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Ash Lawrence, Managing Director at Brookfield Property Group, poses for a portrait in the atrium of the Brookfield Place, in Toronto, on Monday, Nov., 4, 2019. (Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail)

Christopher Katsarov

Brookfield Property Partners LP is putting renewed focus on its roots in Canada after spending years building a huge portfolio of foreign real estate holdings, saying it is now seeking investments in Canadian hotels, apartments, offices and large-scale development projects.

The Toronto-based company has appointed Ashley Lawrence to lead that effort, which will see Brookfield join a crowded field of deep-pocketed investors all chasing similar assets in the country’s booming regions of Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa.

“My mandate was to grow and to expand, especially in sectors that we are not in," said Mr. Lawrence, a 43-year-old Canadian who returned to Toronto in June, 2018, to fill a new position as regional head of Canada after managing Brookfield’s retail property division in New York for two years.

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“We have certain things we are looking for. Not every deal has them. In order to find them, you have to evaluate a lot of deals in the market,” he said.

Brookfield has about US$194-billion in assets under management around the world. Its Canadian assets total US$9-billion – just 4.6 per cent of its portfolio – consisting mostly of two dozen offices in Ottawa, Calgary and Toronto, including First Canadian Place, a 72-storey tower in Toronto’s financial district and the tallest office building in the country.

Mr. Lawrence wants to add to that, and the company is currently constructing a third tower to its Bay-Adelaide office complex in downtown Toronto.

In comparison, Brookfield has US$137-billion in assets under management in the United States, US$31-billion in Europe and the Middle East, US$14-billion in the Asia-Pacific region and US$3-billion in Brazil, according to its most recent investor presentation. That includes a significant collection of malls and rental apartments throughout the United States, part of the Canary Wharf business hub in London and a sizable office and residential development in Dubai.

“As we have grown globally, we have gone into a lot of sectors that we are not in in Canada,” Mr. Lawrence said.

Brookfield had always planned to increase its Canadian footprint, according to the company, but did not find the right openings. Since he has taken the new job, Mr. Lawrence has doubled the size of the Canadian investment team to cover more ground and find exclusive deals.

“In order to do that you have to spend a lot of time out in the market, talking to people, making relationships,” he said. “It takes time and effort.”

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But as Brookfield seeks to move into other property types, especially in rental housing, it will be competing with pension funds, real-estate investment trusts, as well as local and global developers for a piece of the action. A flurry of multi-residential development is taking place in Toronto and Vancouver and their nearby suburbs, due to a housing shortage and soaring home prices.

However, Mr. Lawrence believes Brookfield will make a big mark in the country’s urban centres.

“It takes a long time to get these developments out. These are not coming in the next 24 months. This is 10-15 year horizons,” he said. “We are relatively patient in terms of finding the right opportunity.”

With corporate headquarters moving to downtown Toronto along with the growth of tech companies, the city’s commercial property market has been on fire for nearly a decade. That has driven up land prices and spurred interest in large patches of land such as Bombardier’s airport property, which was sold to a Canadian pension fund in 2018 for just over $800-million.

Recently, Brookfield was a contender for East Harbour, 38 acres of mostly vacant land east of Toronto’s financial core, according to a source, who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. But it lost to Cadillac Fairview, which plans to build 10 million square feet of office space.

Mr. Lawrence would not comment directly on Brookfield’s interest in East Harbour but said: “Any large parcel of land that comes up, we would be interested. We are a long-term believer in the city of Toronto and its growth.”

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Mr. Lawrence said there there isn’t a specific amount of capital dedicated to Canadian acquisitions. But given Canada’s smaller commercial property market, he said Brookfield is willing to do deals in the US$30-million to US$40-million range. On the flip side, Mr. Lawrence suggested there are no limits.

Brookfield Property can use its own capital, as well as financing from parent company Brookfield Asset Management’s third global real-estate fund, which raised US$15-billion earlier this year.

“We like to put out larger amounts of capital,” he said. “That being said, we do like building businesses where the initial amount of capital may not be as sizable. But over time, as you build out that business, as you add assets, they get to that scale that makes sense to us or strategically.”

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