The Evolution of Toronto’s Urban Landscape – with Edward Skira of UrbanToronto.ca
Edward Skira is the President and Co-founder of UrbanToronto.ca. On this interview we talk about the evolution of Toronto’s urban core, the role of the UrbanToronto.ca community in the condo market, and the impact of good design on the market.
Edward Skira Interview Highlights
0:15 Who is Edward Skira
00:40 Immigration is Good for Condo Investors
4:45 How Edward Skira Got Started in Real Estate & How He Started UrbanToronto.ca
12:13 Handling Information Leakage
14:35 How Has the Condo Market Changed in Toronto?
16:30 What Has Not Changed and What Does Edward Wish Would Change?
20:50 What New Project is Edward Most Excited About?
29:17 The Personal Condo Investment Strategy of Edward Skira
31:10 It’s Not Just About the Finances
34:45 How to Reach Edward Skira
Edward Skira Interview Transcript
Andrew la Fleur: Hi. Welcome back to the show. Once again, I am your host Andrew la Fleur and things for listening.
Today on the show I’m going to be interviewing Edward Skira. Edward is the president and co-founder of UrbanToronto.ca. If you’re not familiar with UrbanToronto.ca I highly suggest you go and check it out. It’s a great resource for all things, development, urban planning, condominiums in Toronto. Definitely want to check out that website in the forum section there if you haven’t.
Now, before we get to the interview with Edward I want to do something that we have been doing in the past few episodes and that’s looking at what is in the news this week. This week we have a great article from the Globe and Mail and I’ll include a link to this in the show notes. The show notes for this episode can be found at truencondos.com/urbantoronto.
This is from the Globe and Mail: Canada to open the door wider to ‘higher calibre’ immigrants. Many of you might have seen this article. I was tweeting it out and sharing it on Facebook.
Basically, what they’re saying is the government is announcing with 2015 as election year and they’re starting to make policy announcements and this and that. They’re saying they’re going to open the door to 285,000 immigrants in 2015, which represents the largest number of immigrants they’re targeting to let into the country since 2010.
As condo investors, we are certainly not xenophobic. We are not anti-immigration. We are pro-immigration because immigration means growth. When you have growth you have higher demand for housing, you have upward pressure on rental rates and these are very good things for us as inventors.
Something I always like to remind people is that listen, Toronto is a growing city but not all cities in this world are growing. In fact, many big cities are not growing. If you think about for example, I had a client I was meeting with this week and he lives in Tokyo.
He was telling me about how the population of Japan is shrinking. The birth rates are obviously way down and there’s virtually no immigration in a country like Japan. Population is shrinking. They are not a growing city.
You think about a city like Tokyo, the major world city, one of the great cities of the world. Yes, but maybe not such a great place to invest in real estate because they are not growing as we are.
If you look at pretty much any major city in North America, they’re not seeing the kind of growth rates that we are seeing in Toronto. We are unique. We are special in a sense. We can be proud of that but also we can take advantage of that as real estate investors.
We don’t know if this is going to last forever, this growth that we’re experiencing. Certainly, all signs and indications are that Toronto is a place where people want to live and people want to come to from all over the world. That’s good news, 285,000 people.
Historically speaking, about 40% of immigrants who come to Canada end up in the GTA. If you do 40% of 285,000 that’s putting it at about 115,000. If we did see those kind of numbers in 2015 that would be above the typical or average that we’ve seen in the last decade of around 100,000 or so.
Again, good news for condo investors, good news for anybody purchasing real estate today because the demand for housing continues to grow in the city and the number of new homes and condos that are being built, quite frankly, is not keeping up with just the demographics of people coming into the city.
Let’s get to the interview with Edward Skira now. Here it is. I hope you enjoy
Andrew la Fleur: It’s my pleasure to welcome to the show Edward Skira. Edward is the president and co-founder of UrbanToronto.ca. Edward, welcome to the show.
Edward Skira: Hello Andrew.
Andrew la Fleur: I appreciate your time today. We’re looking forward to chatting with you about Urban Toronto and about the real estate market and condos. Why don’t we get started? Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got started in real estate and how Urban Toronto came to be?
