Photo: Sasaran / Adobe Stock
With Canadian housing inventory at its lowest level in history, there’s been a lot of talk about building new home supply. One boutique-sized developer recently took on six new projects that will bring upwards of 2,700 units to Toronto.
Republic Developments filed five mid- to high-rise project applications in late December 2021. This includes plans to redevelop the Novotel Toronto Centre at 45 The Esplanade, and the integration of a revitalized 1870s building into a new mid-rise at 111 Strachan Avenue. A sixth application, which is currently in the works, is planned for submission in late January. These projects mark a significant milestone for the growing six-person developer, taking the company from a single-project firm to one that now has several applications in tow.
Matt Young, president and CEO of Republic Developments, created the company two years ago. Young previously worked at Lifetime Developments and is the former vice-president of development at Capital Developments. The company kicked off its first project in collaboration with Harlo Capital in late 2020 with Scarborough Junction, a 26-acre, master-planned community at the Scarborough GO station.
Livabl spoke with Young to learn more about the six development applications Republic Developments has been working on, as well as his thoughts on Greater Toronto’s new construction market.
Parts of this interview have been edited or removed for clarity and brevity.
In a recent post to social media, you announced that Republic Developments has taken on six new developments, with five of those applications having been filed in the final weeks of December 2021. Why did you take on so many developments at once?
We formed a partnership with Silver Hotel Group in the summertime, and we really got started on the projects probably around July or August. The reason they all went in at once was because it was a portfolio deal and the goal — through the partnership — was to submit applications before the end of the year.
At the time, there were multiple changes happening in the city, like the foundation drainage policy, for example, that was changing as of Jan. 1, 2022. Our mandate was to get as many applications as we could in before those changes happened. Coincidentally, we had one of our other projects at 111 Strachan Avenue happening simultaneously, which rounded out the six.
In hindsight, it was probably a challenge that I might have underestimated, but our team really worked hard. Our guys were working until midnight most nights in order to get it done and we got five out of six in, which is great. We’re pretty happy about that, but it did cause us to rush a number of things.
In terms of the architectural design of the buildings, those are first drafts that we didn’t even have time to properly critique and work through. They will evolve, and I think all of the projects are going to continue to get a lot better as we move through the process.
Can you give us some hints on what the sixth development application will entail?
It’s located just south of Steeles Avenue on Yonge Street. It’s a two-building project. It will be mid-rise in nature. The renderings and the project details will come out shortly, but I think we’re probably going to have the submission in by the end of January. There’s just a couple of little things we’re wrapping up on that. It should be public very soon.
Of the five property applications that have since gone public, they are pretty distinct in design. How do you decide what each project should look like and how they fit into the context of their neighbourhood?
A lot of it is just following city policy. Every neighbourhood has a different policy context and different requirements. Whenever we’re looking at a new project, we’re looking at those policies and trying to understand what the city is looking for and make sure that we’re proposing something that is consistent with what the city is trying to achieve.
In the case of 15 Charles Street East, there is an angled top which I think is beautiful and it’s a really incredible design, but it’s actually formed because of city policy. There’s a 75-degree angular plane coming off of Yonge Street and the city wants buildings to fall underneath. So as a result of that policy, you have to taper the top of the building. In that case, the outcome is a really beautiful, interesting-looking skyscraper that I think will be very striking and dynamic in the skyline when it’s built.
In cases like 2451 Dufferin Street, there are neighbourhoods and other uses around the property, so we’re trying to be sensitive to those. That’s the reason our podium looks the way that it does or why the top of the tower tapers in a little bit. It’s really just trying to follow the existing planning framework, and then in some cases, looking at what the future could be or should be given the needs of our city, where infrastructure exists, and where a higher and better use just makes sense.
In the case of 3 Swift Drive, we’re proposing two towers in a low- to mid-rise rental apartment neighbourhood, but the Crosstown LRT is in the midst of being completed right now so there’s a huge amount of infrastructure that’s just been invested in along this stretch. Our view is if we’re going to invest in building housing, we should be trying to build it on infrastructure that’s available, not waiting for infrastructure that may come 10 to 20 years from now. We’re proposing a much more dense and ambitious vision for this area, but we think that as the area starts to take shape and other landowners start to look at what’s possible, the whole area is going to change and we might be the catalyst for that. Ultimately, it’s going to be this great community that’s going to be connected to transit.
The proposal for 111 Strachan Avenue has been getting a lot of attention. Why did you opt to keep the 1870s building in design, even though it’s not designated as a heritage building?
