Before we dig into your career, I'm interested in starting with a potentially provocative question. Give me three Toronto projects of any vintage that irk you; ones you would drive a bulldozer into.
Just three? I can give you hundreds! Most of them are terrible, this city had unlimited potential to redo itself and we have failed miserably, it’s appalling what we've done. Anything that Plazacorp does, all of Liberty Village is horrendous, terrible. Except for the Toy Factory Lofts which we did the marketing on but weren't solely responsible for making a good project–we certainly steered the developers to do the right thing there and build something great though. All of Liberty Village is really, really bad; CityPlace isn't very good. Look up and down Bay Street, College Park is horrendous. Even the tallest building there, Aura, makes no sense to me. You want to be the highest residential project in Canada, certainly in Toronto anyway, why wouldn't you aspire to make it the most be beautiful building, why would you make it mediocre? It’s not a good building, it’s just tall, that doesn't make it good.
There is quite the discussion on UrbanToronto about Aura, about Trump, about whether these places attain what we should be aspiring to architecturally.
I think Trump from the standpoint of architecture is actually pretty good. From the standpoint of the choice of colour, it’s really bad. I think if that building had a greyer tint, a typical colour for a residential building or even an office tower, I think it would be far better than what it is. If you look at Shangri-La versus that, Shangri-La has a bit too much going on for me but it’s okay, it’s pretty good. The Trump is very simple, it’s got that silly spire on the top, but I think it’s actually an excellent hotel, one of the better ones in Canada and I think the city is better off because of it. I think the city is better because of the Shangri-La, and the Ritz-Carlton is an excellent building, but clearly an architectural bust because there's no balconies.
There are some examples of great stuff, but there are more examples of hideous product. Like what you see right in front of you [801 King West], that building is horrible. The problem is that we sell in all these buildings, so when I come out and say publicly how much I hate most of the condo buildings in the city and we get residents calling us and saying "thats fine, you're never going to sell my condo when I go to sell it", they are missing the point. The point I'm trying to make is that this is led by consumers. We can’t change what’s here, but we can change what’s coming. Developers will continue to build these horrible, mediocre, forgettable products as long as people will buy it. People need to be better educated and more aware of why they shouldn't buy it. It’s not just about buying a home, you're in a way co-financing the creation of a piece of architecture by buying an apartment because that’s what buyers do these days. And so in effect you are sponsoring the creation of something mediocre so why not sponsor the creation of something that’s good, or great?
You started by selling, and you got into developing after that. Was that partly because you were concerned about the built form of the city and wanted to have more say in that?
You know, it was an evolution. I started selling real estate in 1988 in Toronto and specialized in condos, and I can’t say I had any special appreciation for architecture back then. Not that I didn't like art or architecture; I wasn't necessarily aware of great architecture beyond great historical architecture because I wasn’t exposed to it. I was only really exposed to it once I started making enough money to travel and to really see and have my eyes opened as to what’s good and what’s bad. I also took a natural interest in architecture and design, and so by self-educating myself about what was better and what was bad – and because I always want to be as good as I can be at whatever I do – when I started to develop I said ‘okay, if I'm going to do this, I want to make sure my stuff is good’. So the early things I got involved with as a partner were good, but not great because I didn't have complete control. Now I have complete control. I’m completely responsible for something that is not great so I’m going to tell you that everything we are going to do is going to be great. I’m going to do the best I can to make sure my buildings are beautiful; not just beautiful for the moment, but that we put thought into making them beautiful for a long period of time.
Were there any particular buildings that inspired you in your travels? Styles you wanted to emulate? When you began to develop you did have a very strong idea of what you wanted, as you've really only gone with two architectural firms since: Core and architectsAlliance. You have publicly stated that they are the best modernist firms in the city.
It was more like there were so many architects that I couldn't work with that I would say, ‘Okay; listen. You know this building in New York? Here’s the address. I love elements of that building. I want you to take that building and deliver it in Toronto. Something like that, not exactly like it, but I want these elements. Perhaps the way the windows are treated, perhaps the way the podium is, perhaps the way it turns to a park, or whatever, just some features’, and I would struggle with architects to get it. They would basically say “Look, I'll do anything you want.” I don't want that, I don't want you to be whatever I want, I want you to be who you are. And so I think the best architects are the those who refuse to do want you want entirely and say “Listen, I get what you're saying, I get the idea of what you want, but I'm a modernist and this is what I do and I will not build drivel.”
