A lot has happened since we sat down with Gary more than two years ago. MOD’s first project FIVE at 5 St. Joseph, then just a twinkle in his eye is now well into the construction phase. He also launched Massey Tower, the incredibly successful, Hariri Pontarini-designed tower at Yonge and Queen that will integrate the historic CIBC Building that has sat vacant for decades across from the Eaton Centre.
We chat with Gary about the success of Massey Tower, the evolution of Yonge Street, and his shiny new iPhone 5 that will be replacing his Blackberry.
BuzzBuzzHome: The success of Massey Tower has been very significant. What drove its huge success?
Gary Switzer: It’s a combination of a number of things. The first is the location, being at Queen and Yonge on the subway across from the Eaton Centre. You’re walking distance from everything — city hall, the Financial District, Ryerson, St. Mike’s Hospital. It’s in the centre of everything. There’s the Elgin Theatre, Massey Hall, and Yonge and Dundas Square.
Those aspects helped drive people, but I think particularly on this site, people are looking for uniqueness when they’re looking at new condominiums. I’ve been involved with the PUG Awards for a number of years and it’s interesting to see who has won over the last few years. It’s always been unique buildings. It was One St. Thomas one year and it was the Argyle Lofts another year. People looked at Massey Tower and saw the heritage component and the very slender and sensuous tower designed by David Pontarini and thought it was a winning combination.
BBH: Could you speak more about the genesis of the project? How did you get your hands on this stunning building?
GS: The building had been for sale on and off over a number of years. I think that anybody that looked at this site hesitated because this is a very challenging site to build upon in terms of what’s surrounding it and the size of where you can actually build the tower. A number of developers looked at it and felt like it was too daunting a task. In my Great Gulf days it was relatively easier to go in with a large site with good frontages on all sides and just build your building. With Massey Tower, because most of the construction is internal to the block, criss-crossed by easements to all our neighbours, it’s very complicated.
This also isn’t an easy site to provide parking on. However, the decreasing demand for parking in new developments and advances in automated parking unlocked the value of this site. Being right on the subway line, we don’t need to provide a lot of parking from both a marketing point of view and a municipal approvals point of view. I think the combination of the physical challenge of the site and the parking issue prevented people from looking at it.
What I’ve tried to do in my projects is look at the attributes of a site that actually make it a good location for a residential development. I think that what became the challenges on the Massey Tower site actually made it into a better building. We were at the Design Review Panel at the City of Toronto and that was one of the comments from one of the members — Hariri Pontarini took all the challenges of the site and it resulted in a better building.
BBH: Yonge Street is undergoing a transformation. How do you feel Massey Tower fits into that?
GS: I think this block has been abandoned in a sense for so many years. It goes back to the building of the Eaton Centre. It led to the decline of the retail viability of the east side of the street because everything became so internalized. Over the last few years, particularly with the building out of the Eaton Centre, where they restored the streetscape in front of the parking garage, that went a long way to help bring back retail vitality to the section between Queen and Dundas. I think that these blocks lag behind. Now we’re seeing a lot of activity north on Yonge Street. My own project, FIVE, is an example.
BBH: Do you feel like the strip of Yonge between FIVE at Bloor and Yonge and Massey Tower at Yonge and Dundas will connect.
GS: I think so. In fact, an architect I know joked around about the fact that David Pontarini, between FIVE St. Joseph, Massey Tower and One Bloor, now owns Yonge Street, whereas Peter Clewes, owns Bay Street with Burano and U. I think it’s funny, but it all adds vitality to the city. It provides a nice transition between the towers of the financial district and the north.
BBH: Do you think FIVE and Massey complement one another?
GS: They’ve got a lot in common, primarily the heritage component, the restoration of the heritage fabric on Yonge Street, and the introduction of new residential setting back from the street to maintain the historic streetscape. The consultants are primarily the same, between HPA, Cecconi Simone and Janna Rosenburg, I’ve kept the same team on both projects.
BBH: How’s construction going at FIVE?
GS: We’re on schedule and things are going along smoothly!
BBH: What’s next for MOD?
GS: We’re looking at a number of sites right now and starting to focus on one. I’m a downtown guy and I’m looking at sites primarily in the downtown. I still think there’s a lot of potential in doing projects here. It seems like every week there’s another article in the newspaper about the condo industry, but I always think that people want to live in Toronto and they want to live in the city.
BBH: That’s a tough subject to ignore. In August, sales numbers dropped pretty significantly, but then again maybe that was just a summer thing.
GS: I also look at it from the point of view that last year was an extraordinarily high year where 23,000 units sold in a climate where we used to consider selling 10,000 units a great year. To go from 23,000 to 15,000 seems like a drop, but 15,000 is still a great year. People need to realize that one great year isn’t setting the benchmark for the future.
BBH: Do you feel like some areas in the city will always be prosperous from a new development standpoint?
GS: Neighbourhoods change with fashion. At one point, who would have looked at King and Spadina as a place for new development? It used to be considered kind of the fringe. I was looking at sites in the late 80s around King and Bathurst and it was all industrial. Not only did you not have the zoning permission to do anything, you also would think “who would want to live there.” Things change. Neighbourhoods are evolving.
BBH: It’s been two years. Have you made the jump to an iPhone yet?
GS: I bought one yesterday. I had an iPad already, but I’ve just got my iPhone. I feel terribly guilty about switching. I feel like I’m giving up on a Canadian institution, but I think it’s going to be wonderful *laughs*.
Thanks for buzzing with us again Gary!