As the real estate boom came to an end in the late '80s, Bratty realized that his long-time MO-"buying acreage and creating lots"-would no longer be profitable as land got more expensive. So, the Brattys, led by Rudy's sons, ventured into actually building houses, as well. "We started with six houses," Chris remembers. "It's very similar to the way my dad began." Except, he acknowledges with a laugh, Rudy sold them the suburban lots to build them on.
Remington made it through the downturn with money-and land-to spare. For a while, development continued much the way it had back in the '70s. "All we do is respond to the market, and in the market at that time, single-family was the champion," Bratty explains. "A single-family home, white picket fence, a 50-foot-lot, a two-car garage; the husband works, the wife works part-time, two or three kids, and goodbye Charlie. Everyone's happy."
But it couldn't last, and during the real estate lull in the late 1990s, Bratty discovered the future of development.
Two decades ago, a mixed-use suburban development like Downtown Markham-one combining retail, residential and office space-would have been nearly impossible to sell. Even as light industry moved to the suburbs, condo towers were virtually non-existent. After all, the whole idea of living in Mississauga or Markham or Richmond Hill was to have a driveway, a big backyard-a buffer between you and the city.
But the peaceful era of picket fences here was grinding to a halt. The success of Bratty, his partners and competitors came back to haunt them: As people and commerce spread away from the centre, commuting became a nightmare and even happy suburbanites started calling for "smart growth."
Density, sustainability and walkability became the new buzzwords in the 1990s, and the idea of turning former bedroom communities like Markham into diverse, self-sustaining cities in their own right began to take shape. It took a while before laws like Ontario's 2005 Places to Grow Act started to enforce these ideas.
The Brattys found themselves on the leading edge almost by accident. Markham's then-mayor, Don Cousens, approached Remington in the mid-'90s about building a high-density community that would act as a town centre for the sprawling municipality. The developer was skeptical. "Cousens came to us and said, 'We want to do all the buzzwords,'" Bratty recalls. "We didn't think it was going to work, to be honest with you."
Cousens and the rest of Markham's municipal council had been inspired by the idea of the "lifestyle centre," an offshoot of the New Urbanist movement (a set of ideas that originated primarily with Miami planners Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and is epitomized by the theme-park-like town of Seaside, Florida, where The Truman Show was set). Generally located in an affluent American suburb, the lifestyle centre combines retail, residential and office space on pretentiously urban "streets" studded with restaurants and cultural activity. The inevitable cars are hidden in garages on the fringes.
Cousens was convinced that a 243-acre chunk of land Bratty owned in Markham was the best place to create that sort of community. It paralleled the main local artery, Highway 407, and was next to a GO commuter rail station. "My job became one of convincing Rudy Bratty," the ex-mayor says.
Originally, that piece of land had been slated for a typical Bratty-style development: 500 single-family homes on curvy streets, with a few factories toward the edge of the 407. "That would have been that, and on to other things," Bratty says. But a slow real estate market held up the development, and he figured Cousens's pitch was worth looking at.
Bratty, along with local politicians and town staff, travelled to sites across the U.S. to see the lifestyle centre in action. And with a team of top consultants, Bratty developed the ambitious plan for Downtown Markham. In the development's largely residential west end, townhouse blocks would be interspersed with dozens of condo towers, a central park and schools. A tributary of the Rouge River would become parkland along the edges and through the middle of the area. Five distinct precincts would make up the commercial heart of the area and provide employment: the Montgomery High Street retail district; the Gallery, a semi-enclosed shopping arcade; the Simcoe Promenade; the Piazza, a large central square; and the Commercial District (which already includes new headquarters for Motorola Canada and Honeywell Canada). All of these "public" spaces would be owned by Remington.
So far, there's nothing comparable in Canada, though a few similar developments are under construction, including one in B.C's Lower Mainland and one in Mississauga. They're dwarfed by Downtown Markham, though, and with its large piazza and genuine office presence, Bratty's development is likely to be denser, busier, more genuinely city-like.