What I loved about Peter Clewes when I met him in 1990 was that I knew right away he was brilliant; he's a fantastic architect and you know, he's become 10 times better than how he was when I met him. I think he is one of the world's best architects and we are so lucky to have him working on such average products as high-density housing. The guy could be designing museums, school buildings, and operas around the world, he's a brilliant, brilliant architect… and so when I can use Peter – and I can’t use him for everything because I'd have a city of Peter and you can’t do that – so I use him whenever I can because he understands what I want, he gets it, he's infinitely more talented and more aware of great design than I am, and he teaches me everyday when he designs buildings for me. I can’t find anyone that I respect as much architecturally as him.
Then when it comes to Core, there are three partners there, all very good and I've used all three of them. I think when I compare them to other firms, I look at other buildings that other firms do and I go ‘okay, almost right’ except for that, ‘almost’. When I look at Core and I look at architectsAlliance – I think it’s the best firm in the city, the Core guys are going to kill me, they get a lot of work – but Peter Clewes is the best working architect, he's going to do as much work as I can give him until he doesn't want to work anymore. But the guys at Core are very talented as well, and if I were to say that they were the second best – they may not want to hear that – but in my mind, of the thousands of working architects in Canada, I think they are the second best. Even when we bring international architects to do work here, famous big names, I still look at these guys and I think wow, you guys really are good.
They get the details you want otherwise you wouldn't be going to them…
They get the details and they also don't offer too many details. You know, the problem with a lot of architects is that they don't get that many jobs so they want to put everything they know into it and you have four or five conflicting ideas. I think a building should be one idea, maybe, sometimes two. But anything more than that I think there is too much going on and it’s all competing for my eyes, it’s all competing for attention.
And there’s a whole city for the other ideas…
Right, exactly, so you know, really, less is more.
The great Miesian mantra.
Said for a very good reason: because it’s true.
Take me through some of the milestones in your development career, if you would recall some of what you learned along the way on particular projects. Obviously, like anyone, you started small and the projects have been growing since but you don't have to have a big project to have a gem.
What I knew about development was the marketing side, the design side, because when I was hired as a broker, I worked with the architect. I was a very strong voice with designers and architects - they did what I wanted them to do - and I was unhappy when the developer was unhappy. I had a very strong hand in all the projects I did as a developers' salesperson. Probably a stronger hand than I should have had, but that’s how I wanted it to be and so when I first started, I partnered with people that I respected who knew things I didn't know so I could learn.
One of the first companies I worked with was Harhay construction management. A principle of that was an older gentleman by the name of Walter Harhay and he knows a lot about construction, heavy construction, so he was a good person for me to listen to and I did Zen Lofts and 169 John with him. I bought the land for both those projects, and when I brought it to him, I said: ‘You could develop this and I'll take a piece’; in both those cases I took 25% of those projects. It was enough for me to risk a bit of money, and it was enough for me to be involved in most aspects and learn a lot.
Then I started to work with Urban Capital – one of my small clients that became a large client – which David Wex and Mark Reeve operated. For years they were good friends of mine and I did all their projects in Toronto. When I suggested in the early 2000s that Ottawa would be a good place to go because there was this gigantic high-tech thing happening with JDS Uniphase and Nortel and a bunch of companies, and projections for private sector hiring were very high, and it was starting to look like the public sector wasn't going to be the only economic engine of that city. So, through the hirings and firings of the public sector, you would have a straighter line for employment. They said “Okay, we'll do that, but you have to invest with us and put your money where your mouth is”, so I said okay and we bought an old shopping centre parking lot in the ByWard Market. The shopping centre had already been knocked down, and it was an area we ended up calling the East Market because it wasn't really in the ByWard Market which is a very vibrant, nice place. It was on the edge where the Salvation Army is, and there was a bit of dirtiness to it which I kind of like in sites like that; it’s always good, I think, for a city to have some grit.
An urban patina…
Absolutely. So we bought that and together we developed 420 condo units. It was my third project and it was huge; it was East Market phases 1, 2 and 3. And then what happened is the guy that owned the land for East Market also owned the land for Mondrian, so then we went and did Mondrian as well and there, we had a 50% equity partner. So I had a ⅓ of ½ of those projects, David had ⅓, Mark had ⅓, and I had ⅓, and then this company called Doran – an Ottawa builder – had half. We did the same thing on Mondrian which was 250 units and we did very well with it. We also did very well with the East Market, and so at that point my development company was beginning to earn millions of dollars of revenue and I had the ability to do more things, so I started to.
