Toronto Star: North York's Evolution Has Made Fans Of Residents And Builder Menkes Developments

July 17, 2015

Published: The Toronto Star on July 17, 2015

Since realizing the potential of a quiet bedroom community to Toronto just north of Hwy. 401 three decades ago, Menkes Developments Ltd. has been instrumental in transforming North York into a bustling urban centre.

The company, founded in 1954 by the late Murray Menkes and now run by his three sons (two grandsons are also involved), has built 25 buildings in North York for residential, office and retail use.

Its first building in the area was the 15-storey Proctor & Gamble headquarters (where Menkes also has its offices) in 1984 near Yonge St. and Sheppard Ave. Its latest project is Gibson Square, a mixed-used development of two modern 42-storey towers, with retail shops at street level and an underground connection to the subway and to the Empress Walk shopping complex across the street.

Empress Walk was a milestone for Menkes, and the neighbourhood, in the late 1990s. It introduced the concept of a lifestyle entertainment complex to the GTA. With two 34-storey condo towers atop a four-level shopping centre, movie theatres and a Loblaws grocery store attached to the subway, the two-phase project was completed in 2000.

While Menkes has built signature projects in other parts of the city - including the Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences in Yorkville, the mixed-used community Harbour Plaza in the south financial district and Pears on the Avenue on Avenue Rd. - the company's roots run deep in North York.

One of four penthouse suites at Gibson Square, the home offers Barry and Marcia Wise views of the city's south and east skylines.

In 1988, Barry and Marcia Wise were trendsetters when they bought a condo suite in a new project at Yonge St. and Finch Ave. At the time, North York was a quiet bedroom community of single homes and their new condo was Menkes Developments Ltd.'s first residential condo building - Place Nouveau, one of the first towers in North York.

"We had gotten tired of houses," says Barry. "I was travelling a lot and Marcia didn't feel safe staying alone. So we lined up when the sales centre opened and were No. 94, packed like sardines in tins waiting to buy a suite."

That was the beginning of the couple?s long relationship with condo living and with Menkes. They have since purchased suites in two other Menkes? buildings in the neighbourhood and been eye witnesses as North York has developed from sleepy suburb into a bustling urban centre along Yonge St.

When Menkes built Royal Pinnacle at Yonge and Empress Ave., the Wises sold their first condo and moved to a 1,300-square-foot suite in that building in 2000. Recently, they moved into a deluxe penthouse in Gibson Square, Menkes' latest mixed-use condo project at Yonge St. and Park Home Ave. and its crown jewel in North York.

The Wises' 1,830-square-foot corner suite, one of only four on their floor, provides spectacular vistas to the east and south, including views of the CN Tower and Lake Ontario, from their balconies.

"When we heard the penthouses were being offered, we waited outside the sales office so as soon as the doors unlocked, we'd be first in line," says Wise. "While we were writing up the offer, someone from overseas called and wanted the same suite."

The Wises retired seven years ago. Barry was a tax specialist with Revenue Canada and Marcia worked as a secretary for an electrical company. The couple chose to spend an inheritance on a luxury condominium and, after looking all across the GTA for their dream suite, the found what they were seeking directly across the street from where they had been living, in the Royal Pinnacle condominium.

Working with Menkes, they reconfigured their Gibson Square penthouse floor plan to suit their wishes for an open-concept layout. Interior designer Michael Reznick, of Virez Home Interiors, helped them create a one-of-a-kind space with a modern, sophisticated style mindful of a New York City design.

"You don't have to go to a downtown Toronto luxury building. You can get the same style in North York and have something that supersedes anything you might find downtown,? says Barry. "It's a one-of-a-kind apartment."

The Wises can get to the stores at the base of Gibson Square, the subway or the shops and cinema across the street at Empress Walk without going outside. And when they want an atmosphere with that's a bit slower and more peaceful, they walk their dog Ruby in the adjacent Gibson Park, along Park Home Ave.

"We looked everywhere but came back to this area," Marcia says. "It's the best of both worlds, with residential and commercial."

"North York is like downtown, but cleaner and nicer. It's got more than downtown Toronto. You can be in the action with all the stores and restaurants, or in a park where it?s quiet and relaxing. We love it here."

The two condo towers of Gibson Square with street-level shops and amenities.

ALAN MENKES - son of founder Murray, co-president of the company and head of its residential condominium projects - talks about Menkes Developments' past and ongoing role in North York. 

How did you get started in North York?
We were building industrial buildings and had built one office building in Mississauga. We thought this (Yonge near Sheppard) was great location for an office building. Then Proctor & Gamble came knocking and we built the building to their specifications. They had the vision to move north and that was a big coup for the city (then North York), for (then mayor) Mel Lastman and for us.

North York was predominantly a bedroom community 30 years ago. What was the draw to make it your company's focus?
Lastman had a vision. We were pioneers and the first to pick it up and move forward with it. The Yonge subway had just been completed to Finch Ave. and Mel's plan was to have an urban core stretch from York Mills to Finch - and it was a pretty audacious plan at the time. He was a great promoter and we believed in the area for several reasons. Number 1 was the subway. Second was the proximity of Hwy. 401 and third was that North York was the geographic centre of the GTA. Location, location, location was what we believed in.
You were also pioneers of mixed-used development in the GTA with Empress Walk.
To build a downtown, you have to build all the disciplines: for the residential population, the office population as well as shopping amenities and services.
We had built six million square feet of office space in the area . . . that generated a lot of office workers who needed amenities and the residential population had started to move north. 

It was a coming of age for this particular community that was starved for those services. It was a societal change. People wanted more services and amenities and were prepared to give up some space in their traditional single family homes to have them. Demographics were driving that, as well, and provincial legislation accelerated it. 

Those drivers accelerated this paradigm shift to what we?re seeing today which is more mixed-use development. It's really a function of what the market wants and that?s what we respond to. People want a better quality of life 
How do you decide whether to take a chance on an unproven area?
We aren't afraid to take risks. We've moved into areas others wouldn't. You need knowledge, you need a propensity to be able to handle risk, you have to do your research and layer that expertise. Any risk we take is in a measured way. Being a multi-disciplined company, we're able to see the path with a wider lens than if we were strictly condo developers.

When we go into a community, we invest in it financially and emotionally, whether it?s through financial capital or adding employment. We want to be a participant in the community.

How have buyers' tastes changed since your first condominium (Place Nouveau) in North York?
People are looking for good design and are more educated about the products. Intellectually, they are more in touch with lifestyle, amenities and design.

Gibson Square by Menkes
What: Mixed-use development with two 42-storey condo towers and retail at ground level
Location: Yonge St. & Park Home Ave. 
Architect: Rafael Bigauskas Architects Inc. 
Interior designer: Bryon Patton and Associates 
Available suites:
Penthouses with two bedrooms plus den or family room, 1,236 to 1,926 sq. ft.
Sky Penthouse features: 10-foot ceilings, floor-to-ceiling energy efficient windows, classic wood baseboards and door casings, epicurean kitchen with custom-designed cabinetry, polished granite countertop, mosaic tile backsplash, top-of-the-line stainless steel appliances, sumptuous master bathrooms with cultured marble or granite countertop and custom vanity, premium floor coverings including plank laminate, porcelain and ceramic tile 

Price range:
$836,990 to $1,350,990