April 6, 2011
This week we chat with Russell Masters of Tower Hill Developments, a company he started with his father and brother Randy in the tradition of their grandfather who also worked in the business. Tower Hill Developments’ Churchill Park Condominiums offers stunning panoramic views from atop the St. Clair Hill in the midst of Toronto’s Churchill Park.
During our conversation Russell told us about inheriting the legacy of his granddad, his favourite part of the development process, and the best things about the Forest Hill neighbourhood.
BuzzBuzzHome: How did you come to work in the development industry?
Russell Masters: My family has been in the business for 90 years. My granddad was a developer back in the day. He started with houses, then built a lot of apartments, and built the Park Plaza Hotel, and Sutton Place Hotel and, actually, some office buildings, too. So it’s sort of in our blood, although my brother and I are lawyers by training. But a number of years ago we got out of the legal business and jumped into the family business.
BBH: What was it about the family business that enticed you away from law?
RM: Well [development] is a pretty exciting business. I think the aspects I most enjoy about it are the design qualities of projects and the challenge of figuring out what to do with any given piece of land.
When my granddad built a lot of projects back in the early 1960s, there were these ’70 percent open green space’ laws which meant that we could only build on 30 percent of any piece of land. Nowadays there’s so many people moving into the city and space is at such a premium that there’s naturally a real drive for intensification, so there’s not that many pieces of land that are 70 percent open to green space. It’s the exact opposite, in fact.
So, for example, in the case of Churchill Park, we had this incredible asset and said to ourselves, “Gosh, there’s a real opportunity to do something unique and exciting; let’s do it.”
BBH: Speaking of Churchill Park Condominiums, what should people know?
RM: Well everything in real estate is location, location, location. The Churchill Park project, features one of the most beautiful condominium locations in the city. Plus the quality, of both design and construction, is second to none.
Having said that, it is a boutique building; you have to want to feel that you’re part of a family with the other owners. The curvature of the building and the amount of glass and light and air makes it unlikely to be highly desirable for a 20-year old who is more interested in a pool and a bar and all that stuff.
But our clientele, many of whom are in a move-down stage of life, tend to wants a sophisticated, secure building in the middle of a beautiful, central neighbourhood. This is it.
BBH: Is there a certain stage of the development process that you most enjoy?
RM: As I mentioned, it’s the design work. I like sitting down with the architect and the interior designer. The original concept for this building was a traditional design that would have had the units sort of stare into the building across from it; it was flat. And we thought, “You know, it’s OK. . . but it’s sort of boring.” If I bought a unit and ended up staring into someone’s kitchen, I’d be disappointed.
So then we spoke to Les Klein at Quadrangle Architects who said, “Let’s make it an oval-type building and put it off-centre from the existing buildings in the area and take advantage of the east-west views and the sun.” And that developed into other things so that by the time we sat down with the interior designers we had a lot of great opportunities to play with the light and the windows and everything.
Building it, though, that’s the hard part [laughs].
BBH: You could go back to school, take some architecture classes and emerge a triple threat: lawyer, architect, developer.
RM: [Laughs] I had enough school when I was there.
BBH: What part of the GTA do you call home and what’s your favourite thing about your neighbourhood?
RM: I live just around the corner from Churchill Park, and the best part of the neighbourhood is the trees. There’s not that many cities in the world in which you can be fifteen minutes from downtown and yet live in a real neighbourhood with parks and trees and space to ride bikes with your kids – it’s pretty cool.
BBH: What’s next for Tower Hill Development?
RM: Well, we’ve started a house building business, so we’re about to build 3000 houses. We’ve started off in Richmond Hill; we have a large development coming to Pickering, hopefully in about a year; and, of course, we’re always looking for unique and exciting condominium sites.
When we look at building something we want to be sure that we would, ourselves, want to live there. Slapping up a 200-unit building is not what we want to do, unless it’s got some unique feature. So that’s what we’re looking for. And the house building business is pretty cool. As I mentioned, it’s how my granddad started out, and so we’re going back to our roots.
BBH: Most developers seem to be going to other way, from homes to multi-unit projects. . .
RM: Most developers are doing that because they can’t afford to buy the land.
My grandad used to raise cattle as a hobby and was in fact a major contributor to a large dairy, known as Silverwood Dairy. (From raising cattle he got into raising and breeding championship bulls – we always used to go to the Royal Winter Fair with my grandad and see his cattle.) But anyway, he owned a couple of farms and the last one he owned was in the middle of Richmond Hill, which, unfortunately for us, became the middle of the Oak Ridges Moraine which itself eventually fell under the protection of the Greenbelt Plan. So the province swapped us that land for some land in Pickering, which, as we came to learn, meant that we had the greatest asset that any house builder has, which is access to affordable lots.
Learning to build houses is, again, the hard part, but we learned how to build great condos, and we have a wonderful guy who is our head of construction – he’s a very experienced house builder – and we sold our first house about a week ago. We start building in two weeks.
And, as I said, we’re always looking for condo space, too.
BBH: Is there a part of town that you think will be the next hot-spot for condominiums?
RM: My granddad always said you’ve got to be on Yonge Street or a major thoroughfare, but there’s obviously also an affordability issue attached. One of the other axioms my granddad had was that it’s better to build a Chevy than a Cadillac, which is probably true; the market’s always deeper for a price-point product.
I’ve also always wanted to build a hotel, like my granddad did, but I’ve also learned that it’s the guy who buys it the second time around that makes all the money. But one day we’ll try it. The other thing I’m learning about the development business is that it takes a while, patience is crucial. . .
BBH: If you could pick a second dream job, what would it be?
RM: I have a really good friend of mine who’s a chef, and that’s an appealing job. I started cooking a while ago and haven’t killed my family yet. . . But then I also really did like to practice law, too, so if I had to make a living in another racket, that’d be it – and I’d get better at cooking on the side.
Our thanks to Russell for taking the time to show us through Churchill Park Condominiums and for answering our questions!