There was a development site in Toronto on Charlotte Street at Oxley, and I offered it to Dave Wex if he wanted to partner with me, and he said “I don't like the site.” I said “You’re crazy, it's a fantastic site.” So I went and bought it myself and brought in a couple of small, minority partners and I turned that into Gläs. You know, I had another opportunity to work with Urban Capital in Ottawa on a project called Central. I was involved in phase one as an equity partner, again a third of half, and in the end, a lot of our clients started to get a little upset with me having the nerve to be open about being a developer. So I started to get some push-back when I bought another site where we were going to do Work Lofts on Carlaw. And I bought another site next to that and I was going to do Flatiron Lofts, and I bought a third site to do 330 King Street. I had four or five reasonably large-scale developments on the go, and sort of vaulted into the mid-range of developers with 800 units on the go at a time. I started to step on people's toes and they got upset, and some of my bigger clients fired me. Now, you don't have to be brilliant, sitting in a room with your developer clients and saying "I feel like maybe this is a conflict of interest" and with the frequency of that coming up over the course of a year it became clear to me that it was not going to continue, we were not going to be doing projects for a lot of our large clients like Freed, Context, Urban Capital and Lanterra. I wanted to keep my brokerage in the developing business, so I just bought a ton of sites and said “Well fuck you, I'm going to do this myself. I'll market my own, I'll develop my own, I'll sell my own, I'll do everything on my own. I don't need you.”
I made that decision in 2006 and we really expanded a lot in that year; we started buying a lot of sites. I was fortunate because I had sold a lot of condos in 2005 and 2006, thousands and thousands of new condos for all these clients that were big developers. And I also bought units in all the buildings. I didn't buy one or two, I bought a lot of them, more than they bought in their own buildings. I had more faith in their buildings than they did and at that point, I also had my development profit start to form. So I actually had a very large amount of money that I could expand my development company with and I didn't need other people. You always need money, to borrow money from banks and there's always partners but I had enough money that I could expand and we just blew up in 2006-07 to over a thousand units. Now I think we've got 14 projects on the go – not counting our Caribbean stuff – 14 projects in Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary, and probably another 3 or 4 coming in the next few years. We're not as aggressively pursuing property as I was because we have a lot on the go and also because the market is mature, not that it's completely mature, but it is maturing and it's time to slow down.
I did want to ask you about how you've seen the Toronto market evolve in the time you've been selling, and how people have responded to what you're bringing to the market.
You know, when I began on the new development side of things, my first client was Context and my second client was Urban Capital (at that time I think they were called Red Rocket or Scrappy Dog or some funny name like that; it was Dave Wex's company). Howard Cohen was a true modernist, a pretty visionary guy, and he was also a good guy to learn from – he was very meticulous about how he wanted a design or development to intersect – the difference there is he understands good work. Doing projects for him and for some of the other people that care about design really taught me a lot about what’s important about development. It wasn't just to build a house, it was to build a beautiful house - and it’s pure - if you build a beautiful house and your client loves it and you make a profit, it’s a beautiful thing. Everyone is happy and the city is better off.
So I saw with some of these early developments how happy people were – I just wanted to do that stuff – and so when I started to work on my own, and even when I worked with Peter Freed – when he started out he didn't have a lot of money really on the condo side of things – it was fun because it was like learning from an open book in terms of wanting to do some good stuff. And when you see people react to a good product that you're doing, it was exciting. So I think the one thing I can say today is that a lot of people used to believe I was… they would come and say “this is a Brad Lamb building.” It was never a Brad Lamb building. I was doing the marketing and sales, but it wasn't my building. That really resonated with me, that there was a brand here, and I could take it and export it and do something in Toronto where people would come and say “I’m here because Brad Lamb is involved and because he's involved, I know it’s going to be a good building. It’s going to be design conscious and a cool-looking.” That's what our brand is about: delivering stuff where the details are everything.
Our interview with Brad Lamb continues next Thursday when we discuss Theatre Park, developing in Toronto generally, and what the future holds for Lamb Dev Corp.