Let’s talk about Waterscapes. It’s an elliptical design that we rarely see in a city that has predominantly embraced the box. Why do you feel that we don’t see more elliptical designs like these, and how did Monarch decide to go with this unconventional form? How has it impacted construction and it’s return on investment from that point of view too?
If we look at some of the work that’s been done outside of the box, while you pay a little more of a premium when it comes to construction costs, it stands out so much, because like you said, we have become almost formulaic in what we deliver to the market as an industry right now.
I’d love to see even the planners at the city get away from the four storey podium, point tower, etc. We find that the variedness of housing on the lowrise side is probably what’s made some of the communities that we’ve done very eclectic and village-like and attractive. If you keep repeating the same form, in 20 years, generations in the future will say 'wow they were really stuck on one idea that that point in time'. We’d like to see a little more variety. Coming back to Waterview, I think it was a committment to say that we’re willing to accept a slightly higher cost to differentiate ourselves. You look what Fernbrook and Cityzen did with Marilyn Monroe, and obviously we think that was just fantastic and we’re trying for something a little different.
Did the City ask for the podium and point tower built form at your nearby Lago project?
If we flip over to Lago for a second, we actually had previously released a different concept for that portion of that site which was going to be two much shorter towers, and it was during a period of time when the City also evolved their thinking a little bit. It was right around 2008 when we were out with that project, we pulled that back from the market. We renegotiated with the City and we went slender and high. Spend a few minutes in our most recently completed building down there, Nautilus, head up to the penthouse and look back towards the city, and it’s a pretty special view. The more we can get of those and the higher we can go, we are really maximizing what’s so great about the Etobicoke waterfront.
There is anticipation for completion of the 'village square' between the earlier Explorer phase and Waterscapes. Can you tell us some more about what we will see there at street level?
The whole emergence of a commercial node down there is something that we’re very interested in helping to develop. Like in any area whether it’s highrise or lowrise, the people need to arrive before the amenities follow, or 9 times out of 10 you’ll get it wrong. That being said, in our One Explorer building there is a fantastic little restaurant called Eden. It sits right on Marine Parade Drive and looks out over the water, and from what I can tell it’s packed all the time. So as we look to the different commercial offerings that want to find their way there, they are all service industry type places. We are working hard to get a grocery component down there because that’s something that people both need and want. We’ll probably be looking to get more medical type uses down there. Also one of the things I would have never even thought of is that there aren’t any pet or vetrenarian services down there. You forget that in condos people have a lot of cats and dogs, so when you don’t have that kind of service close by, you’re getting in a car and going that much further away to get it.
Were you approached by veterinary services or did your buyers say “this is sort of what we’re looking for.”
It was a bit of both, but to be honest we’re more reactionary when it comes to that sort of stuff than proactive. It was just sort of eye opening to us when there was all of a sudden interest from a vet clinic in our space and we said 'that makes sense'.
Let’s talk about Couture. A decade ago it would have been unheard of for the market to support large condos along that stretch of Jarvis. What was Monarch’s vision when it first acquired the land, and did you see this kind of demand coming to this stretch of Jarvis?
We were possibly optimistic in the early days. We now believe that the market has matured enough that we were probably right on in that we thought we could create an elastic band off the Yorkville phenomenon; how far can we stretch that feeling to pull it more east? Even with naming the building Couture obviously we were pulling on that cachet that, at the end of the day, exists two blocks to the west. The Rogers campus that’s there is a huge employment driver, so you have a lot of youthful young individuals who are right there. You have all kinds of other employment that’s occurring just north and west, so it was one of those things that it was a bit of pioneering in the early days. We had a little bit of evidence from Great Gulf’s building X, so we felt really good. Couture is another example of a joint venture. Our partner there had the vision before we did and we came to the party a little later and helped execute on that strategy.
Is Monarch still interested in that corridor as a potential for future projects?