Edward Skira: My background is actually in web publishing and magazine publishing and did a lot of work in the music industry over the years. I’m a downtown dweller. I’ve lived in a condo for almost 20 years now. I’m a big architecture fan and I’m a big development fan.
About 12 or 13 years ago I’d decided that while we were doing the music stuff we started this little forum called Urban Toronto. It was just a hobby because I was interested in what was going on in the city. There hadn’t been a lot of development in the city when I first moved down in the ’90s after the big crash in the late ’80s.
It was fairly quiet but then all of a sudden we started seeing a little bit of development happening and I remember seeing a sign for infinity condo coming and this was down at Bremner and York and I couldn’t find any information.
What we ended up doing is we started this whole forum. The first night there were two people on the forum.
The next night four and then eight and whatever. It slowly took off as people found out about it and became a very organic community of people that were into architecture design, construction and what was going on in the built forum in Toronto.
We had Urban Toronto as strictly a hobby for a number of years but the community was organically growing. 2007, 2008, 2009 our previous business, the music industry side of things, started to go through some turmoil with the internet and free downloads and music industry took a bit hit. We were looking around to see where we’re going to go with our future. Here we had our music stuff and it was on a certain level of traffic.
Meanwhile, Urban Toronto had more than doubled our music site in terms of traffic and we had done nothing but set it up and let it roar on its own. Being a downtowner and looking around, there was a crane going up on every corner all of a sudden. We looked at it and went, “Let’s see what we could do with this.”
We took the discussion forum that was Urban Toronto and we added editorial to it. When I used to talk to people in the community, one of the biggest problems they had with Urban Toronto was there was so much information in the forum. You could spend hours a day in there trying to find out what was going on at a certain corner, at a certain lot, a certain builder.
We thought, “The smartest thing to do would be to pull the information from the forum and do editorial based on the information that we were getting and put it on the front page of the site for people who only had a minute or five minutes a day to really see what was going on. They could come to the site, see what was going on without have to spend hours upon hours in the actual forum itself.”
One of the great things about our site it’s certainly in the early days, but today we find out about information way before almost anybody else does.
Andrew la Fleur: How do you do that? That’s a key component of your site is the big scoops that you guys have and learning about these huge projects that people will be talking about for years but you’re talking about it months before it hits the mainstream media.
How do you do that or is it just the community that you got so many people who are architecture and urban fans that are just out there looking for that information for you?
Edward Skira: Exactly. We have 20,000 registered members on our forum and so we have people from every walk of life. Some of them work for developers, some of them work for architectural firms. Some are city people.
We certainly have a lot of planners and people like that. Politicians. We also have regular folks who just live at a certain location. They all don’t contribute but there’s a nice percentage of people that do.
What do they give us? They find out about stuff that’s coming up. They are walking down the street and will see one of the City of Toronto coming soon sings. An application to whatever. They will know about things from their job.
You can sign up as an anonymous member so you can also put stuff up there that maybe in your professional life you wouldn’t be able to talk about, but as an anonymous poster you certainly can.
I’ve got a great example. Bay Adelaide, the office complex, the first tower which I guess is now a couple years old, that was originally planned in the ’80s and then got shelved through the ’90s.
One day one of our forum members came on, and this is probably about 10 years ago now, and said that he had been at the City of Toronto at the planning department. He was filing something for his business and he saw the fellow in front of them will all these rolls of tubes. What did it say on the tubes? Bay Adelaide drawings.
He came on the forum and said, “Somebody is at city hall submitting drawings for Bay Adelaide.” All of a sudden after 10 years of nothing, people are going, “Oh, wait a second. There’s something happening.”
There are things like that. Wenglore, which is currently under construction when we first set up the site, we ended up getting renderings. Three developers ago, it was a whole totally different projects but there were plans they are already 10, 12 years ago when we started the forum. That’s where we get the information.
When we added the editorial focus to the site and we actually started reaching out to the industry and we turned it into a proper business, we reached out to the PR companies, to the developers.
The day that we decided that we’re going to try it as not a hobby any longer, I sent an email out to all the members of the forums and said we are now open for business if you’d like to advertise. Just contact us. Within an hour I had three major developers contact me and say, “We’re interested,” and I had three clients.
