Peter Freed sits down with UrbanToronto at Freed Developments' corporate offices at 550 Wellington West to talk about his condominium development career to this point.
Peter, I’d like to start off by asking about your background. What got you into development? I read that you created a custom home building company in 1995, and that everything started from there. I believe you started off in North York, can you tell us more about that?
Actually before I started my own custom home building company, I worked with an Italian family who were very active in the development business in Markham. From 1993 to 95 we built a hundred houses in Unionville. I site-superred, did all the marketing and sales, sold houses on the weekend in a trailer, and that kind of thing. So I received a crash course in production home building, and then I left and opened my own company and started off just, essentially, being a contractor because I didn’t have any equity to do any development, or to buy any lots. People would just hire me to build their house and we’d charge a construction management fee. So we built some homes and cottages, did some renovations and then in 1996, 97, I hooked up with the Goldhar family, who had been active in the real estate development business for a long time and they had some lots in Aurora that were left over from a bigger subdivison they had done. There were 10 lots they had left over, so they did a small infill housing project with me. From there I learned pretty quick that if you want to be in this business you had to learn the development side of the business, and I started doing land assemblies in the late 90s with Leo Goldhar, who financed me. We ended up doing about a thousand units together from the late 90s to the early 2000s. That’s where we had our first bit of success, and from there I branched out on my own in the development business and started focusing on King West as a neighbourhood of interest, and got into the mid-rise condominium business.
Let’s back up a little bit before that even. What spurred you to get into home construction? What were your influences, formative things that influenced you?
From a very early age I used to watch construction sites. When I was 6 years old my grandmother would stand there with me for hours and watch the machines go!
Ever crawl through a house under construction when the workers had gone home for the night?
Sure! I just love creating things and I like the process of creating things. So I just think I had that inherent interest. When I went to university, it was more of just a social platform for me, to learn a little bit, but also be young and have fun. I didn’t stay in university very long, I didn’t graduate university. I just went to McGill for a year, then came back to Toronto and started working. I went to school part-time, and then from there it was just 'how do I get into the construction business?', as my family didn’t have any assets or businesses to go to. My father is a real estate lawyer and obviously I grew up meeting some of his developer clients, because he did a lot work for developers, but he never had an entrepreneurial bone in his body. He just provided services and that was that! I had a few friends' families who were in the development business. I was always interested in building things, and it just sort of went from there!
Was there anything in particular going on in the city at the time that inspired you, that made you think 'I can do that', or was there a certain goal you had or look that you wanted to get to? Nowadays when you are in this area you see the buildings, and you know it's a Freed development, or you can be pretty sure of that… but early on, was your style already forming inside your head back then?
It started with first 'how do I get into the business?'. So it was more of a functional or practical approach to getting started building widgets, commodity product. Once I got into building custom homes, I started becoming more and more interested in design. But it wasn't until the early 2000s when I had an opportunity to do a building that I really embraced design, and from there I just became infatuated with doing things differently and differentiating my product from the competition.
I have had a few moments in my life which had a big impact on me as far as design is concerned. One was walking into the Delano Hotel in Miami in the late 90s to see a Philippe Starck building. It literally punched me in the face, it really blew my mind. And I had a friend who worked in Manhattan in the early 90s for a design-build company, and I was taking the elevator up to their office, and when the elevator door opened I was just blinded by white. Everything was white: floor boards, ceiling walls, cased goods, front desk, person behind the desk wearing a white t-shirt… except on the wall there were three white shelves with three fish bowls with a different coloured fish in each bowl. And that, again, just punched me in the face. I just stopped and kind of absorbed it, and it was then when I realized the impact that design can have on you.
From there, whenever I am fortunate enough to acquire another piece of land, it's just 'well, what can we do here?', and we just start that creative process. And there's always the math, logistics and the common sense that has to work to make a project a reality, and to get it funded and built, but within that context how can we push things out, how can we have fun with space, how can we eliminate walls, what people can we get involved in the project to make this more interesting, different, and to have fun with it. See, if that ever stops, if the fun sort of stops, I'm not going to do it anymore. I don't get up in the morning and say to myself 'Oh I want to be the biggest this, or the biggest that'. It's all about what's captured my interest at that point in time.
