Q&A: Sam Mizrahi, the developer who snagged Toronto’s most coveted piece of real estate

Q&A: Sam Mizrahi, the developer who snagged Toronto’s most coveted piece of real estate

(Image: Claire Foster)

There’s not a developer in Canada who wouldn’t pay dearly for the rights to the southwest corner of Yonge and Bloor, and last fall, Sam Mizrahi, a businessman best known until five years ago for his upscale dry cleaning company, became the lucky real estate investor to snag it. If Mizrahi gets what he says he wants, the coming condo tower—which he calls “The One,” after its iconic address, One Bloor West—will be an 80-storey skyscraper designed by the famed British architect Norman Foster. The development, of course, has already caused controversy: the site’s former occupant for 114 years, the men’s clothing store Stollerys, was quickly dismantled just a few days after the city approved a demolition permit, even as councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam moved to have the building evaluated for heritage designation. We met up with Mizrahi to talk about the new development, the value of historical preservation and the future of Toronto.

A few years ago you were known mostly for your dry cleaning business. Now you own one of the most coveted pieces of real estate in the country. How did that happen so fast?
I’ve often been asked what the similarities are between those two businesses. It’s about addressing niches. With Dove Cleaners, we created a premium, high-end, attention-to-detail business. The real estate market that I’ve gone into is the same niche market. It’s the same customer as the Dove customer.

There were many, many people who wanted to get their hands on the Stollerys site. How did you do it?
The process took close to 11 months. The one thing that I did differently was to understand what the property owners felt and wanted, besides the financial aspect of the transaction. There’s more to it than just money. When you have people who have owned the property for 114 years, it becomes a very emotional decision. It’s not just the numbers. It’s a matter of sharing the same value system. You have to have a great deal of empathy.

How did you build the relationship?
I met with them constantly. I would walk from my office over to Stollerys and I’d go upstairs and I would sit and have coffee. We’d talk about the past, the present and the future. And sometimes we’d talk about nothing related to the property. We’d just talk about life in general. Personal conversations. It became a trusted friendship, and that can’t be artificial. You can’t fake that. So every item that was important, we were able to mutually sit down as friends and figure it out together.

What were some of the biggest concerns that they had?
The biggest concern was emotion, especially for [Stollerys president] Ed Whaley. His identity was that store. For Ed, it was a very difficult, emotional decision, one that has been on his mind for many years. Simplicity was very important to him. In the old world, things were simple. It was about handshakes. I subscribed to that value system, and Ed knew that. It’s about doing what you say and fulfilling your promises. I gained a friend out of it. It wasn’t just a transaction.

Demolition began while Kristyn Wong-Tam was taking the first steps toward having Stollerys declared a heritage building. Was that a coincidence?
You can’t just get a demolition permit in 48 hours. It takes weeks and months. We had met with the city in the fall of 2014, and they were aware of what our plans were. Kristyn Wong-Tam was aware that we had purchased the site and were going to redevelop it. The city has had over 100 years to look at this and say, “This is the most prominent corner in the city.” We were transparent about our plans. There was nothing secretive about it. So I was very surprised to see the position that was taken literally 48 hours before the demolition was to commence. It wasn’t something I was warned about. The first time I heard about it was in the media. I was never given a hint of it. And we had legal permits. We abided by the governance and all the rules of the  buildings department. Why take a position like that when the city had already cleared everything?

The demolition started on a weekend. Is that a common practice?
You start it on a weekend because of traffic and because it’s a winter day. I wouldn’t start it on a weekend in the summer. It was the most efficient time to minimize the impact to the corner, because most people aren’t out on a cold winter day, and you don’t have the traffic of Monday to Friday.

You always see preservationists standing up when a development like this is proposed. What do you make of them?
I agree with them most of the time. I believe in preservation. I mean, look at the architecture of some of the things I’ve built. 133 Hazelton is an old-world building. It speaks to the same values that the preservationists speak to. So I’m a champion of that. And had I thought that there was any merit in any of the architecture at Stollerys, I would have either incorporated it or not been the guy to come in and redevelop it. All of these ideals are subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I have kept a couple of the limestone pieces in honour of the family, and I will put something together, a monument of some sort, to honour Stollerys and what it was.

Tell me about the decision to get Norman Foster on board.
I met with architects in New York, London, France and Canada, and we looked at many different ways we could develop this corner in a way that would put Toronto on the international architecture stage. It’s a matter of fitting a new building in the context of what is being built around it and what is going to be built. Retail is the most significant component of this development. This is the nexus of the retail core in Toronto, if not Canada. We wanted PATH connections and TTC connections. And the new retail format asks for uncontaminated space, which means you don’t have columns or pillars running through it. The residential aspect is going to be unlike anything that Toronto has seen. Very few could have achieved all of those checkmarks. Foster understood how to.

What do you make of the mass development that’s happening in Toronto these days? Do you like what you see?
I applaud what’s happening in Toronto. I trumpet what’s happening in Toronto. I think we’re very blessed and we have to be very grateful for how Toronto is transforming and maturing into an international city. We’re a mosaic of cultures. We’re like the UN. We’re very diverse with very sophisticated palates. I think the growth we’re seeing, and the number of cranes that are up, is a testament to how successful Toronto has been.

But we have so many condos going up that look the same and are cheaply built.
That’s about attention to detail. If you have quality-control issues, you’re just not paying attention to those details. I’m somewhat of a micromanager. I get very passionate about the details. I’m involved in everything, right down to the colour of the mortar that goes in the brick, right down to the caulking colour, right down to the details of the hinges on the doors. Most of the time they’re formula-built buildings. I’ve found that very few buildings have soul to them, and we want to bring that to Yonge and Bloor.

Can you get into any specifics as to what we’ll see there?
We’ll be submitting our plans in the first week of March. What you’re going to see is an iconic structure that will be 80 storeys tall. You’re going to see an exoskeletal building. There will be jewellery on the building that creates an artistic weave. You’re going to have something that’s never been done before in Toronto and doesn’t look like any other building in Toronto—or Canada, for that matter.

Jennifer Keesmaat once said that she’s not interested in welcoming “ego architecture” to this city. Is that a valid concern here?
It would be if you had a different type of applicant or developer. We’re not interested in creating something that is not tasteful, or that’s not timeless. Ego is one of those things you hang at the door.

Do you think Toronto’s development boom can last? What’s going to happen in the next five or 10 years?
A lot of that is predicated on the immigration that’s coming to Toronto and Canada. I believe the reason we’ve remained buoyant is because as the world unravels and other regions in the world become less tasteful to live in, Canada is the new safe haven. Canada is the new Switzerland. As long as we continue to see the immigration flow in, we’ll continue to see Toronto grow.