UrbanToronto completes our conversation with the principals of Urban Capital. Today, Mark Reeve fills us in on his background, Boutique Condos, Nicholas Residences, and Trinity Bellwoods Towns. If you missed them when they were originally posted, be sure to go back and read Part 1 and Part 2 of this interview series.
Mark, How did you get your start in the development industry?
Here's a good story. I got interested in urban planning by a really good geography teacher in grade 13. As a result of that I ended up enrolling in the University of Waterloo program in Urban and Regional Planning in 1977, and when I came out of there I spent four years as a management consultant with a firm called Peter Bernard Associates while I finished my MBA. I was doing it part time, and as I was thinking to myself what I wanted to do I had done quite a bit of work for - amongst other things - real estate companies on market research demographic forecasting. So when I was doing my MBA I knew what I needed to learn, and as I was finishing a job opportunity came up with a company called York Hanover Developments. I started working two days a week and taking six courses at U of T, and that was my introduction to the development business. That was in 1986, so I spent a couple of years there, and then I went to work for the Thompson family through Markborough Properties - we were actually owned by The Bay at the time - so I spent about 8 or 9 years there. We were bought up by Cambridge Shopping Centres in around 1997, and I was running the land development operation in Ontario for Markborough. Cambridge was not in that business and my job was to wind up the business unit and it was at that time that I met David Wex. I was actually sitting on the public art commission for the City of Toronto and was introduced to David by one of his friends who also sat on the commission.
Was this while David was still working on Camden Lofts?
That's right, that was his first endeavour in the devleopment business. We had lunch one day, and we agreed at the end of lunch to try and do a project together. So we found a site which became the Sylvia project at Camden and Brant. I happened to know the vendor, and we were able to secure an agreement of purchase and sale with a little bit of time that allowed us to put it together. It's been steady since then… and that's how we both got started.
Our skills have been very complimentary. I tend to be - I think David would agree with this - a bit more grounded in the finance side than he would be, and he would probably be a bit stronger on the design and marketing side than I would be. We still run with this model of 'one captain per ship', but we do spend a lot of time talking and bouncing ideas off each other and making sure that we are getting the benefit of each other's knowledge and expertise.
Do you ever find that any of those particular tendencies or strengths ever show up in the specific projects that you individually head up?
I think how it's manifested itself is that every project has been successful, for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which is that we've been very creative in the kinds of projects that we've done and places we've gone to do them, and we've been dilligent in execution. We're very very good at executing our projects effectively and we've never had any massive cost overuns. We have an impecible reputation with our business partners and with all the banks that have financed us along the way. We've borrowed literally hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, and repaid everything successfully without a hitch on any of our projects.
How did Boutique come about?
We had chased around with W Hotels for a number of years trying to find a good location to do a boutique hotel and condominium. We had actually found a site we originally had our eye on ourselves, but that eventually became the new Four Seasons hotel development. W said 'No, we want to be downtown, closer to the financial district, maybe on the edge of the entertainment district'. We found this site and we presented it to them but just couldn't get it on their radar screen. They were impossible to deal with. They were expanding so much in the United States that they just weren't that interested in coming to Toronto.
So it wasn't the right time for them?
They missed the opportunity here. They should have been here a long time ago. There's how many boutique hotels now in Toronto? It would have been a natural fit for the city, but they just could not seem to get their act together here to do a deal with anybody, and so we finally gave up and said we're not going to bother with a boutique hotel. It's a great location and we're going to do a boutique hotel condominium without the hotel and that's how Boutique came about. It's got boutique hotel style in terms of the amenities, in terms of the marketing, it was the same sort of thing.
How do residents experience the boutique hotel amenities?
First, when you enter the building you would see the lobby which is designed very much in a boutique hotel style, in a very modern way by Cecconi Simone, but the biggest amenity that this whole project has is the roof terrace on the phase 1 building which is absolutely magnificent. You have to see it to understand what I'm talking about. What we have done looks fantastic and it's a very popular amenity. It's very much like a rooftop amenity you would find at a boutique hotel in New York or Miami.
Lets talk about Nicholas now. From a marketing point of view, while most condos seem to be rooted in the here and now, the young and the hip, this one harkens back to a different era. On the website you call it the “Ocean's Eleven, Sinatra, Jackie O kind of style”. How is that style infused in the building itself? Can you speak to that?
I think that developers are always looking for ways to differentiate what will often be perceived to be a commodity product. We are always looking for a bit of an edge, a theme that makes our projects stand out and be a little different than what everyone else is doing. Location is often the most important thing in any real estate project, and the genesis of Nicholas was its location near Bloor Street, near what really was Toronto's Madison Avenue in the 1960s. The ad agency we were using for that project - P&B - and a guy by the name of Clarence Poirier actually wanted us to follow very much of a Mad Men theme for the project. You see it reflected in terms of the stylization of the ads. You see it reflected in the interior design. Cecconi Simone picked up with that and it turned out to be a very successful theme for the interior and the common amenities. It finds its way a little bit into the way the suites are designed but more so in the common areas. The whole look and feel of the marketing campaign was very much a 1960s feel to it, and I also went to a much friendlier form of rendering of the building.