That leads me to this: innovators are never satisfied with merely replicating their last work. How do you feel about your work so far, and what do you consider to have been milestones along the way, and what are you striving for in your next projects?
Our work to date I'm proud of. I feel that we’ve pushed the envelope in many cases. We continue to evolve and challenge ourselves in different ways. 550 Wellington, this project, is probably my favorite project to date. It was a great piece of land to work with in a great neighbourhood, on a park, with a ton of street frontage with different components to it; hotel, bars and restaurants and residential. My vision was to create an urban playground, where people could live and have a good time, entertain, work out and not have to leave the property. So you know, to be able to put up a half million square foot project in my mid-30s, to have a rooftop pool bar – which was exciting, I had that idea in my head 6 or 7 years ago – so now when the elevators open up and I see the pool with the city skyline behind it, it feels great!
Some of our other projects, my Muskoka Bay Club project, which is very different from all of the urban downtown product, is something we're really proud of too. We built a huge golf course, a clubhouse hanging off a hundred foot cliff, again with an infinity pool – I love infinity pools, whenever I can squeeze one into a project, I'm always like 'There's a great spot for an infinity pool!' – so we continue to evolve and learn, and we do a lot of things right with every project we do, and we also make some mistakes with every project, and we try to not make those again, and we build on our experience and just try to get better at what we do each time.
I won't ask you to elaborate on the mistakes! You mentioned Philippe Starck and the Delano. You sought him out for Seventy5 Portland, can you tell me about that experience?
That was very exciting. It was 2005 when we got that project going and I was amazed that he hadn't done a project yet in Canada. When I found out he was working with YOO, out of London, England, and that he was working with residential developers, we bit at the opportunity. I had been such a fan growing up, so just to be able to work on a project with him was a real privilege. He was a character – you know, most brilliant people are – we flew out to London, England to have some meetings with him and his team, and they were some very macro-meetings, so 'what is the project?', 'what are the opportunities?', 'the design opportunities', 'what are your goals and objectives', and so we worked through some strategies and went from there.
The building is a Core Architects design, isn't it?
So had you gone to London with one of the principals of Core?
Yeah, we went with Charles Gane.
Did you have an interior space that you presented to Philippe, or was he more instrumental earlier than that?
No, Core deserves the credit for the exterior design of that building. Philippe Starck worked with us on the interiors, like the courtyard and the lobby and the unit layouts, and the colors and design schemes of the interior units. So I would say Core exterior and Philippe Starck interior.
Let's change gears slightly. While you are primarily a developer of buildings, the concentration of most of your projects into one neighbourhood means that you're shaping a whole area, not just creating a building. Do you feel any responsibilities beyond just delivering a building then? As you have sort of become a de facto urban planner, do you consider your projects in terms of the whole neighbourhood at this point?
I do. When I started my first project, I looked at it in context of the overall neighbourhood. There were a lot of older buildings. Allied REIT had started to bring back to life the old, beautiful, historic buildings with the new office tenants. I felt that some more contemporary architecture would compliment the older buildings in a nice way. The first building was just 85 condos, so it wasn't as if it was a master plan, it was just one property on the corner.
Was that 66 Portland?
Yes, so we did our best with a small corner property. We did a few more small properties – 455 Adelaide and 20 Stewart – but then when we acquired this property there was an opportunity to do something larger that would significantly help shape the future of the neighbourhood. I wanted to put a hotel in this neighbourhood to bring some international life, visitors and some food and beverage offerings and a place to meet and have fun and do business and socialize. We had a great opportunity facing the park to do something special, so we created a big courtyard that essentially had the park expand into the site. What a lot of people don't know is that I could have put another tower coming out of the base of this building instead of the courtyard. We essentially gave up 35,000 feet, I think we could have done another 70 units, and we didn’t get any credit from the city. I would challenge any other developer to give me an example of where they've done that.
