UrbanToronto recently talked with Zev Mandelbaum, Chief Operating Officer at Marlin Spring Developments about the company's methods and ethos, and their approach to creating the Stockyards District Residences.
Marlin Spring is a relatively young firm, but one with experience in Toronto’s development industry. Zev, what’s your background, and what prompted you to found Marlin Spring with your partners?
I’m a third generation Toronto developer. My grandfather led H&R Developments starting in 1962. They became a preeminent developer in the 70s with the apartment boom. My father left the high-rise arm of H&R in the year 2000 and created Lanterra Developments, developing iconic projects like WaterPark City, Maple Leaf Square, and Ïce. My grandfather's idea was to give independence to the next generation. Much like H&R had split into four companies—Lindvest, DavPart, H&R Reit, and Lanterra—it was time for me to figure out where I wanted to go. With two brothers-in-law, we came up with the idea of a joint venture partnership which we called Marlin Spring.
Ben [Bakst, and Marlin Spring's CEO] was in construction—he ran Lanterra’s construction for many years—Elliot [Kazarnovsky, and Marlin Spring's CFO] was the finance guy, the numbers man. I worked very closely with my father at Lanterra—I still have a very close relationship with him, we talk every day—and my specialty there was acquisitions, leasing, marketing, and sales. My strength was in finding and buying properties, piecing them together, zoning them, and designing them. A lot of people can buy land, can hire an architect, but the question is how you design, take a piece of land and carve it into a very useable, functional space that engages the occupants, that engages passers-by, that engages the public realm. Inside we want efficient space where you’re not building dead-end corridors or bad units with horrible layouts, and I really work that GFA (gross floor area) within the building to create a really good product.
Marlin Spring seems to be focusing on Toronto locations that pioneer the redevelopment of overlooked neighbourhoods, on streets and in pockets that have not been jumped into by other developers yet. Can you tell us what your general philosophy for your property purchases is?
One of my passions in life is the Four-One-Six. I love the city of Toronto… and what makes it most amazing city are the neighbourhoods. There are so many pockets in Toronto, it’s not just one city, it’s not one identify, it’s multiple identities that make up this mosaic, like a bunch of little tiles. Go from one neighbourhood to another, and they all have their own charms to them. Going up and down the streets of Toronto—and in the wise words of Wayne Gretzky, “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.”—that’s my goal—I ask myself if this is a neighbourhood I would want to live in, and I study Toronto zoning maps to get an idea of what the City envisions for the neighbourhood. Then I see somewhere that might not look so pretty now, that’s not there yet… but if you close your eyes and take away any rundown buildings, if the underlying fabric of the neighbourhood is there—the retail is there, the transit is there, young families are there, parks are there, maybe even affordability is there—and if a new building was there, what kind of life would you lead? Would you enjoy your experience? That’s how I find these pockets.
I’d love to hear some specifics about the areas of Toronto that you are particularly drawn to.
Danforth and Warden was one of those areas that had the retail, had the transit, everything was there… but there were no condos, it needed reinvestment. West of Woodbine on Queen there was a no-mans land between The Beach and Leslieville: at Coxwell there was the cinema, there was Burger’s Priest, there was access to the parks and the lake, why had no-one built here yet? I assembled land and we created a project we called WestBeach.
It’s the same up at the Stockyards. That area has a lot to offer. You walk out the door from our site, there’s a Starbucks on your doorstep, there’s an entire shopping district with grocery stores, restaurants, there’s the streetcar, there’s a future GO station. Just to the south there’s Runnymede Park, to the north there’s the beautiful Junction Brewery, the Rainhard Brewery. This is the place I want to be!
You mentioned that you want your buildings to improve the public realm? Is there a legacy that you’re looking to create where you build?
No-one wants to walk down the street and see a tower where there’s no context for a tower. Nobody wants to walk down the street and see a building that’s ugly. You want a building with the right height, with the right stepbacks, with the right materials. You wouldn’t want a glass building in The Stockyards, you want to pay homage to the history of the area. You want a building that is part of a neighbourhood while it helps define the neighbourhood. Nobody wants crappy retailers. You want your retailers to provide a user experience, you want your lobby to provide a user experience. So you bring the neighbourhood out in the design of the building. We’ve really tried to create an industrial-inspired building that you’d see in the Stockyards.
Thanks for your time Zev!
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This interview was edited for clarity and conciseness.
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