Absolutely. The trick right now - and this goes more to our philosophy of where we see the market - we see it probably consolidating a little bit from a scale and a built form perspective as well. The pre-sales are obviously becoming a little more of a challenge, the financing is a little more of a challenge. It’s not on our radar screen any time soon to go chase Couture-sized buildings, 44 storeys at 450 units. I think we’re trying to pull back a little bit and look at how do we create that sweet spot between 100 and 250 units that allows us to still deliver a healthy amount of amenities, good locations, but at building scales that are just a little more manageable from a pre-sale and a financing perspective.
Couture had it’s topping off the other month. What are some of the next milestones for this project: cladding, interiors, occupancy?
It’s amazing how fast you move from roof topping to occupancy, but that’s where our eyes are set right now. We’re really looking forward to early 2013 when people will start moving into that building. We expect occupancy to start around March, and right now it’s a full court press on the suite finishes and our amenities. One of the things that Monarch really prides itself on - we’ve coined the term recently ‘hotel ready’ - and we have a completely separeate crew on the construction side that focuses on making sure the amenities are done the day the first person moves in, and not the day the last person does. So that’s a big part of our brand: our customer service is to try and make sure that all of our amenities are ready to go the day before the first suite is ready as well. For example at Nautilus, which just started closings back in March, the vast majority of the amenities were ready to go: there was water in the pool, and you could use the party room.
Back to the Etobicoke waterfront now, to Lago. The main tower has been really well received with its striking design; the offset balconies in 4-storey groupings in alternating tones. This raises the bar on design in the area. Is architecture becoming increasingly important at Monarch?
It goes back a little bit to what we were talking before. We’re trying to stay within the envelope that the municipal planners and the City is looking for, but create differentiators. You think of something so simple in Nautilus as the transition in the coloured glass - something so very subtle - the building’s basically a rectangle, but it sure doesn’t look like one when you drive by because of that change. Our architectural firm did a great job in executing a subtle change. You’re going to move from that very simple Nautilus form with the design gesture that created the variation, to now something very different at Waterscapes which will be its eliptical shape, and then back to Lago which is a square, but again pull the three together and you have three very different built forms within the same community.
You work with Graziani + Corazza Architects for the majority of your projects.
It’s the closest thing that we have to almost like an in-house partnership. We’ve been together for a very long time, and we see their work changing as our work changes. It’s kind of a hand in hand transition and there is a lot of give and take in that relationship, from our ideas to their ideas, to trying to find a way to make the City happy. It’s quite a three-way partnership. Now that being said, when we get involved in other projects where either an architect has already been involved or a joint venture partner already has an architect, we are excited about that too. Picasso is probably the most leading-edge architecture we’ve ever done, and Stephen Teeple was already on that project before we even arrived. We can honestly say that we’re excited he was, because it’s created a pretty unique building for that Richmond location.
In an interview we recently did with Stephen Teeple he said that Murray Goldman of The Goldman Group wanted a legacy project at Picasso. How did Monarch combine forces with Goldman and Teeple to get a special project there?
By finding those unique ways in which to deliver a product that meets all the demands, density requirements, etc. etc., and just doing it a little bit differently – Stephen definitely brought that little bit diffently! Something as simple as bright red components of exterior cladding that’s so far from anything that Monarch’s done before, yet it jumps off that page and creates a unique shape. Similarly, while our construction guys look at it and say “that’s going to cost a lot of money” - where little pieces of the building jut out beyond the standard floor plate and things like that - it’s that uniqueness that you get and that difference, and it’s that which we’re all looking for, to get away from the sameness that’s evolved over the last 5 years.
City Councillor Adam Vaughan and the planning department have been pushing to raise the standard for projects in the Entertainment District. How has it been working with Adam, the City, and the community on this project?
I think it worked well. There are obviously strong opinions on architecture, and as I’ve always said, even from having an architectural background myself. Really, everyone gets an opinion on architecture! Everybody is coming at it from a perspective of ‘that looks good’. That looks good to me, but what looks good to me might not look good to someone else. I think Picasso is fantastic, but there are probably a lot of people out there that think it’s really weird looking. So it’s that opinion war that you’re constantly fighting. I think Adam has very specific ideas of what he wants to see, and you get into some fairly aggressive negotiations, but that’s fine, and we try to find a happy medium.
