UrbanToronto sat down recently with Scott McLellan, Senior Vice-President at Plaza, a.k.a. Plazacorp, to talk about the prolific developer's projects, past and present.
Scott, can you tell me first: Plaza, or Plazacorp?
When I made the decision to come here after leaving Tridel - it would have been in the early part of 2009 – I talked about the name with Anthony Heller, our founder, along with David Brothman our co-founder. They started into the condominium business back in 1981, and grew their business and grew their brand based on the fact they were doing small plazas throughout the GTA. From single level plazas they got into adding a four or five-storey condominium on top of the plaza. They got into the residential side of the business that way rather than the traditional way of waking up one day, hanging out their shingle and saying ‘Okay we’re condominium builders’. So they grew into it.
The name Plazacorp carried on through that time. One of the things I wanted to do when I got here was change the brand by adding a whole new sophistication to it. How we would manage customers, how we would manage with business partners, how we were going to build, how we were going to deliver our product, how we were going to be recognized with respect to our public face. We decided to get rid of the ‘corp’ and make it more consumer friendly. So we moved away from the corporate image that ‘corp’ added to it and we came up with just ‘Plaza’. We’ve gone through a complete rebranding from mid-2009 until today, and we continue to upgrade our brand and look for areas to make Plaza a better experience for purchasers.
When you were first speaking with Heller and Brothman, were they seeing that Plaza was at a threshold at that time?
Tell me more about what was swirling around then.
Traditionally Plaza had been doing smaller projects – 160, 200 suite buildings, one a year, they were a mid-range smaller builder – and they knew that in order to grow as a company they were going to have to get involved with larger projects, so they acquired most of Liberty Village. They had a very successful purchase at the West Harbour City community – down near Bathurst and Fleet Streets, we’re talking somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1,300 - 1,400 suites, while Liberty Village was going to be 1,600 - 1,700 suites – and as their vision started to crystallize, they knew we had to go in a bit of another direction: we had to be way more brand conscious. It wasn’t a situation where we would open up a project and that would be the branding of the project, we had to have more of a corporate vision. How were we ever going to do it? I came in and gave them some ideas and we chatted about those ideas at length. We had a number of meetings in this boardroom, and the decision was made to partner-up our ideas and move forward, and so far so good. Since that day we have done about 3,300 sales and we have become the leading condominium builder in the 416 with respect to sales volumes.
Other things that have happened is that we have formed some fantastic partnerships. We have patterned up with Urbancorp on about 1,200 suites on Queen West, we have done a great partnership with Bazis and Metropia at our Emeraid Park project at Yonge and Sheppard. That ended up evolving into a partnership at Exhibit, a project on Bloor that is going to start construction in the next couple of months. We are continuing to look at other strategic joint-venture alliances with people like that.
Our brand has grown, we do our sales in-house, we do most of our development in house, we’ve brought in TMG to do our construction – and there’s nobody better in the city with respect to value engineering in projects, in construction and finishing, zero deficiencies on delivery, we share all of our views with respect to branding – and it’s a big part of what we’ve been trying to go through for the last few years, and moving forward, and being ahead of schedule on it quite frankly, which just creates an opportunity for us to think even deeper on how we’re going to improve.
Let’s talk about some individual projects. UrbanToronto started as a forum to discuss architecture in the city, and it’s more than just that now, but it’s still a primary focus. There are some older Plazacorp projects which weren’t received all that well on UrbanToronto for their design, and there have been some digs from the Pug Awards.
There’s more of an architectural focus now? Projects like West Harbour City signalled a shift. Quadrangle Architects have been a choice for years. Tact Architecture is a firm you’ve been working as well more recently, and now Hariri Pontarini.
Let’s just touch on the past a bit. I think you live and learn. We talked about that at length when I was first here. Prior to my being here, Plaza was already doing an outstanding job of designing the inside, their suite layouts were outstanding, the buildings had proper interior design for the time, and a lot of the projects which were not recognized as the greatest architectural products, some might even say ugly, sold well, people who bought for the resale value did extremely well, and the materials, the finishes, the architecture that were used appropriate for the time that they were sold. Some of it was coming out of some slower times, some of that product was sold in some areas that were a little more challenging with respect to the marketplace. Some were B locations, so in order to get a B location ramped up and exciting, and at least started with some residential in there, price points were important. You have to balance the product you were going to get out there to make it sell in a certain location, and maybe the exterior wasn’t there, but that’s changed.
It’s the act of taking steps.
Certainly it was taking steps. In saying that I think our Mount Pleasant project has been a huge success. We have had a number of other downtown projects which have been very successful in terms of their architecture which have been in areas like King and Strachan that have fit into that community exceptionally well, and you know what, we’ve engaged architects like Roy Varacalli on Emerald Park and Exhibit, and Les Klein on West Harbour City. We get so many compliments on West Harbour City. It’s a little bit different from the glass towers that are down there, lots of which are fantastic, but this was something that was going to make the skyline a little more noticeable, but despite the great feedback you’re right, it’s the type of architecture that’s somewhat subjective: there are people who don’t like that it’s not in keeping with the glass towers of Lake Shore Blvd.
Many appreciate its aesthetic sensibility, and the variety it offers to the cityscape.
