We pick up our interview with Brad Lamb following Part 1 where we mostly delved into the early stages of Lamb's career.
Now that some of your projects are getting larger, public art contributions and section 37 benefits would be going up commensurately with the size of the budget. Are you able to translate your brand, and the aesthetic you want to deliver into larger buildings?
Well, the first thing is we don't want to do phase buildings; they’re too big. The perfect number for me is around 200-240 units for two reasons; number one is it’s not so overwhelming that the building becomes massive and monotonous. What I don't really like about really big sites is that you have so much ability to do what you want that you kind of fuck it up, whereas when you have a small site, there aren't a lot of decisions and you're stuck with something. I actually like small, difficult sites.
Constraints make it a challenge...
And it brings out the best in you. When you can do anything and you have 40,000 square feet, I don't think you get the best design. So we specialize in buying smaller sites and getting a lot on them. Theatre Park and King Charlotte are like that.
When I first bought Theatre Park it was daunting, I don't think anyone thought we would get it done. I’m pretty sure everyone said "He's out of his mind, that’s a failure for sure." It was really just absolute determination and refusing to give up belief.
The City was against it initially?
We walked into the planning department, myself and Peter [Clewes], we showed them the building – the original building was different from the one we eventually went with, but it was still beautiful nonetheless – and the planner said, “Listen, if you want me to write you a refusal letter right now I will. This is never going to happen, this is never going to get built.” And I just thought, “Fuck, after meeting us for five minutes, this is what you say?" So Peter and I just left and said, “Oh yeah? We’ll see if this building gets built."
So we worked very hard, and we did have a councillor on our side in the end. He believed in the building and, you know, I saw today in the paper the Massey Tower. Now that building is on a zero lot line. I don't know what stage it’s in at planning. It’s going to be very difficult to approve and perhaps even more controversial than our Theatre Park condos. I’m not a super fan of it, it’s a nice building, but there are things I would have done differently with it. But I think it’s a nice building and it would be much better for the city if that got built. So the planning was difficult, we lost the councillor initially but Adam Vaughan came around eventually. We gave a lot of money under Section 37, we gave a lot of money for an arts contribution. You know, if you buy the land right, and you get enough density and you can sell it for enough money, a million dollars here and there for an arts contribution and Section 37 isn't the end of the world. It’s a $130-million tower, there’s money that can go towards the city that can make things right for them. The interesting thing about the art contribution is that we are working with five international artists right now to narrow down our art park...
This is in the forecourt at Theatre Park?
The forecourt park is going to be designed by one of five well-known international artists. There will be sculptures on it, the benches will be sculptures, the water feature will largely be designed by them, the choice of materiality will be made by them, so this whole thing will be done by an artist. And we’re just going through the culling process now, there will probably be an announcement soon. It’s just another thing you have to do, but you know, art and architecture are one and the same and I think people forget that, right? They forget that architecture is art, you just think about it as this place to live but it isn't, it has a purpose outside of just this place to live. I’ve learned a lot about that through this art competition.
We’re actually doing one without being asked in Calgary, on our first Calgary project called 6th and Tenth. We hired the same art consultant to find us something Calgarian. It’ll be some western themed sculpture that we’re creating, and we’re doing another forecourt art park and another water feature. I think it’s the perfect way to frame a building. I mean I love when you walk around New York City and you come across some random park, and there’s always people eating lunch or talking or meeting or they set up little impromptu bars outside for the summer. I think that’s what makes a city greater, having these little things that are just unexpected and beautiful. Like I said, there’s lots of money in development when you can do something like that, that other people won’t do or won’t even consider, it makes the city better. And also, I think for us as a brand, people will know that. When they see these buildings finished, they will say “that’s the kind of stuff this guy does, we want to buy into his next building" and hopefully we can build a brand that can push us past the borders of Canada and into the United States.
Will the completion of these projects make similar boundary-pushers easier in the future? Or are you already seeing the City come around to more atypical expressions of building?
[Lamb’s expression drops.]
Or are you still experiencing…
It’s worse. It’s just an impossible city to develop in.
How does Toronto compare with Ottawa?
It’s way worse. I’ll say that this city is a nightmare to develop in. It’s a fist fight and it’s very unpleasant; it makes you not want to do it, and many talented people are sick of it.
What would you change about it?
I would fire the entire planning department. Because there has to be a change in how they see things. It’s just a nitpicking, constant battle for mediocre buildings. They have people working in the planning department… and maybe it comes from above, or it’s just endemic in the system, but I think we need to get fresh ideas. The buildings that they don't fight about… [sighs]. Look at a building like Theatre Park. I don't care what anyone says, Theatre Park is going to be a beautiful, life-changing experience for people when they walk by and be like “Holy fuck, look at this amazing building.” This would never have been built unless Adam Vaughan personally steered it through the system, because he saw merit in this project. It’s a crazy building that I think people are going to enjoy for years to come, versus what they wanted us to build which is a 10-storey or maybe 16-storey block-to-block skinny-fat building with a podium. No park--they didn't even like the park: the planning department actually tried to get us to take the park out.
