As corporate structures go, they don’t come any flatter than Oldstonehenge Development Corp. “I’m a one-man show,” says Michael Dobrijevic, the founder and chief executive officer who grew up on the Danforth strip in a hardscrabble immigrant neighbourhood of Greek restaurants and pool halls in Toronto’s east end.
It was partly that experience that shaped his simple and straightforward approach to development in an industry that seems driven by Klondike-style gold rush fever, where bigger is always better. This makes Mr. Dobrijevic a kind of accidental visionary among his peers.
His latest project is 1133 Yonge St., an $8-million reimagining of miner Sherritt International Corp.’s former head office in midtown Toronto, next to the historic North Toronto train station and its Liquor Control Board of Ontario outlet. The building was acquired for $21-million in 2015.
In different hands, 1133 Yonge, a 60,000-square-foot, mid-rise office building sitting on prime real estate north of the tony Rosedale neighbourhood, might have been knocked down as quickly as possible. Then the developer might have asked the City of Toronto for an amendment to rezone the property to build a condo tower 20 or 30 storeys in height.
But Mr. Dobrijevic and his partner, developer Clifton Blake Group, see the world through a different lens, preferring to blend in with the neighbourhoods in which they work.
“People want buildings grounded in the community,” says Mr. Dobrijevic, who was born in Toronto to Serbian parents. “I remember going to Kensington Market with my mother as a kid. I wanted to recreate that kind of a feel in a contemporary style. I’ve never had any desire to build skyscrapers; there are enough guys out there doing that.”
As a result, 1133 Yonge, a six-storey building slated for completion this fall, was not demolished or even expanded. Instead, its former brick exterior was carefully removed and the structure was reclad with a glass curtain that wraps around its curvy facade.
A new lobby was created and the elevators were repositioned. Lozenge-shaped balconies were added to the south face, allowing for panoramic views down Yonge Street, from the train station’s iconic clock tower to the city skyline and Lake Ontario.
Office condominiums, which sold out within a year of going on the market, will occupy the upper floors for a total of 50,000 square feet. Another 10,000 square feet at street level will be dedicated to retail and an upmarket restaurant yet to be named.
Mr. Dobrijevic himself plans to be among the tenants, moving his office to 1133 Yonge as soon as it’s ready.
“Michael is an anti-developer,” says Jaegap Chung, principal at architecture firm Studio JCI and designer of 1133 Yonge. “He’s going against the grain, which is admirable because it shows a lot of vision and leadership.”
The guiding concept behind Mr. Chung’s design was literally giving 1133 Yonge a “new skin,” as if it were a living and breathing organism. “The skeleton of the building was robust, so it did not need to be torn down,” says Mr. Chung, adding the south-facing balconies provide a “voyeuristic element” by peeling back the glass skin to expose a little of the building’s interior.
A few blocks south at 1027 Yonge St., the same team of Oldstonehenge, Clifton Blake and Studio JCI are also behind The Residences of Hill and Dale, another mid-rise they have successfully stripped to the bones and are reviving with a fresh skin.
“The principles of sustainability and reuse are important to both projects,” Mr. Chung says.
“We’re sensitive to our surroundings and that’s reflected in the design.”
Over the past 20 years, developers who draw their inspiration from the skylines of Shanghai, Dubai and other world metropolises have come to dominate Toronto’s core, sometimes at the expense of neighbourhood character. New and renovated mid-rises like 1133 Yonge counter that trend, providing human-scale projects that are easier for neighbourhoods to absorb – and easier to get through the city’s planning bureaucracy.
“I’m not interested in having a seven-year fight with the City of Toronto over a 26-storey tower because it’s complicated and expensive,” says Wes Myles, co-founder of Clifton Blake Group, which owns and manages a $140-million real estate portfolio in the Greater Toronto Area. “We work within the guidelines and most residential groups love us.”
Mr. Myles says the city should reward developers who do not challenge the Official Plan by fast-tracking their approval processes and offering favourable terms on realty taxes, park levies and development charges.
“If you like what I’m doing, there should be some recognition of that fact,” says Mr. Myles, who has been a developer for 30 years.
Mr. Dobrijevic says he does not know whether the city would have permitted a high-rise at 1133 Yonge. “It would not generally get support in an area like Rosedale,” says Mr. Dobrijevic, who is publicity shy and likes to keep a low profile. “However other developers may challenge height expectations.”
A few blocks north at 1421 Yonge St., Terracap Management and its investment partners are seeking permission to build a 46-storey tower at the intersection of Yonge and St. Clair Avenue. The controversial proposal was rejected by Toronto’s planning staff, but it’s now under review by the Ontario Municipal Board, which has the power to overrule the city.
Immediately south of 1133 Yonge on property adjoining the North Toronto railway station, Diamond Corp. and Tricon Capital are proposing a mixed-use, 26-storey residential tower amid a neighbourhood of Victorian brick walk-ups averaging three storeys in height.
“In the time it takes to complete a 500,000-square-foot tower, we can build five 100,000-square-foot mid-rises and make the same money,” says Mr. Myles of Clifton Blake. “Our profits are fine.”