Benny Marotta has the drive and ambition of a smart kid who grew up in post-war Italy watching 10-year-olds scavenge for money from tourists, and decided to seek a land with more opportunities.
Leaving his Naples-area home and seven siblings at the age of 18, he came to Toronto and spent his first years in the new world living in a basement at St. Clair Avenue and Dufferin Street, sustained mostly by potatoes, working on construction sites.
Now 55, Mr. Marotta heads Solmar Development Corp., which for two decades has been building housing and commercial developments across the Greater Toronto Area.
While his family wasn't poor enough to send him out hustling for small change, Mr. Marotta's memories of the street smarts of the kids he knew have served him well in the grinding business of land development.
His determination and belief in himself propelled him through a three-year, $2-million legal battle with the City of Vaughan over his plan for a high-rise condominium project on 20 acres of parkland across the road from the immense Vaughan Mills shopping centre. At the end of the battle, the Ontario Municipal Board sided with Mr. Marotta, chided his opponents, and gave the go-ahead for the Bellaria Residences.
At 16 storeys, the Bellaira towers are the tallest in the decidedly horizontal Maple/Woodbridge axis of "the city above Toronto."
With the first of four proposed towers sold out in just six months, and the second filling up fast, Mr. Marotta feels vindicated and eager to attack what he considers a woeful lack of vision by the city government.
When he brought the Bellaria proposal to Vaughan city planners in 2001 "they couldn't understand it," he says.
"When I told them what I wanted to do they said, 'Are you crazy? There's no project like this in Ontario. . . .' Because it was different than what they were used to they couldn't get it."
A resident for 25 years of the city where monster homes feature classical columns and arches alongside their two-car built-in garages, Mr. Marotta says the city has squandered its residential development land by covering it in "a sea of subdivisions."
"It's embarrassing," he says. "Italians are known as good at construction, and we live here, and it shouldn't have happened."
He believes that local politicians incited ratepayer groups from area subdivisions to oppose his project at hearings by invoking fears of another Jane and Finch.
Bellaria couldn't be further from that spectre.
The sales "brochure" is as immense and multipaged as a menu for East Side Mario's. Designed by Burka Varacalli Architects Inc., the Bellaria towers will feature golden brass cupolas atop elegant pediments, bronze-tinted windows and luxurious marble in all the suites and extensive social rooms.
All the parking will be underground, so nothing will impede the view of the rambling park, with its intricate network of streams, flower gardens, gazebos, walking trails and sculpted trees and shrubs.
The private, gated grounds will also contain eight acres of untouched forest along the banks of a Don River tributary that flows through.
People are selling $1-million homes in Woodbridge to move to Bellaria, says saleswoman Frances Chetti.
"The empty nesters have the bucks and they want the luxury they are used to. The young people are used to what their parents have."
Situated at the northeast corner of Jane Street and Rutherford Road, a kilometre south of Paramount Canada's Wonderland and kitty-corner to the Vaughan Mills centre, the project is selling for $350 a square foot for lower units and $600 a square foot for penthouses -- as much or more than downtown condos.
At the OMB in late 2004, the City of Vaughan and CN Rail both opposed the project. CN was concerned it was too close to a pullback track servicing a huge rail yard nearby, and worried about noise complaints and liability.
Vaughan said the land should be used for low-rise commercial and industrial development, and perhaps a hotel for tourists going to Wonderland.
"The city wanted commercial-industrial for a very sensitive environmental land when they already had two million square feet around it," Mr. Marotta says incredulously.
The OMB ruled that CN had no right to dictate uses of land around its property just because it was there first, and that Vaughan was wrong to say high-rise residential was an inappropriate use for the site.
"In view of the evidence with respect to the need for, and market for, high-density residential uses versus commercial or hotel uses in the City of Vaughan [and] in view of the unique siting of the property within the Vaughan Centre community and its proximity to employment, shopping, entertainment, transit and community services," the Bellaria proposal was preferable to the city's, the OMB ruled.
Vaughan city manager Michael DeAngelis says that when Solmar made its application, planning had been largely completed for the west side of Jane at Rutherford, but the lands on the east side were subject to further study.
"We hired a consultant, and at the end of the day the options were reviewed. The conclusion was that these lands should be designated general commercial and hotel use," Mr. DeAngelis says. "The general context was in the nature of industrial and commercial."
But wasn't there already ample commercial and industrial development there?
"The consultant decided, and council accepted it," Mr. DeAngelis says.
The city manager stresses that Vaughan had no quarrel with the design of the project. "It's an attractive project. In terms of design, the city is quite pleased."
But concerning Mr. Marotta's frustration and charges of a lack of vision, he says: "There's a process that you have to go through. It's a process under the Planning Act. We follow the process of mandatory public meetings, and all applications are subject to the process."
Mr. DeAngelis says the Bellaria project will have no direct impact on future high-rise development in Vaughan. "There's certainly intensification that's going to happen, and we're looking for appropriate locations. We have a number of applications for high density across the city."
The desired locations for density are Thornhill and Woodbridge's central district, says Vaughan planning commissioner John Ziptay. "We want the right mixture of densities in the right places."
The Vaughan Mills mall is central to Vaughan's strategy of becoming a regional tourism magnet, Mr. DeAngelis says. The empty retail boxes that currently flank the mall will soon be filled with restaurants and offices, he hopes.
Mr. Marotta is not so sure. "The mega-mall won't survive without residents," he says.
Solmar's next project is taller than Bellaria. It is to feature two towers, 33 and 28 storeys high, on four acres of greenspace north of the Vaughan Mills centre.
Three months ago, the City of Vaughan rejected his application, saying it needed to do more study on how to use the land.
"If they don't approve this one, they're really a bunch of schmucks," Mr. Marotta says. "No other developer will take the risk of Ritz-type luxury in the 905."