They wanted continuous street-wall.
Yeah, that’s how they think: nothing different, nothing new. It’s a problem. I have looked at a lot of terrific development sites in the city and I backed off on buying them depending on what ward they're in and who we have to deal with, because we know if it’s anything remotely adventurous or difficult it could be a battle.
You need the right councillor behind you to get it through.
You need the right councillor, with a vision. Adam Vaughan has a terrific vision for the city. What he got Context to do with The Lanes at King West… that would never have happened in any other ward. We had that original idea coming from the councillor, not a planner, not a developer, a councillor forced that. He encouraged us to do it at King Charlotte, because he saw all the back lanes – it’s such a mean little street, Charlotte – but it could be beautiful and he said "I want you to create some retail down in the alleyway”. We had a tiny floorplate but we carved out a little bit of retail halfway down the alleyway that could be a cool little bar or bodega or something with a patio. We even talked about closing off the street at night to provide for a patio, where you could walk through half and the other half is patios. It’s creative thinking, it’s like city-building thinking, right? We need more guys like that, we need the planning department to think about stuff like that, and it’s extraordinarily frustrating. Their attitude now is unless you have essentially three-quarters of an acre, you should not be able to build a tall building, and you know how tall a tall building is? Ten storeys! So over time you go to them with a project on a quarter acre, you get nothing but push-back. The problem is that you end up not being able to build anything and it gets underused. How many parking lots do you see around Toronto?
Quite a few, slowly disappearing.
Quickly disappearing. Downtown, parking lots are disappearing at an alarming rate, and we need to be more efficient about what’s left. How are we going to fill the city with the bodies we need to and keep it competitive on a global basis? That’s the other thing they're not thinking about. We need to be competitive with Chicago and Silicon Valley and Los Angeles and New York and for that matter, places like St. Petersburg, right? We have to be competitive on a world scale and are we thinking that way? Are we thinking about the resources and the infrastructure that make people want to live in Toronto? Do we have the beauty? If we don't, we’d better.
So the system isn't set up to create buildings of beauty?
I don't think the system is set up to create buildings of beauty that are economically feasible. I am all for designing beautiful buildings and putting your best out there, but there has to be a profit involved because no one’s going to do it for free. We have a horrible log jam going on in the City with what I would call small marginal sites, like that site that Context is doing at Lanes. I looked at that site for years… Every time someone hit my car, I used to get Bianchi Brothers to fix it, so I knew those guys. They used to come to my office when I was across the street, telling me why he wanted to buy our auto repair thing. It’s a shitty site – I can’t get something built on the corner – and what’s going to get built there is going to be magnificent. That’s the kind of foresight we need in Toronto.
So far, the sites you have been building on were parking lots mostly. Have you had to take much down?
Yeah, we've taken stuff down. 330 King [The King East] was a single storey warehouse, and we had to take down a gas station for Flatiron Lofts. We took down a leather warehouse for Work Lofts, and in Ottawa, for one of our sites called Gotham, we've had to take down five small apartment buildings.
What I want to get at with that is that with the parking lots disappearing – Theatre Park’s going on one – how do you see the city changing in terms of being able to find the sites you want for future projects? Are you having to go into places that have more significant existing buildings?
We are, this is what’s happening now in Toronto. People are buying five or eight-storey relatively useful buildings that may have a cap rate of four or five, even at the new price, and they're knocking them down. You know, King-Charlotte is a four-storey warehouse and we’re knocking that down. It still has economic life. When we bought it, it was another offer on it, and they were going to keep the building. There are situations where we are buying product that still has a use. I’m assembling things right now so what I’m not doing is launching five or six projects in Toronto a year. I’m going to ration it down to two because we want to look at other cities, and we have the infrastructure now to do projects, so we want to set it up elsewhere so we can mitigate our risk in markets. I have five assemblies going on around the city where I’ve acquired from two to three adjoining properties and we’re going to expand those till’ we control all of the adjoining properties. They are future development sites.
How do you feel about heritage aspects? Have you been assembling at any sites where there will be an intention to retain heritage stock?
We have a site at Berkeley and King that I bought over a period of three years, and I think we have one of Toronto's oldest buildings – it’s from 1858 I believe – it’s pre-Confederation.
On the northwest corner?
