Brandy Lane’s chief has a mission to transform under-developed urban sites into thriving new communities.
David Hirsh is charming; there is really no other way to describe the 56-year-old who wants nothing more than to reinvigorate underused and under-developed neighbourhoods throughout the GTA.
His mission to bring new urban life to older areas can been seen in his company’s developments, including Loggia on The Queensway, Liberty Walk in North York and The Station at Wilson Road and The Allen. Village Mews, located at Rogers Road and Kane Avenue, certainly exemplifies Hirsh’s desire to create affordable infill projects in existing neighbourhoods.
Hirsh, who grew up in Downsview, initially wanted to be a doctor, a dream that never materialized mainly because he and his family couldn’t afford the high cost of a university education.
“I once appeared on Tiny Talent Time, a children’s talent show that Bill Lawrence hosted at CHCH in Hamilton. I played the accordion — “The Anniversary Waltz” — and when Bill asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said that I wanted to be a medical scientist and find the cure for cancer.
“Now I’m a builder with a cure for urban blight,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh.
It’s hard not to like David Hirsh.
Brandy Lane’s most recent project, The Davies, will be a luxury 36-suite condominium with eight penthouses at Avenue Road and Cottingham, overlooking Robertson Davies Park.
Condo Life: Tell me a little bit about your background, where you grew up and went to school. I’ve read your adoptive parents wanted you to be a doctor. How did you come to work in the development industry?
David Hirsh: I grew up in North York, well, Downsview to be exact, at Keele and Wilson. I was adopted by Holocaust survivors who taught me a lot about life; I was raised to be successful, and that’s what drives me. As a kid my parents were relatively poor. My father was a carpenter and my mom stayed at home. They were ordinary people. But as a kid I was always daydreaming about how I would renovate the homes we lived in.
I loved the old neighbourhood where I grew up. My friends and I used to bowl at the old York Bowl. Funny how life turns out because we tore York Bowl down in order to build The Station.
After high school I bought a haberdashery franchise. But it wasn’t for me so I went and got my real estate license and started as a resale agent but it didn’t go so well; incredibly high interest rates put a real damper on the market. I think I sold one house.
In 1992, I went to work for Great Gulf as a sales rep and then I moved to Senator Homes as their sales manager.
But I always need new challenges, and in 1986 I was asked to become a partner in a new company, Brandy Lane. I was so ambitious and aggressive as a young man (there is a little laugh following this statement). Brandy Lane expanded rapidly and we were building an average of 200 homes a year.
CL: What have been the strongest influences in your professional life? When you entered the industry, did you have someone you would consider a mentor?
DH: Certainly my current partners Zan Stern and Bill Glied; we’ve had a 30-year very productive partnership. They changed my life because they saw my ambition and recognized my abilities. I wouldn’t be in this chair if it weren’t for them. And they’re more than just partners; they’re my friends and now like my family. We support each other without question.
A true mentor to me is Angelo Breda from Senator Homes. I still channel him sometimes. I learned a lot from him. He was a great man, a real builder, a carpenter by trade who knew the business from top to bottom.
CL: Because of your history as both a lowrise and highrise builder, you’ve seen a lot of changes in the industry over the years. How has Brandy Lane changed with the province’s initiatives?
DH: In 1985, we were a different group at Brandy Lane. But in 1997 it changed dramatically. I wanted to move the company from building subdivisions to urban infill projects, unique products emphasizing urban intensification. We wanted to change an area and create a new lifestyle for purchasers and for the neighbourhood. There was a parting of ways with some of the partners who didn’t agree with this approach. So now, the words we live by are reurbanization and intensification; we build mostly condos, midrise and highrise, as well as townhomes. Tract housing is no longer our vision.
But infill renewal is not just for urban areas. We’re very involved in introducing an urban form not previously built in Collingwood, which offers fabulous amenities and an opportunity for people to enjoy the incredible four-season lifestyle there. For some, a chalet or detached house isn’t always an option, and there is a better way. We’re building small buildings with condo units priced from $200,000 to $300,000. It’s a carefree lifestyle in a compact urban form. The city of Collingwood has been very easy to work with.
CL: With the province’s Places to Grow policy and the Greenbelt restrictions, where do you see the real estate and housing market in 20 years?
DH: The provincial guidelines demand compact urban growth and that is not a bad thing. I like what’s going on in the GTA and I’m not wound up about the Greenbelt or Places to Grow. I believe in urban life.
This is world-class city, a city of neighbourhoods, and the demographics are changing. As a population, we are moving away from the suburban lifestyle because of urban sprawl and the commute times. People don’t want to spend two to three hours a day in their cars, and young people certainly prefer city life.
What we’re doing is finding sites with the potential to become great neighbourhoods, choice locations that have become neglected. I don’t think the Greenbelt restrictions and P2G are wrong, but then I’ve always travelled a different road.
CL: What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your professional career?
DH: In 2001, we had a big fire at the construction site for Liberty Walk. We had to rebuild it, which delayed us years, and honour our commitments to our buyers. We couldn’t have done it without the cooperation from the trades and from the banks. We offered buyers a choice to either stay in the deals without an increase in price, or they could opt out and get all their money back. More than half stayed with us and I believe that was because the project was very compelling and there was nothing like it on the market at the time.
CL: What has made you the proudest?
DH: Loggia on The Queensway. It was the first project built under the guidelines of the City of Toronto’s Avenues and Midrise Buildings initiatives, which wanted more intensification along the city’s arterial roads, or “Avenues.” We faced a lengthy planning process but we were able to go with what the city wanted. Loggia is two midrise buildings joined by a floating podium with amenity space.
Loggia made me very happy for two reasons: an end user bought every single unit — it sold slowly but steadily — and it won an urban design award from the City of Toronto. (Former Toronto mayor) David Miller just glowed about it.
The Davies is another example of a building conforming to the Avenues program.
CL: What are the biggest challenges that builders and developers encounter today?
DH: I’m a builder so my answer is lack of capacity. We need more people to get into the industry, to learn the trades, plus there are shortages of manpower and materials, particularly rebar, concrete and windows.
We also need to have a public relations program. We need to educate the public about the process and why there are so many delays. The public needs our feedback to explain why there are delays and to explain that we don’t do it intentionally. I always say that an informed consumer is my best customer and builders need the industry’s help in that education.
CL: What is your pet peeve? Development charges, the Greenbelt, Places to Grow, transit issues?
DH: I’m pretty optimistic. I am supportive of density and I would like to see easier accessibility to transit. I just wish everybody would stop arguing about it and just do it. And that dovetails into development charges. I don’t mind them but they should be tied to transit. If the transit issues were addressed and helped, the market would work better.
CL: What do you do for fun?
DH: I love to explore the city; I take walks and go to the theatre and restaurants. I love to cook and entertain as well. It’s a very nice life. My friends are my family. I’m also a student of architecture and urbanism. I don’t consider myself a workaholic because I love it, I love real estate. I put a piece of me into each project.
BRANDY LANE PORTFOLIO
• The Davies, Toronto
• The Station, Toronto
• Village Mews, Toronto
• Loggia, Toronto
• Wyldewood Cove, Collingwood
• Wyldewood, Collingwood