Urbantopia-a cross between Brooklyn and Florence. Sixteen years from now, if you believe the brochure, that's what this muddy plain in Markham, Ontario, will become. For now, though, Canada's largest development is marked by construction cranes, the concrete shells of three rising towers, and a posse of real estate agents camped out in lawn chairs. In the parking lot beside the grand sales office for Downtown Markham, the agents' black BMWs and silver Lexus SUVs are being coated with dust by the passing cement trucks, but no one seems concerned. A couple of months from now, markets will plunge and real estate prices will stall, but for now, these agents are prepared to stay here for days, until units in the fifth Downtown Markham condo tower go on the market, ranging in price from $179,900 to $440,900.
Local agent Anissa Wong is buying a one-bedroom condo for one of her young clients, and the demand doesn't faze her. "They had one-week lineups for College Park 3," says Wong, name-dropping a wildly popular condo project that went on sale in downtown Toronto last year. "And here, the prices are cheaper than downtown. It's going to be very green, very different from downtown. Maybe you want to buy one?"
Markham has never seen anything like this-the sort of buying frenzy typical of overheated markets in downtown Toronto or Vancouver, where young professionals are desperate to carve out a place in the city centre. Just a generation ago, the suburb northeast of Toronto was a string of rural villages. Today, it is Canada's fastest-growing municipality, a sprawling collection of cookie-cutter subdivisions, shopping malls and big-box power centres.
Downtown Markham's developer, the Remington Group Inc., aims to reshape the suburbs, and it's betting billions of dollars that urban communities are the way of the future. When the project is completed, some time around 2025, it will house more than 10,000 people in a mix of townhouse blocks and condo towers, and employ 16,000 people in almost four million square feet of pedestrian-friendly retail and office space. There will be acres of parkland and a large central piazza. To top it off, the entire project-by far the largest mixed-use development in the country-will adhere to the gold standard for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).
The man behind Downtown Markham is Rudy Bratty. He's the prolific developer who, over the past 50 years, has turned his father's small building operation into a real estate empire worth over $1 billion (Bratty's personal fortune has been pegged at around $750 million). He's also the man largely responsible for transforming thousands of acres of farmland around Toronto, including much of Markham and one massive, 4,600-acre tract in Mississauga, into curvy streets packed with mass-produced, single-family homes. All told, tens of thousands of people live in Bratty's developments.
But the business is facing new challenges. Yesterday's supply of empty farmland and anything-goes municipal councils are gone; today, places like Markham-with a push from the province-are looking more and more like cities. There's a political consensus that, if we're going to house the 100,000 or so newcomers who flock to Ontario each year, we have no choice but to build denser, mixed-use communities like Downtown Markham. And Bratty is leading the charge. "The rules of the game," Bratty says, his voice shifting from its customary boom into a lawyerly cadence, "have changed totally."
Just as 76-year-old Bratty is making the transition from one type of development to another, his company is going through a transition, as well. His tightly knit crew of four sons-Matthew, Chris, Mark and Michael-are taking on a larger role in Remington. Which makes this a critical moment for the family and for the business. Bratty is determined that Remington remain a family operation. But like other companies in the sector, it faces two big questions: Can they change the way they do business? And can the next generation fill the patriarch's shoes?
At six-foot-something, with a bullet-smooth head, a lineman's build and an excellent pinstriped suit, Rudy Bratty towers over the conference table at Remington's headquarters in Vaughan, another Toronto suburb that bears his imprint. He is flanked by his sons Chris and Matthew, both of whom run divisions within Remington. On the wall above them hangs a black-and-white photograph of Bratty's father, Donato, a cigarette hanging jauntily from his mouth. One of 14 children born to a farming family in Italy's northeastern Friuli region, Donato moved to Canada in 1921. A 21-year-old bricklayer with a Grade 2 education, he settled down with a local Italian-Canadian girl and had two children. "He was a typical Italian immigrant who enjoyed a glass of wine, family, honesty, hard work and playing bocce," Bratty says of his father.