings or again, do we start incorporating these office uses in our developments. I like St. Lawrence Market because it's a blend of all these things. People work here, they live here, they play here, they shop here, and that's what makes a community great. The Entertainment District is lacking because it doesn't have some of the amenities that St. Lawrence Market has. It's a sea of asphalt and concrete. This is something that evolved over the course of time. St. Lawrence Market didn't happen all at once, it was an evolution. So how do you take these things that work really well, and introduce them to a newer community, or how do you grow this community but maintain those various components that make it work so well. Those are the kinds of things that we're thinking about looking forward.
You know, there will always be real estate on which to build buildings. You just have to be ahead of the curve. If a site is not readily available, then we have to go out and create it, and yes it's going to take us a long time to do it, and it's going to cost us a lot of money to buy it. This is a cyclical industry. It's great right now, but it's not always going to be as good as it is today. There will be a downturn, so let's not kid ourselves. Downturns sometimes present opportunities. To be honest with you, I haven't purchased anything since last Fall. The last site we bought was the Front Street site, and the reason I haven't purchased anything is because nothing makes sense. I analyze some of this stuff, and we're bidding on them - it's not like we're sitting idle, we're bidding on them - but I have to ask myself 'what is it that these developers know that I don't know', and frankly I don't know how some of them are going to make these projects work.
What's not making sense from your point of view right now?
The cost of some of these sites is ridiculous. I think in terms of revenues at the retail end of things, I think we're at a ceiling. The numbers that on average are approaching $600 per sq ft. I can't see the marketplace being able to pay much more than that.
So you think there will eventually have to be a correction?
I think an adjustment. I think there has to be, and the industry in terms of construction is active, so that creates a cost-push scenario, and I don't see construction costs coming down. Land is very expensive, you're at a ceiling in terms of the retail number, I'm concerned.
Is it 1989 or 1990 again?
It's not because that was the perfect storm. We had hyperinflation, interest rates at the highest level ever. In a way the downturn in the US is helping us, because it's keeping interest rates at historical lows. In all likelihood it's going to continue, but it's not going to be like this forever. That economy at some point is going to start picking up momentum. It will improve, so you will see interest rates rise. Right now we're at a point where I'm a little concerned that the margins are a little too tight for my liking.
Before we end, a question about branding. 'Cityzen' is a clever word play and an immediately recognizable urban brand. What's the story behind it, and how did you come up with it?
I don't take credit for it actually. I don't know if you know Joe Sulpizi from the Brand Factory. It was actually Joe that created the brand. We already had Dominus, so we wanted to keep Dominus for our construction company, but we were looking for a name for the development company. At first no one liked Cityzen, but with some additional thought, the name actually grew on me and made a lot of sense. It was just a series of names. I don't know how many we looked at, and then we all gravitated to that one in the end. But it wasn't a name that at the very beginning we jumped at. It took time to make that decision.
Finally Sam, what Toronto building do you consider inspirational, and why?
Well I love the TD Centre - Mies Van der Rohe - those buildings are timeless, as much as we're adding to the skyline now. Those buildings could have been built today, yet they were built almost 50 years ago, it's amazing. I'm a big fan of Mies and if he were around I'd hire him [laughs].
UrbanToronto thanks Sam Crignano for his candour and time!