March 16, 2011
This week in Buzz Talk we chat with David Hirsh, of Brandy Lane Homes.
BuzzBuzzHome: How did you come to work in the development industry?
David Hirsh: Well, I liked real estate and was interested in it even as a child, so it was kind of my destiny, I guess. My parents wanted me to be a doctor but I couldn’t stand blood so that wasn’t going to work out. . . [laughs].
But I came to work in the development industry because I was a real estate agent back in the early 1980s, when it was an era of high interest rates (prime at the time was something in the order of 16 percent) and high inflation. Needless to say, it was very difficult to make a living, so I had to find another job.
And so I went to work for a builder: Great Gulf Homes. From there I went to a young company called Senator Homes and worked as their VP of Marketing. We grew that company to a relatively large size in a short time. Then the partners at Senator Homes parted ways and one of the partners started Brandy Lane Homes and invited me in as a partner. Eventually, there was another parting of ways and, in 1991, I ended up with the company.
I like infill projects – I love Toronto, I was born here – and so part of the difference in philosophy among the partners was that I wanted to move the company in a certain direction, away from the suburbs, which to that point, had been our focus. I do, though, still have two passive partners at Brandy Lane.
BBH: What does Brandy Lane Homes look for in a potential site for development? And – without giving away any corporate secrets, of course – is your list of criteria different than comparable companies?
DH: I think on a fundamental business level, we’re all looking for appropriate profitability and returns on investment, and so on. But on a “where do I want to take the company level,” we probably do have different criteria than other companies.
I’m a bit of a pioneer, I suppose. I enjoy discovering new things and doing new things. And, logically, what that means when it comes to the acquisition of properties is that I would like to do something that people haven’t done before. And if that means pioneering an area – assuming the numbers make sense – then I’m more than willing to try it out. And I’ve not had a failure yet, thankfully.
And I think part of the reason for the success we’ve had is that I’ve been very fortunate to work with an amazing architect, Dan Cowling of SMV Architects. We kind of feed off each other in terms of the creativity that we put into projects. But it is definitely ‘David Hirsh’s Brandy Lane’ and we’re not really your typical builder in terms of site acquisition or end product.
BBH: What part of the GTA do you call home and what’s your favourite thing about your neighbourhood?
DH: I live just off Mt. Pleasant, slightly north of Davisville. I built a house there in 1988 and I thought that was going to be a five year deal given that I was a builder and would be building a house every five years. Well, I’m still there – and probably will never leave!
The neighbourhood is incredible. What I love most about it is that I’m a $10 cab ride from Yonge and Bloor, a three-minute walk from a dozen excellent restaurants, and fifteen minutes from the 401.
Plus, it’s a very urban environment but without being, you know, on a twelve foot lot in Cabbagetown. Although to be honest, I’ve often thought about living in Cabbagetown because it’s that much closer to downtown. Ultimately, though, I can’t leave my neighbourhood, there’s just too much good stuff happening there. It’s part of the fabric of my life now.
BBH: ‘The Station’ is constantly among the most viewed listings on our site. What about the project should people know?
DH: [Laughs] Well, people should know that if they haven’t bought there, they’re missing out!
I’ll answer that question on two levels: First, what’s really nice is that Wilson Avenue is a dedicated ‘avenue’ meaning the City wants to intensify the street, because the infrastructure of city life is already in place: transit, schools, parks, highways, etc. So there is more development coming, I can say that for a fact.
In accordance with the ‘avenue’ designation, The Station will incorporate retail at grade so that there’s life on the street, and also substantive podiums, all towards, at the end of the day, encouraging this stretch of Wilson Avenue to become quite vibrantly urban. And you’ll see it happen on this particular avenue faster, I’d say, than others. So, from a purely lifestyle and location-oriented investment going forward, it’s a good place to park money.
On a second level, of course, is The Station specifically. Again, we have the great fortune of working with a great architectural firm [SMZ] and with Dan in particular, and we’ve designed a building that is very urban, that is pretty sophisticated (a lot of coloured glass), and that doesn’t put the amenities in the basement – they’re on the seventh floor with views north and south.
We also have the good fortune of having a great interior designer, Terrence Lukas [of Lukas Design Interiors], who is doing his first condominium project after working mostly on resorts and high-end retirement communities. He’s brought a very clean, distinctive design flair to the project so that it’s not so starkly modern that its cold, and yet it’s not overly traditional either. And of course, there’s the ‘Hirsh-factor’ [laughs]. You know, and you’ve got to have an ego to be in the business, and I just really got into this project!
Every time we design a project, I have to be able to see myself in the building. So, partly because I used to really like to cook, and I still love to entertain, I wanted a space where people could entertain, you know, a large dinner party. So we developed the ‘Urbanas.’ I’m very excited about them because you could easily have a dinner party for ten, on the terrace, overlooking the city in an outdoor space that’s heated, and includes a barbecue, and a television – and yet you’re not lost in the space of a giant party room!
So I think, ultimately, that The Station is a very nice lifestyle proposition for a price that simply doesn’t exist downtown.
BBH: How would you characterize the relationship between developers and municipal governments in Southern Ontario? Is it healthy and productive or are there ways that it could be improved?
I can speak to Toronto better, though: Overall, the official plan of the City of Toronto is good. But, I think that the relationship between the municipal government and the developers could be substantially better. I think that the planners and the staff members of the City want to do a great job and want to create a beautiful city, but, unfortunately, we have a political system in Toronto that is ward-based, or area-based, and I think that that prevents a lot of good development from going forward.
BBH: So you would like to arrange a more fluent or cohesive plan rather than a vision that tends to change dramatically from neighbourhood to neighbourhood?
DH: Yes. And I would really like to see a council elected-at-large, and a planning department that is independent. I think that would resolve a lot of problems for the municipality, frankly. I could go on for two hours on this question. . .
BBH: Well, we won’t lead you too far down that road! A final two part question: Were you not in the development industry, what would you realistically be doing for a living? And, throwing all realism out the window, what would your dream job be?
DH: Realistically, I would have been a lawyer, definitely. But my dream job would be a philanthropist. I wish I had the time and the money to help out the many causes that desperately need direction, organization, empathy, and general assistance. And if I could do that full-time, I’d have the time of my life.
Thanks to David for taking the time to speak with us!