According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), Ontario will need 1.5 million new homes in the next decade to match the demand for new housing.   Supporting the growth and standardization of affordable and rental housing is crucial. Having walkable neighbourhoods as part of sustainable urban design yields social, ecological, and economic benefits.  James Burton of Percy Ellis believes in their comprehensive approach to design-build and smart growth principles. The Toronto-based company develops, builds, and manages purpose-built rentals throughout the GTA. Burton joins us to discuss their current and upcoming projects, their responsible approach to new urbanism, and why improving the tenant experience is at the top of the priority list. 

Q:  How do you determine where to build, and what’s the most important thing you look for when you approach a new project?

A: There was a relationship between land value and rental rates that was positive in the older neighbourhoods throughout Toronto. Land value hadn’t peaked like it did in the more downtown Toronto neighbourhoods where rents were high. We realized very early on that the key is developing walkable communities. For us to be sustainable for the future, we must begin to rethink neighbourhoods and communities in order to promote walkability.  Having said that, Percy Ellis started building in established Toronto neighbourhoods like Leslieville, Riverside, Corktown, Junction, Dovercourt Village, and Davenport.  These were smaller communities that were energetic, community-focused and convenient to Toronto’s downtown and entertainment districts.

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BC:  Do you feel walkability is one of the most important components of a healthy new urbanism approach?

James Burton:  Yes absolutely. They go hand-in-hand. This has become the primary reason for why we only buy and build in in these specific neighbourhoods. Walkability is at the core of our beliefs as it focuses on the public’s overall health and livability.  You don’t have to waste hours in your car drivinf to and from work, or sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  You can walk.  You’ll save money and you become a happier person.  Walkable communities are not only good for our physical health, but it’s also great for our social health and interpersonal relationships.

BC:  How do you encourage social health and interpersonal relationships in your projects?

James Burton:  Well let’s look at it this way. When you live in a high-rise condo, as large as they can be, they aren’t built for social interactions that make a lasting impact. Too many people and little genuine interactions. The conversations with people are limited to who you run into from your suite door, in the elevator, and front lobby and that’s it.
     The human mind can’t remember that many names and faces, and you eventually stop engaging altogether. We all live busy lives and are always in a rush to get where we’re going. In a condominium, it feels like your always in a confined space, or a narrow hallway, or it’s the wrong time to engage someone in conversation.
     Our buildings are at a scale that is more suitable for friendships, acquaintances, and friendly conversation.  Depending on the specific design of the development, we like to have 2 separate lobbies and elevators that keep the number of people you engage within at a conformable level.   It promotes healthy conversation and engagement with fellow residents.   We’re making portions of the hallway wider, open spaces for storage that builds trust within our tenants, and common areas allowing residents to comfortably interact. We work extremely close with our architects with the ground level of our developments. We utilize every single linear foot for the front of the building, the lobby, the entire ground floor, and sidewalks. They should all be maximized for the greater public good. There shouldn’t be any wasted space or dark zones.

BC:  How is establishing trust important to the tenant-first mentality approach?

James Burton:  When you rent an Airbnb and have a problem with your stay, there’s a system in place. There’s customer service, the problem gets rectified, or you can even get compensated for your troubles. This process is showing long term landlords that it’s not that hard to provide better service to your tenants. The tenants come first, as they should. Our standard is to have all maintenance requests completed within 24 hours. Period. We truly care about the needs of our tenants and put them first.  We treat them with respect and show them that we care.  Our tenants then start to care about the same beliefs as we do, and start to care about their neighbours, the building, and the whole environment becomes a positive place.  

BC:  Can you tell us about some of your current and upcoming projects that contribute to smart density?

James Burton:  The 41 River Street project is a 5 storey, 26-unit mid-rise rental apartment in the Regent Park neighbourhood. The best feature of 41 River is the location and walkability of the area.
There’s a 24-hour grocery store, Rabba, as well as trendy cafes and bakeries, a medical centre and pharmacy. Tenants can walk to the Distillery District in 15 minutes, and downtown Toronto in 30 minutes.

BC:  Are there any sustainable designs and eco-friendly amenities?