It doesn’t have heritage designation, but we did think it was a beautiful character building. We just felt that it would make a lot of sense to include it as part of the application and it would help frame the project and create a transition to the neighbourhood to the north.
It’s sitting on the north corner of the property. It’s home right now to Pennies, which is a very successful establishment in the neighbourhood. The idea of keeping a use like that in a nice character building, we thought, would enhance the project. If you look at the rest of the architecture, we’re trying to create a sense of transition from the north side of the property — where you’d have predominantly low-rise housing and townhouses — towards the south end where you now have a 14-storey tower nearing approval. We are trying to create a sense of transition from the south end down to the north end. Keeping the existing building there was a good way to do that.
The project proposal for 45 The Esplanade would redevelop the Novotel Toronto Centre. What was behind the decision to redesign the colonnade feature that defines this portion of The Esplanade?
That one I’d say, of all of the projects, we had the least amount of time to finish that one off. We really think that’s a super-important location. It’s so close to the centre of downtown. The Esplanade is a really beautiful street. So that’s a project that we’re going to spend a lot more energy trying to really get right.
We conveyed to the architects from the beginning that there is a project on the east side of the building that does not have a colonnade. It steps back and creates an open sidewalk condition. On the west side of the property, we have an existing tall building with a colonnade that was built when this hotel was built.
In designing our property, we thought it was important to create a transition between these two conditions. And so, what we did was remove the colonnade component, but maintain a covered walkway connection that will help make this side of The Esplanade more inviting to pedestrians. The design will evolve but that’s the idea.
We’re starting to see feedback that some people really love the colonnade, and others don’t love the colonnade. Perhaps there’s a way to modernize a new version of a colonnade that might provide some sort of balance to both sides.
I agree that the colonnade is interesting, but in its current condition, it doesn’t really provide a great pedestrian condition. A lot of people would rather walk on the north side of The Esplanade instead of the south side. We’re going to work on that and make the pedestrian experience incredible.
How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has affected what projects developers are proposing and bringing to market?
There’s a number of things.
I’m convinced that we’re going to move into an era where there’s a mix of work from home and a mix of work from an office. I think as a result of that, people are considering the types of housing that they’re living in and making sure that they have the environment to productively work from home.
Whether it’s unit mix or unit design that we’re thinking about in the buildings, or whether it’s providing co-working spaces, or as part of the amenity package, there’s actually a space to go and be productive instead of being in your unit. Those are some of the more micro-type changes.
On the macro level, it has started to really reinforce the thesis that we’ve had for a long time — and I think most other developers have — which is that a lot of people want to live in Canada.
A lot of people are investing in homeownership and in their homes, and we have a massive shortage of housing. We’re seeing it played out right now in not just Toronto, but even small towns an hour or two hours outside of Toronto. Prices are skyrocketing. I read a stat that we have the lowest inventory in Canadian history as long as we’ve been tracking it.
That just doesn’t include Toronto, we’re talking about every small town across the country that is experiencing this crunch for supply. I think we are certainly considering this over the long-term and making major investments today and trying to bring new housing onstream.
That’s why we’re taking on so many projects as a small company. We’re scaling up the business to accommodate that. I think this trend is going to continue. I think people want to live here. Immigration numbers are hitting the highest they have been in a very long time and are projected to continue to increase, and we’re not building enough housing for the people coming. I think COVID may have exacerbated the situation, but this trend has been happening for a while.
With Canada reporting the lowest quantity in available homes in history, there has been a lot of talk about housing supply. What areas of the GTA do you think are poised for growth?
Scarborough is probably going to be the largest-growing suburb of the GTA over the next five to 10 years. If you just look at our applications, anything happening at the Golden Mile, everything happening at the Scarborough Town Centre, the Agincourt Mall, you’ve got a huge amount of large-scale, master-plans happening in Scarborough. I think Mississauga is going to go through something similar. The redevelopment of Square One Shopping Centre, for example. Places like Brampton are starting to see huge growth.
I think the periphery where there’s transit infrastructure is probably going to see the most growth. I think it’s the easiest way for the development community to deliver housing affordability, because you can sell a condo in Scarborough for significantly cheaper than you can sell that one downtown, and if they’re connected to transit, they can get downtown in 18 minutes like they can from Scarborough Junction.
I’d say that’s going to be really good value for a new family coming to Canada or a young person who is graduating from school and is looking to start their lives and start to plant some roots. We’re very bullish on the periphery where there’s transit. There’s more land in these places and there’s a lot less land left downtown compared to downtown or other highly-built areas where available land is limited which ultimately pushes prices higher, further limiting affordability.