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George Popper outside 397 Brunswick Ave. and the townhouse project he built behind the Annex house. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
George Popper outside 397 Brunswick Ave. and the townhouse project he built behind the Annex house. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)


An infill builder tells tales from the inside Add to ...

When George Popper listed his stately Annex house for sale recently, he hoped it would sell quickly. Later that day, it did.

"The deal was done eight hours after the agents' open house," Mr. Popper says.

The buyers moved swiftly to table an offer because they were well-familiar with the house: A few years ago they lived in the row of nine townhouses built directly behind it. The couple had moved farther north but found they missed the Annex.

A couple of weeks after that, Mr. Popper purchased another of the townhouses at the rear.

His new, more compact home is just metres behind the one he is preparing to leave.

It's an odd round of musical residences made even more unusual by the fact that Mr. Popper is the architect who is responsible for developing all of the properties changing hands and several nearby houses too.

Mr. Popper is a zealot for finding ways to insert more houses into the neighbourhoods that can accommodate more people.

He plans to do more, but Mr. Popper is also quite outspoken about the hurdles he encounters in the city's red tape, zoning bylaws, and garbage and recycling policies. In recent years, Mr. Popper has designed and built small clusters of houses in places where parking lots, factories and derelict buildings once took up land.

"As a developer and architect you have to find the opportunity where others don't see it exists," he says.

He has teamed with partners to build tall buildings in north Toronto, townhouses in the Annex, and lofts among the warehouses and factories of Leslieville.

"I believe in urban intensification if it's done right," he says. "I'm quite passionate about that. It's a great way of building the city without being so reliant on cars."

The house he just sold at 397 Brunswick Ave., for example, actually makes up two units of an 11-unit condominium development.

The ground level and second storey of the house comprise one unit and a two-bedroom unit on the third floor is the second. Townhouses make up the rest.

When he and his partners purchased the land about 10 years ago, they bought three properties that had stood as grand mansions on Brunswick Avenue when they were built in the early 1900s. But in the intervening decades, an evangelical Christian group had purchased the houses and connected them by bridges.

Religious inscriptions covered the walls of the room that is now the kitchen at 397 Brunswick.

The partners had planned to refurbish the house, divide it into two semis and sell all 11 units. But Mr. Popper decided to move into 397 Brunswick himself.

Two brothers in the lumber trade had built the side-by-side houses on Brunswick in 1902. As a result of their business, they were able to commission the most skilled of carpenters to carve intricate detail into imported mahogany and English brown oak.

Mr. Popper preserved the wood panelling, railings and trim, along with the ornate plaster detailing and stained and leaded glass.

Then, instead of dividing the house in half vertically, he made the top floor a separate unit with a private entrance and roof terrace.

"We found a way to maintain the integrity of the home."

The house is now designated as a heritage building.

Mr. Popper also found a way to wedge in the townhouses behind by meeting with the neighbours and trying to assuage their concerns about traffic, noise and privacy. In one case, he swapped pieces of land with the owner of an adjacent house in order to give the homeowner a greater buffer between his property and the townhouses.

"Maybe you can give them something that they didn't have - like parking," Mr. Popper says. "We work with the neighbours. You start seeing what their concerns are and how you can address them."

Today, the architect says, the courtyard community is quite friendly. They hold an annual potluck dinner party in September each year. In December, they hold another gathering where they spend a few minutes on condo business, then adjourn for a party. The board members rotate through the homeowners so that they don't have to pay for professional managers.

But Mr. Popper points out that he wouldn't get approval to build the same development under current regulations. It was legal at the time, but the downfall is that the townhouse residents have to wheel their garbage bins out to the curb.

Under current policies, the homeowners have the right to curbside garbage pickup, so all infill developments must have room for a garbage truck to drive into the complex and turn around.

"It's all really driven by garbage," he says. "It's ridiculous - totally, totally ridiculous and it's very frustrating to us."

A few years after moving into his house, Mr. Popper took a casual walk up Brunswick with his dog. It was during this late-evening stroll that he spied another real estate opportunity in an awkward sliver of land.

A parking lot behind a row of houses was filled with nothing but some rickety old garages.

Mr. Popper knocked on the door of the closest house and the tenant put him in touch with the landlord.

Mr. Popper approached the man, who was in the tofu business, and offered to buy the property.

"I must have met with him a dozen times."

Eventually, Mr. Popper bought the house and the rooming house next door so that he could widen the driveway. Then he built townhouses behind, once again grappling with the objections of the neighbours.

He was able to offer private parking to homeowners who didn't have any.

"That's a huge benefit in an urban environment."

Now, a row of townhouses replaces the decrepit sheds.

Mr. Popper says this sort of urban intensification makes for good planning. The planning departments in big cities are usually supportive, he says, but politicians sometimes back the constituents who complain.

"There is a whole range between single-storey family home and a multistorey building," he says. "Planners are interested in that. I'm interested in that too."

Mr. Popper is in the development business to make money, but he argues that he could make higher profits by building suburban houses an hour's drive away.

"I consider myself an urban builder. I like the city. It's a more dynamic place to live."

Mr. Popper becomes infuriated when he sees a single-storey store on a prime piece of land.

"When I see it done wrong it upsets me terribly."

He says that tall buildings with retail stores at ground level, located on busy streets, are often easily approved by the regulators. But he thinks that's a waste of other precious niches.

"I love small infill projects that other people just find irritating. …

"I love these small little pieces. It offers diversity. For me it offers the opportunity to exercise my creative juices."

While Mr. Popper looks for his next project, he is packing his boxes in preparation for the move.

He looked at all sorts of places, he says, but they all needed renovation or were poorly laid out for his family's needs.

"All we had to do was look in our own backyard."

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