Saturday, April 7, 2012
The house that Sam built still stands
The insurance business Sam Sorbara started in 1942 has morphed into a multi-faceted firm, including commercial and residential real estate, planning, development and construction, management and investment companies — as well as insurance — within the Sorbara Group umbrella.
Sam Sorbara came to Canada from Italy in the 1920s as a teenager. A short biography penned by his second son, Edward, describes him as an inveterate entrepreneur who dabbled in various fields before focusing on the insurance business.
By the 1960s, however, the insurance business took a back seat to land development as a burgeoning population created a hunger for housing.
A June 3, 1963, article in The Toronto Telegram describes the extent of his land holdings: “When you see his For Sale signs on land — and there are lots of them around Metro — it means that Sorbara, or Sorbara and associates, own the property,” the article states. “When you see a factory or an industrial plaza that he’s built, it means that it’s owned by him or by him and his associates.”
The article suggests Sorbara’s land acquisitions, property development and construction activities generated business in the range of $5 million to $6 million a year.
According to the biography, in the 1950s Sorbara built Canada’s first strip mall, at Weston Rd. and Wilson Ave., and the first industrial mall on Howden Rd. in Scarborough.
His eldest son, Joseph, says during that decade Sam also started putting up industrial buildings. In the 1970s he added construction of highrise rental apartments and townhouses near Steeles Ave. W. and Jane St. and Finch Ave. W. and Keele St., some of which the Sorbara Group retains in its portfolio of properties.
Today the Sorbara Group (owned by Sam Sorbara’s four children, of whom MPP and former Ontario cabinet minister Greg Sorbara is the youngest) owns and manages some 6.5 million square feet of industrial, commercial and office properties, along with the portfolio of residential apartments.
Although the company has a long history in developing and planning communities for the housing market, it didn’t get into the building end of the industry until the mid 1990s. The Sorbara Group has since completed some 1,800 highrise and lowrise units, at the rate of about 150 housing units a year.
The Sorbara Group developed the master plan for the 160-plus hectares for the Village of Brooklin, although Tribute Communities built it. But Sorbara created the community’s vision, which included generous porches and detached rear garages not usually seen in new subdivisions two decades ago.
“(Brooklin) had 1,200 people when we arrived,” says Joseph Sorbara. “We’re still finishing it, but now there’s 12,000.”
The Sorbara Group also participated in the land development of Mississauga’s Churchill Meadows secondary plan, from land acquisition to draft plan approval. But in the Britannia Meadows area of that community, it also built some 400 semi-detached units through its company, Orchard Ridge Homes.
In 1997, the project earned best architectural design award for a house over $225,990 from the Greater Toronto Home Building Association (now part of the Building Industry and Land Development Association.)
The Sorbara Group got involved in the condo market thanks to an eight-storey, 240,000-square-foot warehouse it owned on Sumach St., which at the time the CBC used to store props. The building was situated behind the original brewery building on the site, once owned by the Dominion Brewery.
In fact, between 1987 and 1990, in association with Easton/Phillips Development Association, the Sorbara Group renovated the entire complex of buildings on the old Dominion site along Queen St. E. into trendy commercial and retails spaces.
“We bought the building as an investment,” says Edward Sorbara. “We bought it believing the CBC would never move out because the rent in that type of space was very modest.”
But the CBC did move out, and between 1993 and 1996 the building stood empty as businesses struggled in the aftermath of the housing market crash following the frenzied highs of 1989.
“We got into the condo business trying to find a solution for this monster that was eating us alive,” says Edward Sorbara.
It helped that the city had just relaxed zoning restrictions in parts of the downtown core to encourage redevelopment of empty and underused factories and warehouses. With the housing market also showing signs of revival, the Sorbara Group decided to convert the empty building into 100 units, which they named Brewery Lofts.
The company blasted out bricks to replace tiny windows with 14-foot-high sheets of glass, and left living areas in their raw state with thick concrete floors and large concrete pillars.
“We enjoyed doing it and got good at it,” says Edward Sorbara.
Other conversions followed, including Broadview Lofts, a former east-end Rexall Drug warehouse, as well as brand new midrise condos.
“(Midrise) is our market,” says Leith Moore, Sorbara’s vice president of development, who has worked for the company for more than three decades. “We don’t have to build the biggest buildings. When you’re building this size, it feels like homebuilding, too.”
And where homebuilding is concerned, two of Edward Sorbara’s guiding principles state: “Care about quality because it’s our family name that goes on it. And make sure it works.”
In 1977, the first New in Homes section appeared in the Toronto Star.
Back then, most new homes were detached and built in the suburbs; today, condos have overtaken new home sales, both in the city and the 905 regions, according to a recent report by RealNet Canada.
Here at the Star, we’re celebrating a special anniversary of 35 Years of New in Homes with special new features, including a contest.
The Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) is offering a hefty $35,000 toward the purchase of a new home or renovation to help us celebrate. All you have to do to enter is go to thestar.com/contests and tell us what a new home or renovation means to you.
You can also read all the profiles of our Industry Innovators at thestar.com/specialsections/newinhomes35years