It's rare that I find anything truly positive to say about developers. For the most part, they operate according to bottom-line interests, throwing up towers high and dirty, exploiting particular sites without a care for what's going up next door. In the capitalist world, in cities operating without alternative visionary plans, that's their prerogative. How to love the city with architecture is an argument rarely made by those who build them.
But Julie Di Lorenzo is a developer who has come of age.
Her latest condominium development, One City Hall, is a stellar contribution to downtown Toronto. Located at the edge of Chinatown, on a site that was considered scruffy and undesirable even though it lay directly behind the iconic City Hall, the building distinguishes itself as a 16-storey piece of modernism that wraps around a courtyard. It's a rare mid-sized offering for the downtown, built for a construction cost of $65-million, with details fought hard for and won.
Di Lorenzo is the financial deal maker behind Diamante Development Corp., the person who signs the cheques at the bank and who is probably the only woman in Canada with her kind of development clout. She has a reputation for being a shrewd negotiator, having only lost money once on an ill-advised project in California, but is also concerned, as a new board member at St. Michael's Hospital, about the 40 homeless women who gave birth last year. She's a spokesperson for the development industry, having served last year as president of the Greater Toronto Home Builders' Association, and she's a tough critic who speaks often and publicly about the ad-hoc way in which the city of Toronto is being planned. How do you explain, she says, that it has taken five years of negotiations and millions of dollars in lawyers' fees to finally secure the right to build her company's Florian, a 22-storey tower that will follow the curve of Davenport Road at Bay Street, while the enormous 46-storey Four Season Hotel and condo development a couple of blocks away was virtually whisked through approvals?
Because of the delays, several floors of affordable-housing units have now been cut from Florian.
With what began in 1982 as a concrete contracting business, Di Lorenzo has become a developer serious about her role as a patron of quality urban architecture. Much of that has to do with her partners, the Italian-trained architect Paolo Palamara (her ex-husband); her childhood friend Joe Foti, a builder with a degree in commerce; and Franco Prevedello, who earned a reputation during the 1980s as a high-flying Toronto restaurateur. If all of this sounds like the making of a soap opera, so be it. "With these guys, watching the dynamic is quite interesting," says David Pontarini, chief architect of phase one of One City Hall and principal of Hariri Pontarini Architects, which is working jointly on the project with Young & Wright Architects. "They'll argue. They'll agree, but at the end everybody has to have their say and be in agreement with the decision that's made."
Di Lorenzo, 43, is a braver person than most. The journey to One City Hall, for example, has been fraught with twists and unexpected turns. The development deal alone with the landowner, the Hong Kwok company of Hong Kong, took five years to finesse.
Like her father, she started in the construction business, building concrete covers for on-ramps, though her degree in medieval history and philosophy from York University might have pointed to other more meditative tasks. Through grit and determination, Diamante landed jobs to pour the (superb) concrete at Woodsworth College at the University of Toronto and calculate the complex angled formwork for the Bata Museum. The company survived the recession of the early 1990s, providing the concrete for three buildings in Taipan before returning back to work in Toronto.
Always, there's been a strong commitment to intensifying the main-street experience in the downtown. "I need interaction with other people," says Di Lorenzo, gregarious and charming despite a bout of flu and moving house from one of her condominium units at Domus in Yorkville to a house in Rosedale with the space to allow her to indulge her love of entertaining. "Suburban life doesn't provide you with that. That's why I'm passionate about urbanity."
"I'm a huge fan of Julie's," says urban-planning consultant Joe Berridge, who worked for Diamante on One City Hall. "You can see how she's developed as a patron of good things and she's still very young." Her energy, Berridge says, is contagious. "The thing that is most hilarious about her is her e-mails never get out of the title slot and they're always in capitals."
The problem with Diamante has been that, though its developments were strong on sensitive massing and neighbourhood context, they have relied in the past to a frightening degree on nostalgic, neoclassical detailing. The clean, subtle detailing of contemporary architecture was overruled by the position, forcefully argued by real-estate agents, that consumers preferred Chippendale, not modern. That explains the beaux-arts flourishes at Diamante's One Balmoral (1995) and Two Roxborough (1998).
With time has come confidence in what Diamante can contribute to the city. Phoebe, a joint venture with Wittington Properties that sits directly north of Queen Street West and south of the Art Gallery of Ontario, has contributed to a major reinvention of the area.
Designed by Burka Varacalli Architects, the condo development is made up of three low-rise buildings that sit comfortably together. There is still heavy reliance on design from the past, but the building on Soho Street features large, industrial-looking windows and clean brick detailing.
One City Hall, which has just opened though it's not yet completed -- two living walls in the main lobby and generous retail spaces are still to be finished, has moved Diamante into the ranks of Canada's most enlightened developers. Having engaged the likes of Tye Farrow and Pontarini (who has just been signed to do Phase 2 of the project as well), Di Lorenzo says she's looking forward to working with the best architects of Toronto.
"It's a responsibility to be a patron of great talent in your city. If it was 15 years ago and I was insecure, I might look elsewhere, but I don't feel that's necessary now."
Unlike the typical formula of glass and steel structures, there's considerable emphasis at One City Hall on more dynamic elevations with long vertical concrete bands, which disguise closets on the interior, and ceramic fritted glass at the bottom edge of balconies, which also hides the edge of the concrete slab. "Once the building has been through the approvals process, then Paolo and Joe get actively involved at that point. They're willing to try things in terms of complexity of details," Pontarini says. "It might be the frit on the windows, the sliding glass doors within the units, using a lot of stuff that Paolo has found in Italy and brought over. They'll try to achieve a higher quality of detail and push a lot further than a lot of other developers."
Being Italian in Toronto was not always la dolce vita. Di Lorenzo can remember feeling prejudice as a young girl at Havergal College, enduring taunts from students who asked whether her father cleaned toilets, and how even the teacher in the class laughed at this. Belief in the power of community came to her from her family's hometown of Abruzzo in Italy's central mountains not far from the Adriatic Sea that Di Lorenzo calls "mystical." Her grandfather immigrated to New York City in the early 1900s, helped to erect the first street lamps in Brooklyn and was always looking out for his people. "If you needed two pair of socks, you'd buy them from two families so that two families could eat," Di Lorenzo says.
Her grandmother, a fiercely independent woman from a wealthy family, chose to stay in Italy. Her business savvy as a winemaker impressed Di Lorenzo deeply. And there were always visitors on the front porch. "She was a cool chick. The kind of woman who wore pearls while making pasta."
In many ways, Di Lorenzo operates much like her grandmother. She speaks her mind as a deal maker, has been known to wear Ferragamo heels at the Georgian Bay cottage and believes in connecting people to each other.