March 2nd, 2011
This week we spend some time with Ashley Ross, President of Urban Works Developments. His recent Richmond Town Manors project was wildly successful and among his current projects is the dynamic Junction Triangle Lofts.
We asked him about his take on Toronto’s urban planning system, the best thing about working in The Annex, and his least favourite government regulation.
BBH: How did you get your start in the industry?
Ashley Ross: I come from a real estate family so growing up I would hear about it around the dinner table and it turned out I just had a natural passion and understanding for it. I’ve now been in the industry for about 15 years and actually in development for about 10 years.
Before I became a developer I was in investment banking, specializing in the real estate industry. I did my MBA at Schulich – in their Real Estate program – and the natural fit was to go right into banking. I represented public real estate companies.
BBH: What is the main difference between what you do now and the work you did in the investment banking world?
AR: Well, I’ll put it this way: The reason I switched was that I am more of a hands-on person; I wanted to get involved in the actual designing, planning and construction process and my present work is just naturally a better fit.
BBH: Junction Triangle Lofts is located in Toronto’s Silverthorn neighbourhood. What about that neighbourhood made it right for your project?
AR: The site was actually a lumberyard called D and M Lumber and I used to shop there for a lot of my projects.
Once I heard that it was for sale I saw that it was a natural fit based on the wider gentrification of the neighbourhood. The old industrial aspect of the neighbourhood was slowly eliminated and then, after a time, there was both gentrification on the residential side and an effort to try to bring in commercial activity to the neighbourhood as well. So my idea of a work-loft space just mixed in very well with the rest of the neighbourhood.
BBH: What part of the GTA do you call home?
AR: [laughs] Surprisingly, that’s actually a tough question to answer – I live in mid-town, and have over my whole live and am quite involved in my community. But I work out of The Annex and so obviously spend a lot of time around there and that’s really more where I hang out – I enjoy going to Aroma [Aroma Espresso Bar] in particular.
BBH: What makes for a good day in your field of work?
AR: I like when a purchaser comes back and thanks me. The idea that they appreciate the attention to detail that I put into a project or into their home is obviously very satisfying.
BBH: On that point, do you ever get customers who come back to you with constructive criticism rather than just thanks?
AR: Yeah, I think everyone gets some of that. . . And some of the ideas put forward are pretty good and definitely I try to improve and move forward every time I take on a project. Every project is a learning experience that demands that you apply all that you’ve learned to that point.
BBH: What are some of the challenges of getting a business off the ground, and are any of these specific to the development industry?
AR: Well, actually I used to have a bunch of different companies all over the place and we thought that for branding purposes it was smart to go with one umbrella name – which is Urban Works Developments.
The amalgamation process is relatively smooth, I’m happy to say, but where challenges exist is actually getting into the industry.
One is the actual financing of it: Banks are very hard to convince when you’re new in the business; they want to know all about your financial track-record, they want to see financial stats on past projects and see that those projects were in fact successful.
And I’d say the second main obstacle is the learning curve, especially in dealing with municipalities and learning how to work within the planning process efficiently and as quickly as possible.
BBH: Well, while we’re on the topic of efficiency, what is one government regulation you would change?
AR: You know, I think it would be Section 37 of the Planning Act – part of which deals with the development charges that they’ve put on builders. You find often, especially downtown, that some projects are treated like a cash grab for the city. As long as you satisfy them with money they will almost let a developer build whatever they want. And that the end result is poor planning policy.
BBH: How do you feel about Toronto’s planning policies in general?
AR: In general I support a lot of the policies, however the City Plannings ought to look at neighbourhoods individually rather than as a group because the city is divided into very specific areas with distinct cultures and you have to judge an area on its own merits rather than make blanket policies that cover the city as a whole.
BBH: Toronto has an almost unparalleled number of new home developments – from condos to detached houses – so what kind of challenges have you found come along with competing in such a busy marketplace?
AR: Yeah, that’s a great question. Last year I built Richmond Town Manors, which received a bunch of awards as the best low-rise project in Toronto and I think the reason it did was that it was a unique project. And we’ve already found that there are a lot of projects vying to imitate the Richmond Town Manors but, of course, they won’t be unique in any way.
The challenge is being real and coming up with design qualities that no one else has both in interior and exterior elements.
Thanks to Ashley for taking the time to chat!