We also work with them and so they will help us and get us information. We do a lot of tours of buildings and stuff and that all comes from us working with the industry. That’s a two prong thing. It’s what our members bring to the table and it’s also the work that we do since we turned it into the business that we work with the developers, we find out what’s going on and we work with city hall and work with all the principles to find out exactly what’s happening.
Andrew la Fleur: I wonder if you ever have situations where information gets out and you’ve run into any trouble with any developers or people of the city where they’re saying, “Take this information down it’s confidential,” or things like that.
Edward Skira: Yes. We’ve run into situations like that.
Andrew la Fleur: How do you handle a situation like that?
Edward Skira: It depends on what the information is. When we first started doing it as a business, the industry was very PR driven. They had an angle of what they wanted to sell the building, what it look like. When they were ready to start selling they would come to market with a full package in place. They would work with their ad agencies and whatever else.
The internet has completely changed that. The fact is that you have to file at the city hall to get a building approved, that’s all public information so that information gets out ahead of the curb in terms of what their marketing strategies were.
If it’s public information it’s fair game. A couple of times they’re in situations where someone wasn’t supposed to be putting it up. We didn’t get the trouble but we took it down and the person that was putting stuff up, from work or wherever it was from, they got in trouble because they were obliged to work not to be revealing stuff and they did.
We definitely will work with the people that are involved but at the same time, if it’s fair game, it’s fair game. I think what’s happened in that time frame – this isn’t just real estate, this is auto industry, this is packaged goods – the reality is the internet has changed everything in terms of how marketing works.
If you’re smart about it you’re going to understand that that’s the way the world is now work with that and make sure that you’re using it to your advantage as opposed to trying to close it up.
We came from the music industry and we saw that quite vividly where they tried to kill downloads and this and that and in the end they’ve had to live with it and work with it. There are different models that you could do that will move forward. We’ve definitely run into that.
Andrew la Fleur: How else would you say the condo market has evolved or changed in the 10 or 15 years that you’ve been actively tracking it yourself and through the site? What changes have you seen and what is still the same and what is different today?
Edward Skira: When we first started the site if a 20-storey building was announced everybody was really excited. A couple of years later, 30 storeys was amazing and now if somebody announces 50 it’s like ho-hum. It’s really crazy what’s happened. A lot of the forum members who like tall buildings, if it’s not 75 storeys it’s not a a great project.
The amount of development, 12 years ago, 13 years ago when we started, there wasn’t really a lot of projects. They would start to percolate a little bit but it wasn’t a massive amount like there is in last five years.
Prices have gone up significantly. Unit sizes have come down significantly. They’re getting smaller. I remember the initial phase of CityPlace on Front John, I guess, or Peter, I guess. I think you could get that for 99,000. Think about getting a condo on Front and Peter for 99,000, brand new construction today.
Andrew la Fleur: Of course not. Parking spot maybe?
Edward Skira: Maybe. I don’t even remember. I didn’t even have money at the time but I looked at it and went, “Wow.” That was a dead zone out there so the fact that somebody would actually move into that Front 10, 12, 15 years ago, there was nothing there. There was lots of parking lots and some offices and stuff. As a community, go there today. It’s amazing the change that’s happened in just the last 10, 15 years.
There’s a bunch of different things that have happened over that period but volume is certainly the biggest. It’s exploded.
Andrew la Fleur: What hasn’t changed that you wish would or another way to say it, in your opinion what is the biggest problem in the industry that needs to be addressed or needs to be fixed?
Edward Skira: I don’t know it hasn’t changed. I think because of the volume some of the construction might not be as good as it should be.
Andrew la Fleur: Quality.
Edward Skira: Quality, design isn’t always great. If you’re able to just open the door and sell everything right away or not even how the people see it but sell it overseas and it’s just really you’re selling location and size. You don’t have to put all thought into the design. I think those are issues that need to be addressed.
One of my biggest piece with what’s happened in the last 15 years is green glass. It was really unique when the first couple of towers started going up with green glass buyer over on Church Street is one of the first point powers and that had that green glass. It was amazing but all of a sudden when you have 30 of them all next to each other in the same place, it’d be nice to have some other look.
Andrew la Fleur: Styles?