Yeah, it’s the Klaus building. We own that and everything around it, and our first thought was to knock it down and just build up. But it turns out it’s historic. I think it was registered but not listed, and we didn't see a lot of tremendous architectural narrative. It’s from the 1850s or early 60s, but it’s not exactly an example of any terrific movement, it’s just an old building. But I appreciate that it’s important to keep, so we’re now going to work around it, and we've rented everything around it for ten years, so we’re in no rush to do anything there. But I think ultimately what I will do there is an office building, and were thinking now of incorporating the entire building in it. We’ll have to fix it because it’s taken a swift kick, but I think were going to try to bring that whole building into an office tower and either make it a restaurant or some interesting retail usage… or maybe Klaus will stay there, I don’t know. That’s our only experience personally with it. I’ll tell you now I’d prefer not to [save it].
We also have an offer on a site with a very important historic building right now, and you just don't know what you're going to get stuck with. Sometimes with historical apartments, you just keep two sides of it and other times you have to keep the entire building intact. If you're buying a 13,000 square foot site or floorplate of a building with 7,000 square feet, you've just benignly ruined it, that site can’t have anything on it. So you never know with historic buildings or the historic department what you're going to get, you don't know what you're going to get from the councillor of the ward, and, well, you always know what you're going to get from the planning department: no! So my preference would be not to do it, but if you do it right and make it economically feasible, we would.
UrbanToronto readers will be interested in knowing what’s coming up in the next year or so. Park is registered, you have Work Lofts and Flatiron Lofts finishing, you have Theatre Park going deep into the ground now, you have King-Charlotte going into the ground...
Well so we have those, we’re moving people in in late May in Flatiron, it will be June or July for 330 King. Theatre Park is about a year and six months away. Riverside is about a year away, it’s moving fast. Were going to get King-Charlotte into the ground in May, that’s our plan to break ground. Brant Park which was launched as a smaller building: the City wanted us very much to finish that block up, very difficult land owners on that block but we managed to make deals with the balance of them, so the building is much bigger now. So we called it a Phase Two because we have a whole section of units now to sell. With that building, Phase One sold very well so I think we’ll be in the ground either August or September of this year.
And then we have nothing planned for Toronto to be in the ground any time soon. We have a site we've tied up in the Queen West area, we're going to do a very cool building there.
We also have Gotham in Ottawa breaking ground in May, we have SoBa which we launched in May, and will break ground one year later. We’re trying to create a new area because it’s a bit of a dead zone around there – there’s Centretown, but it’s wedged up against the highway so it’s really like no-mans land – and then you get to the Glebe and it’s really nice. So we’re sort of creating this new identity for the area and developing it, were going to do other sites in the area.
And we have this thing in Calgary called 6th and Tenth which we launched in May.
Is that southwest of the Calgary tower? Or southeast? In Calgary, it’s all quadrants.
We’re 6th Street and 10th Avenue, so we’re southwest.
If this was Calgary down there [gestures], and the stampede’s on the other side, it’s in the Beltline, it’s all changing there very quickly. The Beltline is a great place to develop, it’s perfect for what we do, and there’s a lot of interest in Calgary in our product. There’s a second project that we’re working on right now that will incorporate a hotel with a 27-storey condo tower, and we’re just looking at the details of that. That should come later this year or next year, also in Calgary.
Do you look for stuff near the C-Train in Calgary? Is there any consideration paid there?
Well it happens that our first site is close to it but, you know, when you're in the Beltline and you're a few blocks east or west of the centreline in Calgary, it’s a five minute walk to everything. So it hasn't been a big problem for us.
I’m an urbanist, so people are always trying to get me to buy stuff outside of downtown cores and I have no interest. I don't understand why people live there, I just don't know what they like, I hate it. So I can only get involved in things I understand, I know what I want and I figure that if there’s other people like me, it'll sell.
We have this very exciting project in the Dominican Republic and we’re going to make a big announcement about it soon, and were going to 1,500 units on 500 acres, about 1,000 hotel rooms, 300 condos and 200 golf villas, we’re going to do a PGA golf course. It’s a very important part of the country because it’s ecologically protected, it’s next door to a national park. Normally you could do 20,000 units on 500 acres, the density is 3 an acre – it’s not a lot, we have a site in partnership with someone else in the Turks and Caicos and the zoning is 20 an acre – so its very, very light. Peter Clewes is a small partner in that project in the Dominican and he was our chief designer in our initial master-plan, and he went down and told the chief architect of the government that we are going to go very lightly on the land, and so she took that literally and went off and wrote a new zoning over the next year based on treading lightly on the land. I had to tell her we’re going to tread a little heavier than that; we have to build something!
So there’s lots on the go. We’ll probably do another project in the spring of next year in Toronto, but we won’t be announcing it for several months.
Is that the Queen West one?
Well, we will look forward to that. Great to talk with you.