James Burton:  Yes, building design has seen a shift that explore more diverse options for energy supply, not just in our 41 River Street project, but all our upcoming developments moving forward.  This project is geo-thermally heated and cooled, so there’s no gas line in this building. It’s a gas free structure so it’s very environmentally friendly. It is a Toronto Green Standard Tier 2 (TGS) which is the higher level of environmental performance that meets the city’s sustainable design and performance requirements that address Toronto’s urban environmental pressures.
     We also have a BMW i3 thats an electric rideshare amenity through a wonderful company called Kite, that provides tenants access to sustainable transportation by making it easy and affordable. An electric helps reduce costly parking infrastructure and removes up to 10 vehicles for each car share added which reduces congestion. We’re also introducing electric bikes as cycling is one of the fastest-growing forms of sustainable transportation in Toronto.
We use a keyless entry system so tenants can have customizable access and fully control who enters the building units via their smartphone. Every suite has a wall pad for tenants that’s designed for convenience, security, and all-around connectivity. Tenants use this to communicate with management, submit maintenance requests, reserve the e-car, or communicate with other tenants in the buildings. We have 360 degree cameras at the doors so anyone in our building can be looking out into the street and if there’s any suspicious activity, they can just press a button a take a picture and send it to property management. We also have a proposal for our 975 Danforth project which is 10-stories and will have approx. 60 units.  There is a pilot project happening within that building.  It’s an idea we presented to the City of Toronto that tackles affordable housing from a different perspective.  We surveyed 200 artists through a non-profit organization called Akin Art Collective, that provides artists and creatives with the support they need for creative production and development of their careers.  We found out what an artist would need to make a space more valuable to them, and we designed a floor that’s designed and built for artists in a way that retains our economic requirements and provides tremendous value to the occupants. We added the fanciest little library to the mix of common spaces where our residents can check out a book or find a quiet corner away from their suite.

We are also installing a dog washing station, not just for the building residents, but for the general public. Normally there would be a retail business in that space, but that’s how important it is for us to provide a service in the community we live. Our buildings need to drive income and contribute to the community as a whole.

We have a new 7 storey, mixed size unit project in the Little India neighbourhood at 1400 Gerrard Street East that is in a wonderful community that keeps getting better and better. The South Asian culture is vibrant in this neighbourhood with restaurants, trendy new brewpubs and art galleries.  The building will set a new precedent for height and scale in this community, but it’s not over-powering from the street level. We’re installing a lot of greenery right up the side of the building with several large planters for small trees.  We want to make sure we’re minimizing the impact with the community to the north of the development, so we prefer them to see a mix of building and greenery instead of just glass and concrete. 

BC:  Are you happy with the progress the city has made in developing areas of high density over the past few years?

James Burton:  Yes there has been an improvement, however, I would like to see things move faster. There needs to be more priority to get applications approved faster and not get hung up on the little details that bare no significance to the project build. I’m not saying that the details should be overlooked.
     There are too many departments, too many opinions and technical challenges that take too long and it’s making the viability of projects harder and harder. As a result, the time spent waiting costs money, and adds to the short supply of housing.

BC:  As affordable rental housing continues to be a pressing need in the GTA, why are infill homes important for Toronto?

James Burton:  Infill helps maintain Toronto’s existing housing stock and adds new housing on smaller scale. It’s the reuse of existing infrastructure. When you re-use infrastructure, you’re doing something good for the city, for the planet, for affordability, for walkability, for mental health.
     Not to mention if you’re building infill it means what was there was at the end of its life cycle, and what I would call one of those dark zones, so the process of infilling is the process of bringing safety and vibrancy to existing communities. 

BC:  The relationships between the builder, the residents and the community are vital to the sustainable philosophy. Is the team at Percy Ellis ready to continue to lead the charge in Toronto?

James Burton:  Yes. We’ve grown our inhouse staff over the years, have built a great team and key partners and sub trades and we are all on the same page to deliver the capability of delivering larger, more detailed projects throughout the GTA. We have a desire to give back to this city in a positive way through our developments and want to be a part of affordable housing developments and the transformation of Toronto.
     There are some great opportunities along the waterfront that can accommodate mid-rise infill developments, and in some of the industrial areas that will eventually be developed over the years. Change is inevitable. We should have a shared vision that addresses the demand for new housing and make an impact in our communities that help create a more efficient and sustainable future for everyone.