Edward Skira: Yes. One of the things with master plan communities and the bigger projects is once they’re built, they’re built and they’re going to live like that for 100 years or whatever and you can’t really insert new buildings anywhere in there. It’s not as organic if you look at Toronto, look any street on Toronto like older neighborhoods where you’ve got buildings from 100 years ago and 50 years ago and today and 20 years ago and there’s different styles.
Andrew la Fleur: See that evolution.
Edward Skira: Yeah. I love that.
Andrew la Fleur:That’s where we’re standing right now doing this interview at your office here in the St. Lawrence Market area where you’ve really got that mix of the old and the new and the very, very old and everything in between.
Edward Skira: If you’ve got a brand new green glass tower going up in this neighborhood, it’s right next to a red brick building, it’s right next to a ’50s whatever modernist kind of building. They’re different.
If you have 20 towers that are all the same kind of green glass, full glass, it does get monotonous and you can’t really change it because there’s no room to put another building in there and so you’re left with that. That to me is the only downside that I’ve seen.
Andrew la Fleur: What’s your favorite building in Toronto?
Edward Skira: My favorite complex is the TD Centre. I’ve always loved that. I’m a modernist. I guess because when I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and …
Andrew la Fleur: Mies van der Rohe.
Edward Skira: Mies van der Rohe. That complex is to me amazing. There’s a lot of great buildings in the city.
Andrew la Fleur: What do you like about it? For those who aren’t familiar with it, you’re talking about the TD Complex Financial district.
Edward Skira: The black models.
Andrew la Fleur: There’s a tower that you use. How many towers is there in part of the complex again?
Edward Skira: There’s actually, I don’t know, five or seven or something? The initial design was three towers and Mies didn’t really have anything to do with the rest of them. He died after the first three were completed or almost completed. They should have probably stopped at the three because his idea was that and afterwards they tampered with it a little bit.
The colors, the simplicity but it’s not that simple. Just the look, the courtyard is amazing. There’s an amazing post card that I’ve seen from late ’60s and there’s just one TD tower up and the rest of the skyline is 1950s Toronto and it’s something out of 2001 that’s [inaudible 00:20:33]. This black model is sticking out and to me that is the epitome of design. It’s like it’s good as you [inaudible 00:20:42].
Andrew la Fleur: Yeah. It’s just aged so well. It looks as good today as it did 50 years ago.
Edward Skira: Absolutely.
Andrew la Fleur: In terms of future sites, there’s so many big announcements it seems this year about major sites coming up, condos and office towers and other things, which side are you most excited about to see how it’s going to turn out?
Edward Skira: I’m really loving what’s going on at Yonge and Bloor. One Bloor is about halfway tall. Across the street the old stories of complex building there.
Andrew la Fleur: Just sold.
Edward Skira: Just sold for a lot of money and they’re looking at doing something, from what I’ve heard, that’s got retail component. It’s not just going to be a condo tower. I’m loving what’s happening down in the core with the way the office market is exploding.
You have Union Square, you have 160 or 150 Front West. Cadillac Fairview is going to be putting up a 54-storey tower and it’s going to be, I think, the third tallest office tower in the city.
Andrew la Fleur: Is that the front street? Front and university on there?
Edward Skira: Yes. Front Simcoe.
Andrew la Fleur: Front Simcoe.
Edward Skira: Then Adelaide has another tower just south of it, Station Street. My excitement with the way the city is growing, and I’m glad that I didn’t start urban Thunder Bay or something and there’s Thunder Bay but the fact is …
Andrew la Fleur: Urban Buffalo.
Edward Skira: Urban Buffalo. The reality is we’ve got so much going on here from someone like myself who really loves buildings, architecture design, you couldn’t be in a better place other than maybe New York City, at least in North America.
What I really love looking at is the way downtown has changed but also I grew up at North York and when I moved up to Young and Finch back in late ’60s when I was a little kid, there was nothing. All of a sudden you have between Finch and Sheppard a massive community.
Young and Sheppard had a couple of buildings that when I moved up there, there was nothing. It was all low-rise. Now you have a second downtown on most town up there. Also the infill that happens and all of a sudden you have a condo at Yonge and Bloor that all of a sudden adds to the community there and every building slowly adds to the community that it’s part of and makes it much more vibrant.
We’re sitting at basically Adelaide and Churben right now and my office has been down here for about 20 years. This was a sketchy-scary neighborhood 20 years ago.