I think the biggest place where we’re challenged as an industry - and this goes again to one of Adam’s visions - he wants to see a much higher percentage of three bedroom plus den units, and our market has not matured yet to the point at which we've figured out how to create family-based housing in highrise condominiums. Will we get there someday, maybe! We have some challenges from a price point perspective. Whether I’m delivering 600 sq ft or 1600 sq ft, my cost to build is the same per square foot, so it’s not like I can drop my cost on the bigger units. You start delivering 1600 sq ft at $600 a sq ft and you’re already at a million dollars, and that’s a lot of money. It’s also a lifestyle choice, and we’re not maybe quite there yet, so when we’re being pushed to follow a non-market driven reality which I think that three bedroom desire is, market forces sometimes make it very difficult to deliver that.
Talk to us about the paired units that you’re selling at Picasso.
We’ve seen a lot of where people are basically combining units that don’t necessarily lend themselves well to being combined, so what we were trying to do was think about that out of the gate, and create units that are much easier to put together if the market is there.
So is this just a way to look forward to the future, to future-proof the building in a way?
I guess to assist the marketing if the market demanded it. It’s a little bit of forward thinking and it’s one of those things where a little bit of investment early on combined with some effort can make it a whole lot easier.
How do the paired units differ from just a regular unit?
It’s really thinking about HVAC and water: where you’re locating your stacks. Where you’re locating the mechanical systems in such a way where if you suddenly pulled the units apart or put them together, it would still work. If you have plumbing at one end and plumbing at the other end and now you want one kitchen, well where do you put it, whereas if your kitchens are back to back on a common wall, well if someone wants to take out that common wall you now have everything located at the right place. The skeleton of a highrise building is something that the average individual would be amazed by. The infrastructure of wires and pipes, and it’s truly amazing what our guys build. It’s pretty impressive.
The internet has changed people’s buying habits, particularly in regards to doing research before heading into a sales centre. How has that changed the way you sell product to a customer and the way you approach the buyer side of the relationship?
It’s constantly evolving. We used to pre-qualify our buyers through our sales agents in our sales centres. They now pre-qualify themselves long before they arrive. The majority of people come into our sales offices with knowledge of the project and suite that they are looking for, knowledge of our price point, and they’ve done it all through the internet. If we talk about conventional forms of media, we believe now that the number one thing that conventional media does is to drive traffic to our website, not our sales centre. The flow now is from conventional media, to website, to sales centre. Before, everyone always asked “well what brought you to the sales centre? Oh it was signage”. Now it’s the website. You never know exactly what the stats are, but probably in excess of 90% of the people walking into our sales centres have been to our website so the purchaser is much more educated, so our sales people are much more educated so they can give quick answers. The internet provides very quick answers. We need to be able to respond with very quick answers when they arrive. The other thing is you can never guide people away from your competitors assuming they don’t know the facts, because just as they know everything about your project, they know everything about everyone else's as well. You go back down to the waterfront where there are a lot of different kinds of buildings and offerings right now, you have to be very specific in your reasonings as to why your offering is maybe the best one for that person because they’re going to know everything about all of them.
Can you give us any hints about upcoming projects, or the direction that you would like to see Monarch head into?
We feel that there is a lot of strength and opportunity in the investment side of highrise condominiums, but we are looking to focus more of our offerings to end users. We think that there’s a real stable base to that need-based end user as opposed to the investor. We know that the industry has sold and built a lot of units, so we want to make sure that we’re out in front of all of that product that’s coming through that pipeline to make sure that any new offerings that we have are still very attractive and in the right places. As we make our way through all of that pre-sold inventory coming through the system, if some of those people decide that we’re going to put our units back on the market, they don’t suddenly become that very competition for our new stuff. The way to do that in our opinion is to focus on the niche end user with very specificly catered options. I think you’ll see Monarch’s buildings in the near future - not the ones we already have in process - but the 2016’s and beyond will be a little bit smaller and a little bit more focused on the end user.
UrbanToronto thanks Brad Carr for taking the time to sit down with us. If there's anything in the interview that intrigued you, leave your comments below, or join the discussion in the associated project threads. Our dataBase listing also provide more information about each building mentioned.