City Place Man

The Toronto Star

Want to give yourself a whole lot of trouble?

Flush your fresh-water tropical fish down the loo and replace them with a salt-water aquarium. Pricier and tricky to take care of, with temperature and salinity needing a constant eye lest the critters go belly-up on you, but so much more… switched on than the regular kind.

CityPlace has salt-water. The tanks in the lobby of the massive and controversial condo development's "presentation center" are alive with finny flashes of electric blues and yellows. "And we've got some red ones coming," says Blair Hagkull, vice-president of corporate relations for the developer, Concord Adex.

It remains to be seen what the full impact will be on downtown as the long-derelict railway lands south of Front St. and west of the SkyDome are transformed over the next 12 years into what the first issue of Pulse, the project newsletter, calls "an urban village that encompasses everything you want, surrounded by everything the city has to offer... there's no place like it to live anywhere else on the planet."

But from those vivid fish to a receptionist who demands your business card as well as your name when you show up to see CEO Henry Man, the nerve center, in a fancy little fortress across the parking lot from SkyDome, is already living up to the CityPlace motto: "Cool, connected, cosmopolitan."

Which could serve to describe Man himself. A low-key, sober-suited soccer fan with degrees in engineering and business, he's equally at ease talking about his early days as an immigrant from Hong Kong – "my whole family lived in a basement in Vancouver" – or the dazzling highest-of-high-tech toys that promise to digitalize the daily round in a CityPlace condo.

Man stands at the front of some big, big money. Concord Adex Development is jointly owned by Concord Pacific Group Inc., listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, and Grand Adex Developments, owned privately by Hong Kong's Hui family, wealthy beyond the dream of avarice.

Concord Adex president Terry Hui also heads Concord Pacific Group Inc., which is behind the massive Concord Pacific Place on Vancouver's Expo site. Hong King billionaire Li Ka-Shing – on Forbes magazines' list of the world's richest men – and his family have a finger in the Concord Pacific pie.

Man says he's turned down "big money" offers to return to his native Hong Kong because he prefers Toronto.

He just turned 40, "yes the big 4-0," and is thinking of taking up golf so he can take advantage of the 9-hole course and driving range that will be an early, if temporary, feature of the development.

"For the first seven years, early buyers will have a free view across the course," he says. After that it goes to make room for the rest of the project. But how do you tell a dedicated golfer to take his nine-iron elsewhere?

"It's… interesting," Man allows. "We may have people who have grown accustomed to it. But they know it's interim."

With a total of up to 6,000 units, CityPlace has been decried as a wall of concrete being thrown across the landscape to obstruct the general public's view of the lake (to say nothing of the Gardiner Expressway). From the plans and models, anyway, it seems to be mostly glass, with much being made of the floor-to-ceiling windows.

What's important to Man as anything right now is that the project is under way. Across Spadina, he can see yellow earthmovers beginning the transformation of a Passchendaele of mud into the golf course.

"There's been skepticism," he says. "'Here's another scheme. It's been a hotly debated subject, even among some of our staff. One used to be with the City of Toronto. He started working with the railway lands 25 years ago. But a lot of the previous schemes were not, in a way, implementable schemes. These versions couldn't have happened. This one is going to happen. October 30-31 is the grand opening and construction will start in a couple of months. And that'll make it real in people's eyes."

The first units in the project's first buildings on Front St. close to SkyDome are expected to be ready for occupation in the fall of 2001. Man, who lives at King's Landing, about as close to the job as he can get, won't be moving into one of them.

"The first phase, the largest units will be about 1,400 square feet. Not really big enough for the needs of a growing family."

Farther down the line, "It's a possibility I'd move there. But you just never know where you're going to be. You go with the flow."

He has a gift of uttering these commonplaces and making them sound quite profound. Family, he says, is very important. "Over the next little while I'd like to spend more them with them." That's wife Patti and kids Jenessa, 7, Aaron, 5, and Kristiann, 4. It was family ties that in 1990 took Man and his wife back to Vancouver after he'd worked as an engineer for British Petroleum in Calgary for nine years.

"I went into the real estate industry. It was a big departure from petroleum, a different world. But all my family was there. My parents, my sisters and their families. My friends in Calgary thought I was crazy. I was in supervisory management position at BP and making a very good salary. My wife was a registered nurse and again making good money. We didn't have a mortgage on our house. We were DINKs (dual income, no kids) and doing quite well. So they thought we were nuts to move."

"My sister was in the real estate industry and urged me to join her. In oil and gas acquisition I'd be retaining top lawyers in various fields, environment etc., and co-coordinating them. And here was my sister saying, 'Go knock on these doors and see if they're interested in selling."

"It was quite humbling but I learned the basics. And I went to Hong Kong for a year, a year and a half, to do some corporate finance, help a good friend take his company public. But real estate is in my blood. In Calgary I built a couple of houses myself, and weekends I dragged my wife to open houses. That was my favourite pastime. It was economical too! I'd be looking at them…why does this have an open kitchen? How does the breakfast bar work with that nook?"

Man was born in Hong Kong and left with his family in 1977.

"My father died in 1995. He was 96. I was born when he was 60. He'd been a successful businessman in China, forced to leave in 1949 when the revolution came. He was slowing down already when I came along."

There wasn't a lot of money in the family when he went to University of British Columbia to study engineering. "I worked at McDonald's the first couple of years to pay my way. I was quite an athlete, too. I played midfield on the UBC Thunderbirds soccer team and I was scouted for the first division in Hong Kong. I'm bigger than the average Chinese. I'm still a fan of Manchester United. I had a lot of friends in Calgary who were English, Scottish, Irish. That's where I got my sense of structure. They're big on structure. In '82, '83, my first boss was Brian English, seconded from the U.K. He would change my memos seven times! ‘This isn't how…'"

Man says he still gets approaches to return to Hong Kong, though not to play soccer. "But I won't go. Money isn't everything and I want the quality of life – the air quality, too – for my family that Toronto offers. I want to do some teaching here if I can, business and marketing. But right now… building a neighborhood is a challenge. Taking it from a vision. It's quite rewarding to do that. Nobody knows how things will turn out. You have to have the right values, the right team. Take one thing at a time and, colloquially, go with the flow."

Off duty, "I swim, I play with the kids. But there's an awful lot of traveling."

He sounds rueful. Regrets? Man shakes his head. "I always tell people I don't have a lot of complaints. Life has been fair…thank the Lord. And I still go to open houses."