And to me that defined the property, otherwise it was just going to be a row of a bunch of buildings. I wanted to put a little skating rink in there, which we did, and put a dining pavilion and bring some life to the street. So as far as a master plan, that was a huge piece. The other buildings now, we're putting in more and more retail offerings which I think is necessary for all the residents that live here. Bathurst and Front, which is our up-and-coming, largest project we've ever done, we are developing with Minto and that's a 2 and a half acre property. This property is 1.6 acres and it’s a very big property. So we have a 55,000 square foot retail piece there, we have a walkway going through the property, we put a walkway going through this property and then another walkway through 621 King, which is the old Travellodge site. So essentially we've connected King Street to the park. So that would be a great piece of planning, that was a great opportunity to be able to do that.
I also understand that when you're having this kind of impact on a neighbourhood, not everyone's going to agree with your strategy or plan. It's impossible to get everyone to agree on anything, but I’d like to think that if you polled a hundred people who knew what this neighbourhood was before we did our work here, compared to what it's like now, I'd like to believe most people would say we've had a positive impact on the neighbourhood.
What do you think when you hear the neighbourhood referred to as Freedville?
I don't take things like that seriously, I mean I look at it as a kind of joke because obviously there's a lot more going on here then we've ever had to do with, but at the same time we've put a ton of energy and focus and capital into this neighbourhood and it's nice to get a little bit of recognition for having a major impact on a neighbourhood. I would much rather create 15 buildings in one neighbourhood, than put 1 building in 15 different neighbourhoods, especially a neighbourhood that needed to be updated and regenerated, and this is the reinvestment area and so we certainly reinvested heavily in this spot. It's nice to have an overall impact as opposed to just blending in.
Going off of my notes for a moment; I'm thinking about Victoria Memorial Park out here. I walked across it to come here today, and while I know the city put some money into it to improve it to a certain degree, it struck me that they could do a little bit more work on the lawns there for example… but have you had any direct input, or have any section 37 monies from your buildings gone towards that park?
I've donated to it several times. I haven't had the ability to impact any of the design or work that was predetermined by a study group, but we've certainly supported it financially. And it's definitely an improvement compared to what it used to be, with too much tree canopy – all the grass was dead underneath – and it was very dark and dangerous. It was a high risk park after dark, and I look at it now and it's illuminated, full of life, and there are walkways and nice benches and things, but I can imagine they could do a few others things. I would have liked to see a dog park within the park. I don't think it should be used as a big toilet, which is essentially what it is, I mean I wouldn't want to sit down on the lawn there. It would be nice to take 25% of it and have a nice little fenced off area and to let the dogs run free.
I should have done a little bit more research on it specifically before coming here, but is the city done with it for the time being or are there continuing plans to evolve it?
I think they are, if not fully done, more or less done for the time being.
I know they are turning their attention to Wellington, towards Spadina and Clarence Square.
They're trying to make it more of a linear park, so it's like a dumbbell shape with Clarence Square and Victoria Park on the ends, and they are really beefing up the vegetation on Wellington. I think it was the first planned street in the city of Toronto, so it has a ton of historical significance. That's why the street is wider, and the buildings are set back more off the street.
Now you're close to finishing 500 Wellington along that stretch. That building's smaller than what you've been doing lately, but it's special as well isn't it? Can you talk about that project?
That was very unique in that we made half and full floor residences only, so it did make the units very expensive. There's only 17 units in the building. It's a little architectural jewel in my mind and I'm very proud of it. It'll be finished in a couple months and people will start moving in – no underground parking, it’s just on-ground parking – but architecturally it's just unique and the units are huge.
Its front is facing Wellington. As part of the city's regeneration of that street, is there anything you can tell us about the details there? Do you know timing of the reworking of that?
It's best guess. I mean they say 'it's soon, it's soon', but I don’t know what that means anymore. They were saying that four years ago, so hopefully within a year or two, but it's nice to see the industrial bridge being erected, connecting Portland over to the park there. That's a huge link for the community.
The bridge has attracted a lot of attention on UrbanToronto, its opening is highly anticipated.