For that I used Michael McCann who's probably one of the world's top architectural rendering artist to tell the story of Nicholas. With Michael we did a series of seven different renderings of the building: the street and what the street perspective would be like, the interior lobby, the roof terrace, a whole series of renderings. It does tell a story in a way that hasn't really been done in a really long time. One of the things I found is with the virtual reality renderings that most of the architects and developers are getting done for their projects tend to sometimes be too cold and sterile, and they can be hugely subjective. What we wanted to do was to capture a mood rather than to have the building look like a sterile object, and that's what you can do with those kinds of renderings. So I've actually been using Michael McCann for those kinds of renderings and I just think that the whole form of renderings in watercolours is a lost art. Not many guys are doing it.
You mentioned 60s Bloor as Toronto's Madision Avenue. Tell us more about that.
A lot of Toronto's advertising agencies were originally located on Bloor Street, including one called McCann Erickson of which my father was president, so I know a little bit of history of the advertising industry, and that seemed to be the place where a lot of the firms were located. That's not so much the case today, but it certainly was in the 60s.
Nicholas is supposed to revive some of that history?
We're not trying to attract the advertising agencies back to Bloor, but it's always nice to ground a project with a theme that relates to something or to a period of history for the neighbourhood. The project's called Nicholas because it's on St Nicholas Street. Sometimes manufacturing names out of thin air is kind of weak and it's often best to try and come up with something that at least reflects some aspect of the project in terms of its location or the nature of the development itself. For example, River City is on the Don River. That's not true with all of our project names, but we try for something that has some kind of connection to the design of the project or the neighbourhood. It always works better that way.
Did your designers Core Architects pull in any inspiration from the street itself?
Very much so. We originally had a different design for Nicholas, it was a much more modern building with a very modern podium.
I think I remember that one. It was in a figure 8 shape?
Yes, and it was affectionately called the peanut [laughs], but the reaction was not very positive, so we decided to simplify the design. There was an old building on site which was not deemed to be historical but which was still an attractive facade, and we agreed to reconstruct the facade. The renderings you see of Nicholas now show a reconstruction of that facade, and then a brick podium which integrated much more comfortably with the street than with the more modern piece that we had originally proposed. It's going to fit very comfortably despite what some of the other residents on the street feel about it. It's going to actually look fantastic, and the tower itself will not impose on the street since it is set back well from the podium. It's going to look smashing.
Has excavation been progressing slower than expected?
Yes. The shoring stage of the process took about 2-3 months longer than we hoped it would. Because the site is small and we're up against some older buildings, we had to proceed with caution and more slowly than perhaps we would have otherwise, but we're beyond that phase and back to a normal schedule.
When do you expect to reach some of the major milestones?
I would say we will reach the bottom by late June-early July, and we'll be back up to grade at the end of the year, and topped off probably in the fall of next year.
In Trinity Bellwoods you are taking a different approach to infill building, and constructing 45 freehold rowhouses that are quite large, ranging in size from 1900 to 2100 sq ft. Townhomes isn't something we've come to expect of Urban Capital, so what got you thinking about this kind of development?
The opportunity presented itself to buy this site through an advisor to the City, and normally I wouldn't have looked at doing low rise, but it was a terrific site. I was motivated mostly by location to try and do something. We took on a partner in Shram Homes who are specialists in low rise infill buildings. I asked Eran Shram if he were interested in getting involved with it, and he said it was a terrific location. We went at it from two ways of doing a project. I came at it from very much a high rise background, in terms of design and interior sensibilities with Cecconi Simone, and he came at it from the point of view of a higher end infill builder. To a large degree it was the blending of those two backgrounds that you see manifested in Trinity Bellwoods.
The project has a very contemporary design.
Architect Richard Wengle was somebody that Eran had worked with extensively in the past, but we both knew that we had to do something modern. The challenge for Richard was to give us a beautiful modern building. We wanted something that still had a warm feel to it, so he came up with what you see, and it's the first iteration of the design. Richard is known more for traditional designs, yet he's a trained modernist. Ours was the first project of any scale that he's done that is a modern project. There's another one, but I think this one's first.
Tell us more about combining the condo sensibility with a custom low rise home construction.
One of the biggest decisions we made was bringing in Elaine Cecconi, and as a result brought to our townhouse environment a lot of the design style that she's honed in highrise projects. She did her own little nine unit townhose project which was a starter project called the Lippincot, again not far away. This was the next evolution for her, doing a townhose project in a very modern way in terms of the space and the way it's finished, the kinds of materials used. I would think that's the biggest influence. In terms of the marketing, how we went about positioning the project in the marketplace was something that I drove mostly. We're used to running big projects. 45 units is the biggest project Eran's done so he approaches things in a different manner. We both learned an immense amount from each other, we are highly complementary as a team. He's very much a hands-on builder himself, so in terms of the actual construction management, his office would do it. I think the end result is going to be fantastic.
UrbanToronto thanks both Mark Reeve and David Wex for sitting down to talk with us.