Andrew la Fleur: Yeah, even 10 years ago.
Edward Skira: There was a lot of parking lots, at night it was scary. All of a sudden you have a condo here, condo there. All of a sudden there’s people on the streets. There’s a Tim Horton’s or whatever, a couple of restaurants opened up, more stores opened up. All of a sudden it’s a vibrant community. There’s families.
I talked to a lot of people who complain about condos who said, “Oh, not another condo.” They’re helping making this neighborhoods vibrant. Instead of having people live in sprawl further and further out, the fact that they’re living in the city near transit.
I walk to work. I don’t even own a car. I know lots of people like that who now just use transit or even just walk or bicycle for work. All these buildings have totally hump that. This neighborhood is prime example of what can change.
Andrew la Fleur: What about the condo bubble theory? What’s your take on that? Do you buy into that theory? Do you think we’re over building in Toronto?
Edward Skira: I don’t know. I hear different stats in terms of the number of investors and all that kind of thing. It seems to me A, the population is growing. If the population is growing at 100 to 125,000 people a year in to the GTA, there’s a green belt around the GTA. Sprawl can continue to a certain extent but not really.
People got to live somewhere. Is it over raw? Maybe a little bit but I don’t know if it’s going to crash like the ’80s. At that time, anybody could borrow money. The developers were able to get money really easily to do anything.
Now the banks are pretty tight. They learned their lesson back then. You can’t really build unless you sold it. Will it slow down? Maybe. I don’t know. I can’t really guess. I think that the fundamentals are fairly strong and unless something happens to the economy or if something happens where people just stop coming to Toronto.
100,000 people let’s say a year, again, they got to live somewhere and that’s 30,000 units right there probably, probably more. If it can’t sprawl out they go to go up so I think it will continue.
Andrew la Fleur: Let’s shift gears back to Urban Toronto. Tell us a little bit more about the site now, where it’s at today, who the site is for and who really would benefit from this site. Specifically speaking to condo investors, what can condo investors get from using Urban Toronto?
Edward Skira: The site right now does about two and a half million pages a month. It’s got about 200,000 unique visitors amount. A very strong traffic base. People are coming to the site. We got a lot of traffic.
From a condo investor perspective there’s a number of angles. One, we are generally first with information about new projects. Long before the developers are going to come to market with their marketing campaigns, you will know that they’re working on something at X location. You’re able to find out very early on what’s going on.
If you’re looking in a certain neighborhood you might be looking at something that’s built already or you might go, “Well, I’ve heard on Urban Toronto that parking lot across the street there, they’re planning X or Y so let’s take a look at that.” You get a lot early information as to what’s going on.
Within the forum itself, we have a number of different sections and you are able to post and ask about a developer. You can say, “What do you think of X developer?” I got one person on staff who bought his condo based on recommendations on our site. He went and he said, “What do you think of said developer?” He had people tell him, “I like this guy. This guy is Y,” and whatever.
As a research tool there’s a lot of information there that you can get. You can go to a condo developer’s website but they are just going to have their pictures and what they’re trying to sell. On our site you can actually ask people, “What do you think?”
It’s also very valuable I think from the developer’s perspective and we have a lot of clients that are developers and the reason for that is we will have people in our site come on and say. This is [inaudible 00:28:01], I just moved in.
I have live examples of someone coming on the site and saying, “No, I just move into my new condo and this is wrong and this is wrong and this is wrong.” The developer, in this case, followed all his own thread so he’s paying to what people are saying about his projects, which is a smart thing to do because this say you can totally know what real people are saying.
He came on and posted and said, “Call this number.” The person that had complained obviously I guess did because the next day he came back on and said, “You know, they fixed it.”
As a tool to see what people are saying. Before people would complain and couldn’t really do anything. Now people complain and drag your name through mud. You can work with people and make sure reputation look better.
From an investor perspective there’s a bunch of things there that you could do or you can just see what’s happening in Toronto. We do five to seven stories a day. It’s not all condos. There’s some office development, built form and what’s going on in the city. If you want to know what’s going on in Toronto from a construction building, that kind of thing, we’re the one for you.
