Until the 1980s, the development game was relatively simple. Municipalities around the GTA were eager to enlarge their property-tax base and thousands of young families were on the hunt for affordable housing-and developers were only too happy to oblige. Bratty sums up the planning ethos of those years: "You put in as many lots as you can, a shopping centre here, a school here and a park here," he says, waving one of his long hands.
Working on a handshake basis, Muzzo and DeGasperis moved fast. "A deal would come through and be presented to Marc and I and Rudy," 74-year-old DeGasperis remembers, "and each would make a decision about whether he wanted to become a partner. No board meetings-very simple. It's very hard for you to understand how simple it was."
The three shared a ferocious work ethic. DeGasperis, who came to Canada at age 18, was a dealmaker with strong connections to various trades. As for Muzzo, who died in 2005 at age 73, "he was very bombastic, very domineering," recalls Bratty. Though their exact roles shifted from deal to deal, the three partners built on the efficiencies of their related businesses. DeGasperis's sewer and water-main contracting company, Con-Drain, supplied the infrastructure for their projects, and Muzzo's drywall business, Marel Contracting, helped finish the houses. Bratty's job was to acquire the actual land and deal with the legal and political issues around getting it developed. In truth, it wasn't all that difficult. In fast-growing suburbs like Markham, says Cousens, the zoning was "wide open." Even so, Muzzo and DeGasperis maintained a fair but insistent line while negotiating their own projects with local officials. Their approach when disputes arose, according to one local politician, was: "If you guys don't like it, we'll take it to the Board"-as in the Ontario Municipal Board, a notoriously developer-friendly agency that can overrule local planning decisions.
That wasn't Bratty's style. "If it didn't work for the municipality, we never really fought it," Bratty says. "I would sit down with the local politicians and the local staff, and we would either wait or change it."
His bids were supported by impeccable connections with both Tory and Liberal provincial politicians. Bratty sat on numerous corporate boards, including Canada Trust, Petro-Canada and the Toronto Sun Publishing Corp. (he teamed up with onetime Sun publisher and CEO Paul Godfrey back in 1989 to try to bring an NFL team to Toronto). And he and Cathie (a member of an elite society clique known as "the Glitter Girls" who is notorious for over-the-top outfits and jewellery) were regular fixtures on the charity-ball circuit.
Most importantly, Bratty knew better than anyone how to work the system to his advantage-for instance, commissioning his own environmental studies that helped persuade planners that his land was ripe for infrastructure, and tracking planning decisions among all three levels of government. "Small developers probably don't have the staff, the organization, to keep track of all these agencies," says a long-time consultant. "A lot of those developers were guys working out of the trunk of a car. Bratty's organization, DeGasperis's organization, they're plugged in everywhere. Why? They've got the resources to do it."
That also meant plenty of quid pro quo. Developers would invest in services or infrastructure in exchange for the right to build. Such deals were and are common in fast-growing towns, and Bratty and company were happy to play ball. "There weren't a lot of development charges," Cousens says. "So if you wanted a new community centre, you'd go to Mr. Bratty or Mr. DeGasperis, and they'd donate the land and a large part of the money. That was their payback. They were willing to make that kind of participation."
Meanwhile, their much smaller rivals grumbled about unfair practices. During a judicial inquiry into the construction industry launched by the government of Ontario in the early 1970s, Muzzo testified that paying bribes was standard practice-though he claimed he wasn't positive just what he was paying for. Bratty was never implicated in any wrongdoing, and in 1988, when The Globe and Mail conducted its own investigation into the trio, he had this to say: "Certainly, I can understand other people being jealous and complaining. And certainly I can understand some guy who owns land north, south or east of us who doesn't get the same thing saying, 'Darn it, there's some skulduggery going on.' I can only say to you one thing: I know of no skulduggery and I have not been involved in any skulduggery."