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The Construction of May Tower II (2001-2002)

A Tale of Four Towers

Six years after first launching site, the developer is selling a different product to a changed market

By Jennifer Bain
Special to the Star

Article written in the year 2000

May Tower II construction photos taken in years 2000 and 2001

Builder: Lee Development Group

Most companies stop after one or two. The odd one lasts through three. By the spring of 2001, Lee Development Group says it will have built four condo towers in Scarborough on five hectares in six years. It will have made 997 homes for about 2,500 people, created 630,000 square feet of commercial space, attracted buyers from Hong Kong and Canada, and endured tow real estate cycles. "Doing a phase project has its pitfalls, " allows Patrick Quigley, the company's general manager, "but what it does allow is time to change the buildings." Building styles, suite layouts and marketing strategies have all changed during the creation of Hillsborough Court Tower I, Hillsborough Tower II, May Tower I and May Tower II. And yet as in any family of four, the sibling towers are simultaneously similar and unique. Now, as the company focuses on selling the final 70 per cent of suites in May Tower II, Quigley and marketing and sales manager Winnie Mok have time to reminisce about the evolution of the four-tower condo community.

There was no market in Toronto for condo projects that weren't yet built back in 1994 when the developer bought five projects on Corporate Dr. south of Highway 401 and east of McCowan Rd. But in Hong Kong, people apprehensive about the upcoming handover of their British-ruled country to China were eyeing moves to Toronto and weren't reluctant to buy from floor plans. In February of that year, a Lee Development sales team flew to Hong Kong, set up in a swank hotel for several weekends and began pitching Hillsborough Court Tower I. In Hong Kong, explains Mok, "the nicest restaurants, hottest clubs and the most elite and expensive stores are in hotels, Many exhibitions and product launches are held on hotels. So by going to a hotel, it gave the flavor that we had a five-star project and needed matching five-star buyers.

The Scarborough project was designed to Chinese tastes, with an ornate, 6,000-square-foot lobby with highly polished marble and Roman murals, Many of the 228 units had four bedrooms in 1,500 square feet for extended families. Asian buyers gave the nod to the idea of a full-time concierge, showy pool area, recreation center and prices starting at $89,900. When Hillsborough Court was launched here in June, 1994, after successful overseas sales, its model building (a freestanding sales office designed as a smaller version of the grand lobby) was hailed as a first. The tower was "arguably, the most powerful magnet today for Chinese interests in Canada" and "the fastest selling luxury condo of the decade," chorused a news release in the fall of 1994.

Ultimately, 80 per cent of buyers were Asian. Half were investors who then found Canadian renters. Construction began that October - mere months after the launch - with a Chinese ceremony and groundbreaking involving the Scarborough mayor.

Hillsborough Court Towers, Scarborough, Ontario, Canada

The marketing of Hillsborough Court Tower II was also designed to Chinese tastes. The cover of a thick information booklet - containing colour sketches of the tower and floorplans - had a gold seal bearing the image of a Roman emperor. The projects name was written in Chinese and English above the slogan "affordable elegance in one of Toronto's best areas." Linked to Tower I by a glass corridor, Tower II has 236 suites and a two-storey lobby with marble flooring, domed ceiling, wood highlights and hand-painted murals. Both towers are built in point-block style, a design that places elevators at the core of the building and is appropriate when suites are large. But this time the developer says it made better use of space with shallower suites and more window space. "We listen and look at the buyers at every phase and things have changed over time," says Mok.

In a nod to older residents and retirees, the developer built a formal English garden and added a shuttle service to nearby shopping malls. An indoor badminton court, popular with younger residents, is often booked until 2 am. When Tower II was launched in April, 1995, the mainstream Toronto real estate market still wasn't strong but the local Asian market was listening. Quigley estimates that 70 percent of buyers were Asian, but there were fewer investors and more people wanting to live in their condos. Three Hillsborough Court condos were auctioned during a fundraiser for the Chinese Cultural Center. When a trio of Hong Kong celebrities - singers Leon Lai and Linda Wong along with entertainer Cheng Tan Shui - visited the sales center for a party to present the keys to the lucky bidders, they drew a crowed of freened fans. "It was a zoo," recalls Jane Holland of Lewis Carroll Communications, publicist for the developer. "It was like having Michael Jackson." This was to be the last big event geared to attract Chinese buyers.

Contrustuction of May Tower Phase II

With the launch of May Tower I in the spring of 1997, the developer had abandoned the point-block look of its first two buildings for an elongated, slab-style structure. Pointblock, while more elegant visually, created wasted space with long entry corridors inside the suites. People wanted more livable and usable space and a slab structure would allow for shallower and wider units. May Tower I - named for an elaborate Hong Kong condo renowned for its famous residents - rises separately from the twin towers of Hillsborough Court. Its 261, one- and two-bedroom units were geared to empty-nesters and first-time buyers. The demand for four bedrooms for extended families had dried up. "The local Chinese market is pretty Anglicized," observes Mok. "So we never did an Asian look in any of our model suites." interior designer Norma King's two model suites include a roman spa-style pool area with murals classical columns and floor-to-ceiling windows, This time, only half the buyers were Asian. There was no Hong Kong exhibition.

The first three towers are up and occupied. Only May Tower II, slated for construction to start sometime this fall, has yet to become a reality. Much has changed in Scarborough and in the condo-buying market. The nearby Scarborough Town Centre's massive face-lift has attracted the Rainforest cafe, indigo Books, Music and Cafe and a 12-screen Famous Players theatre. " it has become a lot trendier, younger and updated," says Mok. Likewise, the marketing material for May Tower II and its 271 suites has evolved, There is no Chinese translation. There are only young, white couples in photographs. The projects original architect, Eb Zeidler (known for the Eaton Center, Ontario Place and two terminals at Beijing Airport has been replaced by page + Steele Architects (known for many Toronto condos). But lots of the buzzwords (prestigious, opulence and luxury) have endured as has the tried-and-true focus on amenities continues. "This is the fourth time we're doing it, so we have to find the perfect 10, " says Mok. "We have great, great layouts."

"I know some other phased projects that did well in the first and second phases, but then blew their brains out with the third," says Quigley. "Two towers are quite common. I can only think of a few three-phase ones in Richmond Hill and Thornhill," He can't come up with any other four-phase rivals. Quigley knows Lee Development got lucky, launching such an ambitious play during a bust cycle in Toronto real estate. By its second tower, the city was entering into a boom phase that is still being played out. All sales efforts for May Tower I and May Tower II - which should be occupied by the spring of 2001 - have been in Toronto. "To do a phase project over this number of years, and to rely on one market, you couldn't do it", concludes Quigley. "We were lucky to be able to tap into the overseas Chinese market, the local Chinese market and the mainstream market."