So that's massive, but it'll be nice to see them in 2012 do something. I wish I could influence that somehow. I think things would move a lot quicker if they had developers pay into a project that they could contribute to, as opposed to writing a blank cheque for $200,000, I would rather execute my role of $200,000 worth of work in front of our properties. I think it would stimulate activity, and you would know where you're money is going to. It's nice to physically see what it becomes.
Are you frustrated with the way Section 37 money is being dealt with? Can I characterize it that way? The way it is currently administered, do you have any suspicion that it's not being used to its best potential?
Absolutely, and the pace at which work is done is a joke. Everyone knows that, it's not a secret. It's like Donald Trump building a skating rink in Central Park in 8 weeks or whatever it was, when New York City had been slowly doing it for a decade. The amount of time it took them to redo that park, we could have done in 90 days, it took the City years. So who these people are, who are actually making these decisions – – there should be a massive transparency system where their faces and names and projects and timelines are compared to what's considered normal. There should be a huge report card of accountability and right now there's just this big gray area. I'm not a big fan of politics, and there just seems to be this big gray area, but it'd be nice if we could start carving out areas and putting some system in place to understand it better so we can help improve it.
In the last decade and a half in dealing with the city and getting your projects created, how have things changed – or not changed – and besides what we just mentioned I suppose, are there still things they're doing wrong otherwise in terms of city building?
How the city interacts with developers' projects? There's always room for improvement. To work for the City of Toronto as a planner is a difficult role to play. They have a mountain of files they have to deal with, a lot of which are under a lot of time pressures. There's a lot of movement of positions within the city, so you can start working on a file with somebody, make some progress and then they're no longer working on your file. They have this big, old, dusty binder that they pull out when they’re talking about a site, and it seems like no-one wants to stick their neck out and do anything outside of that framework, and I find that frustrating. You know if you're in Canada's biggest, most dynamic metropolis, then it's not about going to page 38 and just referencing a couple sentences of what you should or shouldn't do. They're under a lot of pressure though, I understand that, so it's not a great working model. It does work to a point, and then of course if it breaks down, there are other parts of the process that kick in to finish it, fortunately.
Can you speak about the OMB?
Sure. I mean, no one wants a new building going up next to their house, I understand how projects affect different people, and it's not always going to be a positive impact, and people have different opinions, so again, it’s not a perfect process, but it does need a beginning and an end, or else progress is impacted in a huge way. For the most part I've enjoyed the process. I understand where planners are coming from and where neighbours are coming from, and there's some give and take and we've always been willing to negotiate things to a point of viability. We've only ended up at the OMB a couple of times in our career so we're proud of that. There's a lot of effort to avoid going all those other times, and every file is a whole new adventure.
Fair enough. I'd like to come back to something I noted a bit earlier: the trained eye knows when it's looking at a Freed building – or often does – and yet you haven't gone with a single architect. Can you speak about your choice of architects in general?
Sure, I've had a very positive experience with architects. My first building was with Charles Gane and Core and we’ve done a handful of buildings since then with them. They've been a pleasure to work with. I always try to push them with each project to try and make it look different than the last, so we keep everything interesting and exciting, but every architect has their own aesthetic, leans one way or the other. But we put them up against other architects in design competitions usually, so we try to grind out the latest creativity or whatever they find of interest. We worked with Peter Clewes on this project [550 Wellington] and he was great to work with. Saucier and Perrotte out of Montreal I think are brilliant, and I've really enjoyed working with them [on the Thompson Residences]. I love their Perimeter Institute in Waterloo.
I'm always going through the New York Times magazine, or global design magazines, or just even local design magazines, and when an image has impact on me, I like to follow it up with a phone call, meet the person, see what they're up to and what their shop is like. I love that side of the business, that's what keeps it all interesting.
With Minto you are working with Rudy Wallman now, on a building that will be immediately west of the recently completed Tridel project 'Rêve', also by Rudy Wallman. Is there anything you can tell us about the direction that your project there is going, and in relation to Rudy working with a building he's just built to the east of that.
