February 16, 2011
This week we catch up with Martin Blake, Vice President of The Daniels Corporation. Daniels is one of Toronto’s most prolific development companies, currently at work on 19 projects (by our count) across the GTA. Their Regent Park project earned the 2010 BILD ‘Places to Grow Community of the Year – High Rise’ award.
Mr. Blake tells us about a condo project for movie-lovers, his love of a certain Irish rock band and what Regent Park will look like in a decade.
BBH: How did you get your start in the industry?
Martin Blake: I studied civil engineering at Loyalist College and then graduated and got into working for Habitat for Humanity in Toronto. Daniels had always been a strong supporter of Habitat and I managed to connect with the company that way and found a career for myself here.
BBH: Do you still work with Habitat for Humanity?
MB: Yeah, I do still work with Habitat. I’m currently the Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors.
BBH: What part of the GTA do you call home?
MB: I live at The Beach. When we moved here [to Toronto], like a lot of people, we rented in Greenwin buildings at Yonge and Davisville but Daniels had a small development that we were building at The Beach and I thought to myself, ‘Hey I should probably be buying one of our homes,’ so I moved down there.
BBH: Is there a common theme in Daniels’ many projects, past and present? An underlying idea?
MB: I think if you trace the evolution of Daniels’ homes throughout the 25-odd years that they’ve been in business you’ll see that its always been a goal to find and provide what people need to be able live well in a home.
And I think at present one focus in particular is trying to help people who are getting into the market for the first time. We’ve been doing a lot of first homes, which help people who don’t necessarily have the money ready for a big down-payment yet. And actually, we’ve done a lot of work with seniors, too.
So to me, when I look at Daniels’ history, I find that it’s always been about finding ways to help each unique customer in the best way possible.
BBH: Have you found that what customers want, and what is best for customers has changed in any meaningful way over your time with Daniels?
MB: I think it’s always in the midst of changing. You know, people are always looking for as many bells and whistles as possible but the marketplace moves in certain directions.
Right now it’s obviously becoming more demanding of the environmental aspects of housing, and to me that’s a great thing. Daniels has been a leader on the environmental front for a number of years. In fact, we were first developer to build an R2000 [a technical performance standard for energy efficiency, indoor air tightness quality and environmental responsibility in home construction] subdivision in the GTA back in the early 1980s.
BBH: A couple of years ago Daniels was chosen to partner with Toronto Community Housing to help revitalize the Regent Park neighbourhood. Where is the project at now? Where will it be by early 2012?
MB: We’re actually at a great point right now! We’ve effectively finished Phase One. We’ve had tremendous success with the sales: We had firm sales for close to 90 percent of the buildings within 40 days of both projects being launched, which is a fantastic number.
By about March of 2011, all of Phase Two, which is on the south side of Dundas Street East, will be demolished – or be very close to being demolished – and that represents 50 percent of Regent Park that is either finished or in the middle of the revitalization process.
BBH: What is the actual timeline? When do you expect Daniels’ work to be done in Regent Park?
MB: There are about six phases in Regent Park and each phase takes between two and a half to three years – there’s some overlapping, of course. So, ultimately somewhere around 15 or 16 years will be total duration of the project.
BBH: What have some of the challenges been throughout the Regent Park project? Are any challenges unique to this project?
MB: I think Regent Park certainly has some unique challenges. This is an area of Toronto where if you wanted to buy a home and live there, you couldn’t because it was 100 percent rental and owned by Toronto Community Housing. So, we had to be able to explain to new purchasers and new home-owners, just what it meant to be part of a revitalization which was going to be changing the very face of what Regent Park was.
I think that for us there was a lot of time that we spent on the education front and explaining to people what they would be seeing in the few years coming up. We also did something that was quite unique and that was that we built the project first and we sold it just before occupancy. So instead of promising something that would come in the future, this allowed us to be able to say to someone, ‘Hey, I’ve got a firm occupancy date for you – when you buy from us now, you’ll be living there in three to four months.’
So yes, I think explaining exactly what was happening was probably the greatest challenge but being able to go forward and build everything first and have people move in afterward helped us tremendously in dealing with that.
BBH: If the project is entirely a success, what will Regent Park be like as a community a decade from now?
MB: Well I would say it’s a huge success already! But I think what you’ll really notice ten years from now, as we close in on being finished, is that people who are new to Toronto would not be able to identify Regent Park.
If you go back six years ago, you’d very easily be able to identify the neighbourhood because all the buildings looked the same and there were no through-streets, but in ten years time, all of the streets will have been built and the connections from Cabbagetown all the way through to Corktown will be seamless, so you’d have a hard time being able to identify the geographic zone that is Regent Park today.
What you would notice though is the diverse architecture that had been built in this one section of the city. To date, we’ve worked with between 15 and 17 different architecture firms on the projects we have underway, and that really speaks to our commitment to having absolutely tremendous architecture in an area which is going to be home to both rental and market home-owners.
BBH: What has the community feed-back been?
MB: It’s been ‘excited’! Understandably many of the residents of Regent Park were concerned when this project started off; people wondered whether all the promises would actually be followed through on.
What began to happen in 2008 as people started to move back into their new homes is that trepidation became excitement because everything that was being promised by Toronto Community Housing and that was being built by Daniels met what they had been hoping for for their community.
Now there’s a tremendous sense of people wanting the project to go faster now because people who aren’t in their new home yet, want to be! And there’s still a lot of people still living in the older stock who are excited about being involved in the next phase.
Plus, the people who are moving into the market housing join us all the time at our events and they too are tremendously excited about where they’re living, because not only did they choose to make Regent Park their home, they’re also seeing this transformation unfold in front of their eyes.
BBH: What’s new with some of the other projects Daniels is currently working on?
MB: We have a lot of stuff going on right now throughout the GTA. In Mississauga we have a very strong low-rise program where we’ve been building first-home communities for a while now, and we have a number of high-rise projects that have launched recently in downtown Mississauga: Limelight 1 and Limelight 2. They’ve been really well-received and we’re very excited about them.
We’ve got a new tower going up in downtown Toronto. It’s called Cinema Tower and will stand just behind the new Bell Lightbox. That project will be going on sale soon and the response from the community – I’m sure in part because of how excited the city is about TIFF and the Bell Lightbox – has been amazing. To be able to have a building right beside the new home of Toronto’s cinema community is absolutely fantastic for us.
BBH: And finally, if you could choose any other career in any other field, what would it be?
MB: Hmmm. . . If I had the talent, I’d be in music, I think.
BBH: What kind of music would you play?
MB: I love U2 and music of that genre. . . It’s difficult though, I really love development. It’s a job, certainly, but it’s also a passion of mine so if I had it all to do over again, I think I’d stick with development.
Thanks to Martin Blake for chatting with us!