When Taya Cook came across an article about the “kings of condos,” showcasing more than a dozen men in real estate, she knew something had to change.

The director of development at Urban Capital Property Group knew it wasn’t just men building the city and that it was time to put a new face to the development industry in Toronto. She asked Sherry Larjani, the managing partner at Spotlight Development, to join forces and together they formed Canada’s first all-women development team for a proposed condo project in Toronto’s Etobicoke neighbourhood. They’ve named it Reina — which translates to queen in Spanish — and assembled a team of women to manage everything, from construction management to engineering, architecture to urban planning.

According to Statistics Canada, women make up just under 18 percent of Toronto’s residential construction industry. “Our goal is to inspire more women to pursue this as a career,” says Larjani. “We want them to know that this is a path that is viable for young girls — whether it’s related to business, design or any other form of development.”

Photo: Riley Stewart Photography (From left to right: Jane Almey (Bluescape Construction); Heather Rolleston (Quadrangle); Nataliya Tkach (EXP); Emily Reisman (Urban Strategies); Sherry Larjani (Spotlight Development); Taya Cook (Urban Capital); Stacy Meek (EXP); Fatima Shakil (Adjeleian Allen Rubeli); Tara Chisholm (WSP Group); Fung Lee (PMA Landscape Architects); Lisa Spensieri (Quadrangle); and, ManLing Lau (MarketVision Research). 

Reina will be an eight-storey condominium with around 200 units, ranging from one to three bedrooms. Ironically, the condo will be built upon Etobicoke’s now-demolished House of Lancaster — a former strip club. “It’s a funny coincidence,” says Larjani. “We picked the site because of the area and it happens to be on the old House of Lancaster.”

“Etobicoke has a lot of young families looking for good homes,” says Cook. “There are beautiful tree lined streets, a great residential feel, there’s a school right across from the site, lots of mom- and pop-type shops. And it’s close to the highway, airport and downtown Toronto.”

Photo: Eventgraphers

Collaboration is key

The team behind Reina will be doing things a little differently: They’re actively seeking feedback to inform the development and design.

“We need to hear from people who actually live in the condos — whether they’re men or women,” says Larjani. “It’s a different way of doing design and development by listening to people’s concerns and trying to address as many of them as we possibly can.”

In Cook’s experience, she’s found women to be naturally collaborative and they’re using that strength to their advantage. “We like to talk to each other and we like to hear each other’s opinions. It seemed like a very natural way to run this project to really take time for feedback before we go to market.”

Along with having a consultation questionnaire on their website, Cook and Larjani hosted an event on July 10th bringing together residents and industry experts to brainstorm what they want to see incorporated into the future development.

“One of the things that stood out to me was that it was so collaborative,” says Despina Zanganas, a Toronto-based realtor, who attended the event. “They were actually looking for feedback. You really don’t get that from any other developer. It was a gigantic brainstorming session.”

Photo: Eventgraphers

What women (and men) want

While the project will be executed by women, the project will be for everyone. By taking an inclusive approach, the condominium will better serve single owners, parents, extended family, children and our communities at large.

The brainstorming session generated 650 ideas and the top concerns will set the precedent for how they approach the architectural drawings, floorplans, amenities spaces, security features, storage and more.

Making condos more safe and secure for all residents

As a realtor who specializes in working with women, Zanganas can attest that security features are top-of-mind for her clients. “One of the ideas I shared at the event was to avoid zig-zagging corridors in condos,” she says. “You don’t know what’s around the corner. When it’s a straight line, you feel more comfortable.”

Many women are so used to that unpleasant gut feeling turning a blind corner, it often doesn’t get vocalized. “It’s something I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of before when I was looking at plans and designing a building with architects.” Thanks to this feedback, it’s now top of mind. “It’s those nuances that we lose when we don’t have these conversations,” says Cook.

Big and small advancements can bring an added level of security to a building — like using a keycard to get into your unit instead of keys, staffing the concierge desk with two people instead of one, and ensuring back staircases and underground garages are well-lit.

Photo: The Honest Company on Unsplash

Maximizing functionality in smaller spaces for families

The group brainstormed creative ways to make smaller spaces more functional for families through creative layout solutions and maximizing amenity spaces to serve as an extension of personal living spaces.

Take storage, for instance: Why is there never a place to put a stroller? “We think it’s a must and should be accommodated on every floor,” says Larjani

“Adding stroller parking seems to be common sense, but it’s not being done,” says Cook. “We’re trying to look for other opportunities like that — taking the time to ask those questions and fix those obvious pain points.”

Zanganas explains that for one of her clients, it was really important to have a separate playroom when they were house hunting. “When you’re a single woman, you don’t want to have to pick everything up every time the child goes to bed. You want to have a separate space that’s just for the kids. And that space can be converted into a place for a parent or friend who is babysitting to sleep.”

Extra rooms aren’t always easy to come by in condos, so the group came up with the idea of installing movable walls inside the units and prioritizing children’s play areas in the amenity spaces — like a soundproofed amenity room for kids to practice music, or a secure play area in the exercise room.

They also looked at adding extra soundproofing within the units, so parents can watch TV without waking their kids up.

Taya Cook and Sherry Larjani. Photo: Riley Stewart Photography

Making the condo experience feel more communal

The condo will feature around 5,000 square feet of indoor amenities and around 6,000 square feet of communal outdoor courtyard space with the goal of fostering community. They also want the building to feel welcoming for residents and their guests — like having a communal kitchen so families can host large gatherings.

“Not everybody, but most people want to feel a sense of community where they live,” says Cook. “You want to meet your neighbors, for the most part. You don’t want to feel like it’s you by yourself in this building,” says Cook.

They also want to make it easier for condo dwellers to show off their place and host events, recreating the feeling of showing up to a friends brick-and-mortar house, without compromising security.

“Some buildings can feel like you’re entering a prison with a thousand different ways to fob in and hallways that aren’t properly marked,” says Cook.

The team plans to go to market early next year. In the meantime, they’ll continue to gather input as they transform the site of a former strip club into an inclusive living space that serves not just women, but everyone.

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