The project is still a work in progress, so until it's finished, it's hard to comment because we've just started the planning process and we have lots of internal ideas regarding the future amenities of that project, the exterior of that project, and how it's going to connect with the park and surrounding community. So I'd just like to say there's a lot of work to do. We're very excited about it, it's a very big piece of land. The project to the east is someone else's project. Yes, same architect, but it's different from what our project is going to be.
Fair enough. SIX50 King West – I suppose that's where most of your construction energy is focused right now?
Oh ok – Fashion House is going down still…
…SIX50 is coming up, and 500 is finishing.
Actually, let me ask this specifically about Fashion House – I will come back to SIX50 – but something we have been wondering about concerns the first renderings of Fashion House. They showed red curtains to the street, whereas the last renderings show the red removed from the curtains.
Oh no, they're still part of that!
Good, I'm glad you are able to clarify that!
Yeah, there was one incorrect rendering floating around with a different colour, but no, it has always been red. To me, that's always been the most exciting part of the design, in addition to the windows.
I thought so too! Then that white curtain rendering came out, and I was not the only one to react this way: on Urban Toronto we thought '[gasp] have they watered it down'?
No, we've never done that with any of our projects. If you took pictures of 66 Portland and compared it to the brochure, it's identical. We used this great digital company [Designstor] to work with the actual architectural drawings and our design input.
Many people will be very glad to hear that the red curtains are staying that colour. The building, I believe, is 2 or 3 storeys shorter than you were hoping it would be.
We were planning a 14-storey building, and we settled on a 12-storey building.
Okay, so SIX50. Many accuse Toronto buildings of being too boxy, and yet this is possibly the boxiest one yet in one way, but people aren't complaining because the boxes are going everywhere on it, and it's really sort of playing with the local vernacular.
Can you elaborate on that building and what you want out of it design-wise? It's Core as well, isn't it?
It is. We are going to have hedges along some of the terraces, cause I wanted it to be alive. You know, there are so few buildings that have any colour or life outside them so I'm looking forward to that. There's this one great building at Yonge and St. Clair, on the north side of St. Clair, I think it's called 112 or something.
The residential retrofit of that building was just beautifully done.
Yeah, I love that building. So whenever someone does something like that, it distinguishes itself. I found that project inspiring.
Was that an instance where you went to Core and said 'I want to mix it up with volumes' or was it Core that said to you 'This is what we would do on your piece of land'?
No, I always have a vision, but it’s discussed with the architect and they contribute to that vision, and we create it together.
I've never been one to walk in to an architect's office and say 'Tell me what I should do on this property'. That's the last thing I say. It's always 'Okay, this is the scale of the project we're considering, these are the opportunities that we're aware of, how do we make this different?'. We're thinking this product and that product, and I've usually got some inspirational pictures that I've found from somewhere, we'll take it in a certain direction, and then it turns into a process: it goes back and forth for a couple months, until we all look a each other and say 'Yeah, this is great, so let’s proceed'.
Which is now, no doubt, taking place at Bathurst and Front?
Are there any other upcoming projects you can tell us about?
Well I can tell you we just firmed up on a property at King and Church, so we're going to be doing a nice project over there, on a parking lot on Colborne street, so we're very excited about that. It's an L-shaped lot.
There are 2 surface parking lots there. Do you have both of them?
We have one at the moment, and we are talking to other property owners. We'll hopefully make it bigger, but even if we only have the land that we have now, it's almost half an acre so it's a good sized project. I love Colborne Street, I love being a block from St. Lawrence Market. We're really excited. We're going to be expanding to a lot of different neighbourhoods in the next year. We're going to be moving to Yonge and Eglinton with a huge program.
Where the Art Shoppe is?
I can’t comment on that.
So that area we're really excited about.
And we bought the Howard Johnson's in Yorkville, right beside Whole Foods, so we're branching out. We're still planning on doing a lot of work here for the next 5 years, but this neighbourhood's going to be mature pretty soon and it's time to plan to move on.
Thank you for your time.
Thank you for your time, it was nice to meet you.
How familiar are you with Urban Toronto?
It's a great forum, but sometimes in forums people say things that aren't true and you have to sort of roll with it I guess, because there's nothing you can do about it, but it connects you to the streets and I think it's great that it exists.