We decided that was the direction we were going to go in, and that really helped our marketing. We opened up the third phase of West Harbour City - York Harbour Club - which is a project that is located north of phase one, so you have really zero lake views, and we’re right up next to the Gardiner Expressway, so your best views are to the north. When our neighbours are done their projects, even the views into the downtown core will be somewhat obstructed, so people bought here for the architecture. We heard that in the sales centre. We have 502 suites in there - we sold about 490 in a two month period, and the only reason we didn’t sell them in a one month period was that we staggered the release with certain brokers to give them time… but if we hadn’t staggered the release it would have sold out overnight. The architecture of that West Harbour community was what sold it.
You have a fantastic park coming in across the street from that. June Callwood Park is going to make that whole neighbourhood.
It sure is. We’re excited about the City getting started on that, because you’re right, when it’s done it will bring a real sense of community into the Fort York District and maintain the whole feel of the district with parks and walkways and excellent residential, so we’re excited about that.
Let’s talk a bit about Liberty Village, and I’ll preface that by saying that last night I came into downtown on the Gardiner with some visitors from the United States who were here for the first time, and when they saw the amount of construction in Liberty Village, and the density of the King West Condominiums, their jaws dropped.
When we sat down with Les Klein, his vision was to maintain a very similar look and feel to the architecture of the existing Liberty Village. Monarch had a number of projects already which maintained a similar look and feel of the original Liberty Village community, integrating some of the older structures into the new. We had an 1195 suite project and another 438 across the street. That was a trick for him to do, and he nailed it. Now, amidst the construction, the precast is on the building which looks like brick, and it’s being painted into the colours of the area. We are selling product to end users that is priced $450,000 above original asking price; two, three on a weekly basis. People are seeing the building and they are getting a feel for it, and you would think for a building of that size, it might have its challenges with respect to curb appeal, but we’re not getting that at all. We’re getting completely the opposite, 'what a great building this is', talk about high density and a wonderfully vibrant living in a village community. It seems to be the gem of the community right now.
Can you speak to the painted precast “brick” cladding?
You can maintain it easily. You can paint it whatever way you want. The perfect thing about it is that 15 years from now it won't have mortar issues, it won't have problems with imperfections in the way the masons have finished it compared to individual bricks. it’s a very clean looking project that appears to have perfectly done brick work.
The condo corporation will appreciate having something inexpensive to maintain.
Yeah, and it won’t stain, it won’t weather, and the great thing about the brick look is that it’s timeless. Projects that are all glass, or just glass and precast, can look dated in 25 years, but this is timeless.
So Les Klein has given the building a look that blends with Liberty Village’s vernacular; the warehouse look.
He’s done a wonderful job.
And the project is opening…
We’ll start occupying the east tower in the next couple of months, and it will take about a year and a half to occupy the whole thing.
‘The Tower’ will be next up after that?
Yup, it’s moving along very well. It’s a stand-alone building at 29 storeys high, 438 suites, and it should occupy next.
Let’s jump across the tracks to Queen West where you have partnered with Urbancorp on Edge and Epic on Triangle Park. There you went with Tact Architecture.
Edge is first, with two phases.
On either side of its bridges?
This is a project that has flown under the radar on UrbanToronto. The one rendering hints at some very interesting features here without playing them up much. You have a bridged central void between two wings, and a hole punched through for a tree… why aren’t we all talking about this?
We’ve done a horrible job on marketing! [laughs]
This could be the standout in the area!
It will be! Here we are at Queen and Lisgar, in the Queen Dufferin neighbourhood, an area that’s still evolving - Queen Street West is still not King Street West in the mind of the buyer - so what we have done is come up with some very dynamic architect – Prish Jain has done a great job of coming up with this – and we’ve gone out and marketed it with certain brokers, and while other companies in the area have struggled with the absorption rate down there, we sold this very quickly. The architecture here was the driving force behind the success of the project. Once we are done, you will not recognize the Queen West you see today. This project will re-label the whole community. We’re hoping it is known as Triangle Park by the time we’re done with it. We want to set the benchmarks for this community through architecture, through suite design, we are going to have a huge art component to this building, and we think all of this will drive the rebranding of this community.
Can you elaborate on the art component at this point?
Not too much, but I can tell you that about two floors will be taken over by an arts group, but I can’t get into too many details just yet.
It’s good to know that something is coming. The community has been very concerned about the loss of space for artists in the area.
I think that we will be introducing a larger art component to that building than exists today. I can guarantee it.
Just north of Edge will be an actual park.
Between Edge and the old Post Office on Queen Street.
That’s what we’re calling Triangle Park.
And Epic runs to the west of it?
Exactly. It’s in behind our sales office there, running parallel to Queen Street, with the architecture in keeping with Edge. We’ll be starting excavaton there in the next few weeks.
You have started on Ivory too, just beside UrbanToronto’s new offices on Adelaide…
We opened Ivory last October, and have over 285 sales now, we have 355 units in the building plus the retail units.
…a Hariri Pontarini design…
Yes! In keeping with the architecture of that part of the city, we have a podium to extend the streetwall along Adelaide, and an ivory coloured tower above the podium that will – shine! I mean, David Pontarini is probably the most renowned architect in that lower east side of Toronto, and we want Ivory to carry the heartbeat of the style in that area. We think this building will be award-winning, not that that’s how we benchmark our projects.
But why not?!
Maybe we’re a little more humble than that. Maybe we’d rather just have word-of-mouth rather than wave flags about.
UrbanToronto is a very flag-waving community, by the way, so we’re happy that you’re stepping up your game on the newer projects! In that regard, we look forward to talking with you about Musee in the near future. (This project on Adelaide near Bathurst is going through the approvals process at the moment, and we will come back to talk about it in the coming weeks.)
Thanks for talking with us, Scott!
Great. I look forward to more!