Andrew la Fleur: That’s great. I know you’re also a real estate investor yourself. You’ve had different properties over the years. Can you tell us a little bit about your personal investment strategy and what you look for? Are you looking for anything right now to add to your portfolio and what would that be?
Edward Skira: Yes. I bought some condos along the way for investment purposes. My strategy was it got to be downtown, got to be close to the subway or good transit. I think it’s a no-brainer to own real estate downtown Toronto. Will it go up? Will it go down? Sure. For a longer term perspective, if the fundamentals that we talked about earlier continue and I can’t see why they wouldn’t.
I remember talking to my cousin who lives in New York City and he bought a condo lower east side and it was quarter of the size of mine, the one that I live in, and he paid almost double. It was because it was Manhattan.
The reality is there’s only so much real estate downtown and it can only go up. We’ve seen that in the last 10 years. Again, the CityPlace example where units were less than 100,000. Well, good luck finding that now.
From my perspective, it was definitely a longer team. It was definitely good location. If I had a lot of money now for investment purposes a lot of my money is going in the business right now.
Land would be great. I know it’s in shrink supply and every developer is trying to get it too, but if you got land anywhere in a good location, it’s totally worth it.
Andrew la Fleur: One final question to make you think a little bit, maybe put you on the spot. Is there one question that nobody has ever asked you about yourself or about your business or about the condo market but that you wish somebody would?
Edward Skira: Hmmm. I don’t know.
Andrew la Fleur: I know you get asked a lot of questions, interviewed by different people and everybody wants to know your opinion on the condo market. Is there something that nobody ever asked you but that you wish somebody would?
Edward Skira: No, I don’t know. They always ask me the questions you’ve asked but you’ve actually asked what both sides did for us. The financial is one side of the market and the other is the aesthetic, the design, the built form.
I guess most people will ask more about the financial side and for me sure, condos are investment, they’re business and that’s all fine and dandy, but to me it’s also about built form. I think maybe that. You did ask me that or at least we got on that topic.
For me, it’s not about okay, we’ll buy a parking lot, put a 30-storey building and we sell them, make a lot of money and go away. It’s how does it really add to the city and what does it do for the city.
Urban Toronto, when we started it we didn’t call it Skyscraper Toronto and we didn’t call it Condo Toronto. We called it Urban Toronto for a reason and that was because for us the big discussion was not about how tall or how many units.
It was really about urbanism and how these buildings fit into the urban fabric of our city. While we have a lot of discussion about tall and more and more and more and bigger and how much and whatever, to me the biggest impact has been how it’s really revitalized the city, how it fits in to the greater good for the city.
I just love walking down King Street or something and seeing new projects coming up and seeing people on the sidewalks. That’s all about urbanism. That’s one of those fundamental things about Urban Toronto that we named it that for that purpose exactly. We do see the results because it’s not just investors on our side.
City of Toronto planning, I’m quite aware that they had changed some of their internet setup at city hall recently and they banned a number of sites at work, like Facebook and that kind of stuff I guess. Urban Toronto got on the list somehow.
Andrew la Fleur: Got the green light. Added value.
Edward Skira: Urban Toronto got on the no-go list for a minute until people complained and all of a sudden we got taken off. We were mistakenly put in there. There are a lot of people at that level that are definitely watching us for work and it’s helping build the cities. That’s the side of it that I don’t think it’s emphasized enough. I guess maybe that.
Andrew la Fleur: That’s great. Thank you so much for your time today.
Edward Skira: No problem.
Andrew la Fleur: It’s been great. If people want to find you, obviously they know where to find Urban Toronto, it’s simply UrbanToronto.ca, but if people want to find you or get in touch with you how would you like them to do that?
Edward Skira: The contact information is on the site on the footer. If you need to or you want to hit me directly, firstname.lastname@example.org is my email. You can find me on Facebook and Twitter. I’m quite easy to get a hold of online.
Andrew la Fleur: Great. We’ll include links to that in the show notes for this episode. Edward, thank you again for your time. I appreciate it.
Edward Skira: Thanks Andrew. Good luck.
Andrew la Fleur: There you go. That was my interview with Edward Skira. I hope you enjoyed that. For all the show notes on this episode, once again, head over to truecondos.com/urbantoronto. You can find links to Urban Toronto and all the things that we were talking about on today’s episode.
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