Last week, the NewInHomes.com team headed out to the Sheppard and Bathurst area to meet with Aaron Brown, executive vice-president of Norstar, to talk a little bit about his experience in the homebuilding industry and his project, Portrait Condominiums.
NewInHomes (NIH): So, how did you get your start in the real estate business?
Aaron Brown (AB): My dad was always interested in real estate. He acquired his first fourplex in Oshawa at the ripe old age of 13. My grandfather co-signed on the loan for the property, and my father would bike around collecting the rent checks. So, our family’s always been involved in the real estate business, and it became a full-time thing in the 1980s. I was a kid, and in the summers I would help out and do whatever I could.
Also, I worked on Bay Street in the finance industry for 12 years, so having an understanding of the financial market is good in terms of understanding the various economic indicators, how they relate to the development business — you know, just having a handle on the economy.
NIH: What are you most involved in at Norstar?
AB: I’ve been actively involved in developing the retail aspect of the portfolio, different shopping centres, probably done maybe 750,000 square feet of retail space, with tenants like Shoppers, Sobeys, Royal Bank, and Starbucks. That was maybe my main focus, but I was always involved in the residential side.
I’m working on a couple residential projects myself now. The first one is a five-acre piece of land in Markham at Hwy. 48 and Castlemore, about 350 metres from the GO Station. It was zoned industrial, so I rezoned it to permit high density residential — that took three years. We’re hoping to start the sales and marketing for this project late next year. It’s a mixed-use plan; 500 residential units, about 70,000 square feet of ground floor retail, and there’s a single-storey building in the back with about 13,000 square feet of space. We’re hoping to do some kind of community involvement project, maybe a library with the city, maybe some office space.
The other site is at Dufferin and Rutherford. This one’s going to be two towers in the mid-20s. The site is bordered by woodlot on two sides, and there’s an extensive green area between the woodlot and the hard feature. I was thinking of creating a co-op garden, or a vegetable garden, or some kind of greenspace, just to get people outdoors and collectively doing something as a community. We’re a couple years out from this one, but we have about 300 names on the list of people who are interested. I just put up a sign and we have people calling us. It’s a great location!
NIH: We understand that Norstar has worked on a number of different kinds of projects.
AB: Yes, we’re not just residential; we’ve done some office development, some plazas over the years. We have sort of a broad approach. Lots of builders are niche, we don’t do that. Also, we’re multinational – we have a big residential presence in the United States. We’re building in upstate New York, some in Michigan, Florida, in Dallas; we have a lot of experience south of the border, and I think that brings a lot of credibility to the Norstar name.
NIH: What differences have you noticed between developing in the U.S. and in Canada?
AB: Not to knock the politicians in the city of Toronto … To get a building permit here is a lengthy process, and it depends where you’re working. In smaller municipalities, like Stouffville, things can go smoother, but they probably have less on their plate. Toronto is under siege. They have so many development applications, big things are happening in Toronto — they are working like crazy, so it’s understandable.
NIH: Okay, so you have to tell us more about Portrait!
AB: There are 100 units in each building. The countertops are granite, we have wheelchair accessible units, huge balconies. They’re very cozy, and very spacious. It’s one condominium, but there are two buildings. It’s kinda cool — you’re in a much smaller community within your building.
The west tower’s pretty much completed, with about 50 percent of the suites occupied. Over in the east tower, the amenity spaces are under construction. We have the gym, yoga space, men’s and women’s steam showers, fireplace lounge with different conversation areas, card and games room, and dining room, so people can have parties and hold events.
NIH: What is the Sheppard and Bathurst neighbourhood like?
AB: Well, there are six retail units on Portrait’s ground floor. A doctor from across the street is moving into a unit, an accountant too, just a few professionals. It will be like a one-stop-shop. There’s also a huge plaza within walking distance, with a couple banks, Starbucks, Pizza Pizza, Metro, Dairy Queen, a Shoppers Drugmart, and there’s a Tim Hortons across the street.
I think that one of the compelling points about this location is that it’s the re-gentrification of Sheppard Avenue. There are a lot of older bungalows that are being taken down and intensifying density where it should be, and hopefully we get a subway line along here in the near future. There are people who have been living in the neighbourhood for decades, and it is getting difficult to maintain these old bungalows, so what excites me is that these families can sell their homes and move into Portrait —they don’t have to leave their neighbourhood. They can maintain their relationships with the stores, restaurants, religious institutions, and the maintenance issue is obsolete.
NIH: There’s lots of low-rise in the area. How does Portrait accommodate the desire for outdoor activities and make up for the lack of a backyard?
AB: There are great outdoor terraces at Portrait, with barbecue lines and such. I love my backyard, and it’s a really important feature for a home. Let’s be honest, we live in a climate where outdoor activities aren’t always an option, so those few precious months where we can be outdoors should be taken advantage of. Some of these terraces can fit tables that seat up to 12 people.
Having a connection to the outdoors is important, and it is a valuable amenity to quality of life. We worked the gardens into the siteplan. In the front, you have the planting beds, little retaining walls, all sorts of landscaping opportunities. The site is long and narrow, and the depth is shallow, but where we can around the perimeter, we plan to enhance the landscaping.
NIH: So, you mentioned that you have occupancy in the west building. Have you received any feedback from the residents?
AB: I got in the elevator with a woman the other day, and she said, ‘What floor are you going to?’ I said three, so she pushed three, and when we got out, she asked, ‘Do you live here?’ I said, ‘No, I’m actually heading to the sales office.’ She said, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re going to love it here.’ She didn’t know who I was; she was just singing the praises of the building.
NIH: Are there any special events coming up at Portrait that everyone should know about?
AB: We’re having a sales event over two days, starting on Nov. 10. We’re offering up to $20,000 cashback, and something we’re calling our ‘basket of secret incentives.’ It’s just like a holiday Christmas special; depending on the individual and their situation, stuff like, a buy-down on the mortgage, no maintenance fees for a certain amount of time, or a quick upgrade, etc. Just a little something that helps them feel better about purchasing their new home.
We extend our thanks to Aaron Brown of Norstar for sitting down with us and chatting a little bit about his past and future, and Portrait Condominiums.