In Conversation With… Zev Mandelbaum, President and CEO, Altree Developments
Imagine growing up – quite literally – in the development industry, and becoming a third-generation builder. The lessons imparted by your father, and grandfather before him, and how such family mentoring would help shape who you are today and how you view not just developing projects but growing communities. Zev Mandelbaum, president and CEO of Altree Developments, is one such builder. We caught up with him to discuss two of the company’s new signature projects, and more.
Condo Life: What made Altree decide to choose The Queensway area in Etobicoke for your latest project, Thirty Six Zorra? Was it more a product of land availability, or is there something about the area in particular?
Zev Mandelbaum: Altree chose The Queensway for two principal reasons – ability for high-density development and ample surrounding amenities and entertainment for the public.
As Toronto expands and becomes a larger and more metropolitan city, fewer places are designated to allow for high-density development, and The Queensway was an area we could develop a community of this size. The land that spans from The Queensway to Islington, trickling into the Gardiner, is designated to allow for high-density condominium towers. So, when I saw that opportunity, I knew we would have the ability to build an entire neighbourhood from scratch.
In addition, the neighbourhood already has ample amenities, including the Cineplex Cinemas and Sherway Gardens just down the road, many restaurants and a tremendous parkland that was already planned and under construction at the time. We felt The Queensway would be the most optimal neighbourhood to live, work, play and grow a family. It’s the perfect opportunity to expand on a loyal community that was already present within the area.
CL: What do you foresee as the typical buyer profile? Singles, young families…?
ZM: As urbanization increases, condominium living will become the norm for the city dweller and lead to a whole new way of living. As people change their mindsets to own a home with a white picket fence and large backyard, the shift will be to a more urban lifestyle where amenities are at the tip of ones’ fingertips, with less worry about the maintenance of the property.
Thirty Six Zorra is going to contain a wide selection of amenities that will target all different types of buyers, from singles, to young couples, as well as those looking to downsize. This building will also cater to a larger mix of buyers because of the price point and affordability that will come with these units (compared to those found in the downtown core). Toronto is seeing a year-over-year increase in price per square foot of condominiums within the core, making condo options downtown less and less feasible to many working Torontonians. As a result, we also see a lot of Millennial demographic and end users gravitating to this particular building.
CL: Amenities are becoming an increasingly important part of any condo project – features that speak to the character of the local area and the target buyer demographic. What are the key differentiating amenities at Thirty Six Zorra?
ZM: The way we’ve approached this project is recognizing that The Queensway already has a great mix of retail amenities. For Thirty Six Zorra, we wanted to communicate that this building is really somewhere where prospective buyers can live, work and play on a daily basis. The Queensway offers a plethora of shopping and culinary experiences, and we wanted to bring this vibe into the building. We wanted to create something that really unites people by adding amenities focused on enjoying the company of others – getting off our phones and tablets and hanging out with one another. The building features a gym, a dry sauna, outdoor pool, and a rooftop patio ideal for throwing a great summer party.
The most unique amenities include a rec room that features a social space with various games for everyone to relax with friendly competition after a long day of work. We also added in a demonstration kitchen to allow for a communal space for future homeowners to share their passions and creativity through cooking. With the freelance working economy becoming so popular, there will also be multiple cohesive working spaces where buyers can base their office and hold meetings from the co-working space, the lounges, outside patio or parks that surround the project.
CL: You recently entered into a strategic partnership with EllisDon for Thirty Six Zorra. What are the reasons behind this decision, and how will it benefit the project?
ZM: As a developer, ever since childhood I have loved to watch buildings being constructed and grow. I sought a partnership with EllisDon Capital – the best to do just that – build this community. My goal has not been to merely build a building, but to team up with someone as part of a strategic partnership where we could align our values and goals, leading to a long-term working relationship.
EllisDon is the number one leader in the construction industry in Canada, has built more buildings than anyone else and is set on building the best buildings for communities. Being able to have a strong alliance with EllisDon, not only as a constructor, but also as a fully dedicated partner in the project, gives us the longevity not only to do this project spectacularly well, but also to create more fantastic buildings in the city of Toronto.
CL: Etobicoke certainly as a price point advantage over downtown Toronto and elsewhere in the 416. How long do you think this will last, given more and more developers are seeing the potential of the area?
ZM: As Toronto and the downtown core continues to grow and pierce new heights within the price range of condominium projects, the affordability of units in this area becomes a farther stretch for many people. The multiplier effect means that once a city gets more attention, it gets more amenities and attracts more people who want to live there, just like New York City.
An economist once told me, 30 years ago Manhattan was overpriced, 20 years ago Manhattan was overpriced, 10 years ago Manhattan was overpriced and it’s still overpriced today. I believe the lesson in that was when you have a city that is desirable and continues to g row, it just builds upon itself. As it happens, when the price in Toronto becomes more and more unaffordable, people are starting to look just outside the core to acquire something that is within their price range. Since the pricing in the downtown core is so high, it is only reasonable to think that a market just outside the city, where average square foot prices are in the mid $8 00’s per sq. ft., there is more room to grow.
