With the construction of his $504-million Living Shangri-La scheduled to top off in December, and with the grand opening of this luxury hotel-condominium complex on track for August, 2012, Vancouver tall-building developer Ian Gillespie is well on his way to putting down deep roots on Toronto's lower University Avenue.
The Hogtown office of Westbank Projects Corp., the very successful real-estate firm Mr. Gillespie owns and operates, will launch the same day as the 66-storey Shangri-La tower. It will be headquartered on the second floor of the building, just downstairs from the penthouse Mr. Gillespie will inhabit during his frequent visits to Toronto.
It looks like we'll be seeing a lot of this rain-coast entrepreneur from now on, if famously frigid Toronto doesn't freeze him out. So I thought I would give him a call and find out what he's got planned for our skyline.
Two Toronto condominium schemes are coming up right behind Shangri-La, he told me recently. He was short on details – understandably, since both projects are still in very early stages of development – but he did say that his favoured architect for one of the two is Denmark's Bjarke Ingels.
"Bringing Bjarke in to do a building, if we're able to put this all together, is going to open people's eyes in Toronto to a world of possibilities," he told me. "It will be a new form of development, not something anyone has ever seen before. When you see it you'll go: Wow!"
If Mr. Gillespie follows through and hires Mr. Ingels to do the design – we should know some time next year if this deal is going through – it could indeed be good news for Toronto. In the five short years since he founded the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) in Copenhagen, the architect has become something of an international sensation. His fame is partly due to his boldly imaginative schemes for residential, commercial and cultural venues. (BIG's first Canadian enterprise, a mixed-use Vancouver tower, is now on the drawing board. Developer: Ian Gillespie.)
But a powerful part of BIG's appeal is the firm's proven ability to deliver large-scale designs that satisfy the demands of the real-estate industry while fully embodying Mr. Ingels's commitments to city-building and high artistic standards. Toronto would probably be fortunate to get a Westbank building by this rising star in the architectural firmament.
Meanwhile, we've got the svelte Living Shangri-La tower nearing completion. Will Mr. Gillespie's first Toronto project be yet another success story for Westbank? (It's the second Canadian franchise of the huge Hong Kong-based Shangri-La chain of upscale hotels and resorts.) Or will it run into stifling competition for the luxury hotel clientele from the new Ritz-Carlton and the soon-to-open Four Seasons?
"For a city as large and vibrant as Toronto, the fact that you really have only one substantial five-star hotel today [the Ritz-Carlton]makes the city underserviced in my view. We will help the Ritz and Four Seasons, and they will do the same for us," Mr. Gillespie said.
The key to the peaceful, prosperous outcome Mr. Gillespie predicts will be, he believes, is the unique signature style each hotel brings into the upscale marketplace.
"Ritz is very well-known in the U.S.," he said. "The Four Seasons is an amazing brand, and Toronto is their home town, so I think they're going to do really well. Shangri-La's strength comes obviously from Asia, where it's the best-known brand. Asian hospitality is different; our offering is ethnically more diverse. Shangri-La has a DNA that differs from that of the Four Seasons or the Ritz."
So if all goes according to plan, Mr. Gillespie will build on the success of Shangri-La and make his mark on Toronto. But what's the attraction of this city for a developer who is doing very well in Vancouver?
"At the end of the day," he said, "Greater Vancouver is only around 2.3 million people. If you're going to grow your business, it's hard to grow it substantially in Vancouver – whereas in Toronto your market is over three times the size … When we think where the natural progression of our business is going, Toronto is obvious."
But Toronto is more than just a business opportunity. It's also a place that excites Mr. Gillespie's ambitions to be part of the green revolution.
"We're very bullish on Toronto as a city. People are embracing the idea of living in the central business district and making it one of the great downtowns in North America. I think that's something you want to be part of, contribute to. From a sustainability perspective, the densification of our downtowns is the only real solution. We'll do anything we can to help solve what I believe is the biggest challenge that we face, which is global warming."
"And," he added, "I like being there. Every time I'm in Toronto, I have a good time."