This week, the Toronto Star NewInHomes.com team had the opportunity to sit down with Clifford Korman, senior partner of Kirkor Architects & Planners. In another two-part interview, we look at Korman’s start in the industry, his vision when designing, and the issues he sees in Toronto planning.
NewInHomes.com (NIH): Where did you get your start?
Clifford Korman (CK): Born and raised in Toronto. I grew up always interested in artwork, sculpting, painting, everything. My father was in the lumber business, so construction materials and tools were always something I would be working with in summers and winters, and get to learn a lot about.
I happened to be a very good mathematician, my mother wanted me to be an accountant. Somewhere around the age of 11 or 12, the term architect came to me. What is an architect? The whole drawing and building concept came to me. You can draw it, someone would build it, and you can kick the bricks. You can see what you have built, it’s tangible. I fell in love with the idea. I decided that this was something that I wanted to become. I built the background from high school—I took drafting, took my art courses, built my portfolio, did sculpting and painting, all to get into an architecture program. I chose, because of my background (my parents were hard-working people), the school of Waterloo, which was opening a new architecture school at the time. I met my business partner, Stephen, there in my second year, and he was in his first. It was a cooperative education program which allowed me to both work and take classes at the same time.
So I did two degrees, a bachelor of environmental studies in architecture, and then I did a bachelor of architecture. Over time, the bachelor of architecture was more important to me because I studied planning. I am a registered professional planner as well as a registered professional architect. As I built up this firm, I’ve found that I have taken up most of the concepts of planning, while Stephen has taken up more of the aesthetic architectural role. I’ve found, over 10 to 15 years, by being able to create a great plan, you have the ability to create great architecture. If you just have a single tower, it’s harder to create great architecture because you’re working within someone else’s program. So, a lot of our projects are large-scale, master-planned communities.
NIH: What is the depth of the projects you offer at Kirkor?
CK: We at this point in time can do anything from a charity synagogue renovation, to a single-family home, to a cottage or a master-planned community. On any given day, I could be working on a master-planned community for Shanghai, which will be over five million square feet, or a 55-storey building at Widmer and Adelaide streets.
Our project scale has grown. We do a lot of twin-tower schemes, a lot of multi-tower schemes, and master plans in the four or five million square foot range. A good example is The Rose Garden, which is currently 18 buildings, approximately four to five million square feet, in Vaughan. I can go from helping get an office built to helping build a city in the same day.
We are also doing a lot of addition renovations to apartment buildings. We have a lot of housing stock in Toronto, 40 to 50 years old, that are all aging not so gracefully, but they sit on great pieces of land. So we are taking some of the unused land near the street and adding intensity to existing buildings.
NIH: Interesting idea—is that something you will be doing a lot more of in the future?
CK: Believe it or not, our firm has five of these projects now. We are taking out surface parking area and putting up street-front townhomes with residential towers behind them. We are re-urbanizing existing areas. In a sense, the city is out of affordable land, so we need to continue to be creative. I took a group of students flying over the city of Toronto, and you know, it’s very green. And by the way, it’s a very low-rise city. We have urban corridors—Yonge Street, Bloor Street, St. Clair Avenue—but once you’re out of those corridors, we are a green, low-rise city.
NIH: Who do you envision moving into these new mixed-use projects?
CK: Young families will move back downtown. They want to walk or bicycle to work. They want to walk their kids to school. They don’t want to have to have two cars, or in some cases, one car. There’s lots of existing housing stock that’s being recycled, which I see as a trend. The city will no doubt continue to grow younger, in a sense, as opposed to getting older.
I’m urbanizing suburban areas. One of my biggest sites was Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue. On the site, there was a food store with a 600-car surface parking lot, and this was in the heart of North York! We replaced it with a new food store, two office buildings, and two apartment buildings on top. Live, shop, play, all in one area. It’s not good for just young people, either. According to Tridel, one of the biggest purchasers at Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue are single women. They feel safe, they feel secure, they want a modern lifestyle. Not just young, older. I know an older woman who moved into the area and loves it. She has her doctor, dentist, lawyer, spa—all within walking distance. She never has to put on a coat. The best part about it is that it’s a community. The guy from Second Cup knows her, the guy at the meat shop knows her and knows what type of meat she likes, and even the attendant at the theatre knows her name. It’s wonderful. These mixed-use communities are what I really believe in. So where am I building these units?
NIH: That’s a great question, where are you building these units?
CK: We are doing them in Mississauga, we are doing them in Brampton, at the Vaughan Town Centre, we are doing it at Weston Road and Hwy. 7, we are doing it at Pharmacy Road and Eglinton Avenue. The beauty of it is they’re exciting projects, and they are long-term projects, so we can have continued work for 10 years. Since we have these long-term contracts, it means I have to build a great team.
NIH: What do you do to ensure that the team stays together and is constantly working towards a common goal over such a long period of time?
CK: Seven years ago, I Identified four key employees that would one day take over the business. I created a succession plan that would allow those employed to buy out my share while learning from me. We now have six partners. Those four key employees manage different aspects of the business. Basically, we have a series of teams, or pyramids, that manage the work. One pyramid will handle the Tridel work, another will manage the Daniels work, and so on and so on. It doesn’t mean that we don’t cross over. I cannot do any of this on my own, it’s all about the team that you have around you. I’m a team-builder. The truth is, we have spent the past 30 years seeking out the top minds in the area to help us grow. We have had very little turnover, we train well and retain them.
NIH: You’re part of Innovation City, taking place at MaRS Discovery District—what’s that all about?
CK: I’m entering the mentoring stage of my career. I believe in doing good deeds and charities, giving back basically. My partners and I have been very fortunate to get where we are. I’m putting my name out there to do more and more speaking engagements in order to start discussions. I think Innovation City is a great idea. I’m trying to be there for these types of issues, and lead our clients to get to a certain standard with building. It’s not easy. Innovation City is the next step for us. My goal is to be a city builder. I want to contribute to my community. I believe that the more I can influence the people around me to build better cities, the better chance we have. We have to do things better, we have to do things smarter. Innovation City is about doing it better. We have the tools; we just have to use them. We can be smart, we can do our planning and connect our communities, we just have to start to do it.
NIH: What are your thoughts on Toronto as a city?
CK: We have a great city here. I have traveled the world and been to multiple great cities, but I love coming home. We have the same issues that other world-class cities have, but not nearly as many. We are a city of great neighbourhoods with bi-laws that protect established areas. It really is a great place to live when you look at the bigger picture.
NIH: What’s the first step Toronto needs to take to become the city it can be?
CK: Transit, transit and infrastructure. If you plan where the transit is going and follow through, the development will follow. You can’t build the infrastructure and hope that transit will follow, you’re setting the city up to fail. The saying is, build it and they will come. Plan the transit, plan the buildings, and put them together, one stop at a time. Just never stop doing it. That’s all it takes, one new subway station a year.
Stay tuned to the Toronto Star’s NewInHomes.com for Part 2 of our interview with Clifford Korman, where we take a hard look at some of the issues with developing in Toronto, with a focus on planning.