However, even with this room to grow, these areas will still remain at a $300 to $400 per sq. ft. discount from the downtown core. This is exactly where The Queensway market is, and future homeowners will see this value as well.
CL: Altree has plenty of other projects in the Toronto area. What are the common qualities or characteristics about these that speak to Altree’s mission, vision… that really say, yes, this is an Altree project?
ZM: Altree is all about understanding neighbourhoods! When we decide on a neighbourhood, we place importance on understanding the character and feel that is already in place, so we are able to blend in. The common denominator of all our projects is that we are generally not coming into an area where there are other buildings in the immediate vicinity, meaning that the architecture of the area really has no identity. We need to create an identity within that building that is unique to the character of that neighbourhood. Essentially, we marry a building with the neighbourhood around it.
The most important vision to Altree, is we look for where a community is going to be in the next five to 10 years, not where it is today. It is difficult to do this, as humans are very “touch and feel,” where if something is not there, it’s hard to visualize. When we first look at a site, we analyze the area and really understand the core values and characteristics of a neighbourhood and build on how we understand it to be in the future. Once we understand this, the sky’s the limit. So, if you look at all our projects, we are entrenched in neighbourhoods that have the fibre of growth already existing.
CL: Forest Hill Private Residences is another milestone project from Altree Developments, in a high-profile neighbourhood. What is it about Forest Hill that will stand out from other projects in the area?
ZM: Forest Hill Private Residences is a unique building. When we first saw the project and the piece of land and understood how the zoning would come to be, we noticed that this was a project that would not only be on the cusp of Forest Hill but would be a statement to the neighbourhood.
Seeing that every floor from the third to the ninth has terraces – units with tremendous outdoor exposure – this aspect is one that is missing in buildings in the area and elsewhere in Toronto. Usable personal outdoor space while not having the responsibility of a lawn or backyard. There seems to be quite the gap between condominium and lowrise housing living. There are towers that span up 30 to 40 storeys with great views and exposure, but without much personal outdoor space. There are lowrise houses that have large lawns and backyards, but have become completely unaffordable. Forest Hill Private Residences is a project where we are marrying that outdoor and indoor space. Merging that indoor-outdoor lifestyle together in condominium living is a type of living that is missing in Toronto. It’s the missing middle between a home and a condo, and we are so happy that Forest Hill Private Residences will be able to bring this happy medium to the future homeowners.
CL: What is the current status, in terms of planning, sales launch, suite sizes and price range?
ZM: Currently Forest Hill Private Residences is at the tail end of its zoning. We hope to have that completed by the end of the year and be in the market early next year, with units starting from 900 sq. ft. and up, so there are units catering to everyone.
On a Personal Note…
CL: You’re a third-generation developer… how has essentially growing up in the industry, with a strong family legacy, formed who you are and what you want Altree to become?
ZM: I have learned everything I know from my family. It all started with my grandfather, Sandy Hofstedter, who started H&R Developments 70 years ago. All I remember from a young boy was talk about buildings, neighbourhoods, construction and development. Dinner table talks were all about neighbourhoods in Toronto, the planning context and what we were doing to change it. So, to me, the only thing I have ever dreamt of was building buildings that add to Toronto – buildings that have names that people would look at. The satisfaction of being involved in developments that added to the city skyline, is something words can’t describe. My goal is to make sure Altree continues that legacy for my children for generations to come.
CL: You’ve had some other executive level stops in your career, at Marlin Spring and Lanterra Developments, for example. What did you learn – about development, housing or homebuyers – that aids you in your current role at Altree?
ZM: I started off working in all the family businesses, from H&R Developments to Lanterra Developments, until I formed Marlin Spring along with my two brother-in-laws. In each role, I specialized in the development industry, from acquisition to zoning to marketing to sales to construction to registration to warranty and all the way to the end. At each phase, I was able to delve deep into each aspect of condominium development. Anyone who regularly develops land can tell you that, when you’re a builder it’s all about perfection! It’s all about specialization, working the kinks out of the design, taking that design and tweaking it until it’s perfect.
Working at Lanterra allowed me to see massive projects at macro levels and being able to work alongside the team. When I formed Marlin Spring, I was able to take everything I learned from my family and work on different projects and partnerships. Now with Altree, I’m able to work on specific projects that interest me, allowing me to put my own stamp on this world.
CL: Your greatest inspiration in the development industry is:
ZM: My father and grandfather. For as long as I can remember, I have been inspired and awed by what they have accomplished – from so many great buildings in Toronto and so many artistic styles, to communities that have changed the landscape of the way we live. From ICE Condominiums to Maple Leaf Square, which has totally changed the south core of Toronto, to Murano and Burano that has completely changed the Bay St. strip, to many other areas that both H&R Developments and Lanterra Developments have been involved in shaping.
CL: When not at the office or in the field…:
ZM: I’m spending time with my three children and wife, exploring Toronto’s neighbourhoods and parks and exploring off beaten tracks of Toronto’s gorgeous ravine systems.