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Putting on the Ritz in Canada

The first Ritz-Carlton hotel in the United States, which opened in Boston in 1927, was an apartment building before the mayor of Boston persuaded the developer to turn it into the city's swankiest, classiest European-style hotel.

It would be a Ritz-Carlton in other words, and true to the legacy of Cesar Ritz, dubbed the “king of hoteliers and hotelier to kings,” who managed The Ritz Paris and The Carlton in London at the turn of the last century.

At that time, the concept of condominium-hotels was still light years away, in development terms. The notion of blending condominiums and apartments with a hotel's dining, entertainment, housekeeping, catering, room service and concierge services in a single building was also unthinkable.

Today, blending hotels and condominiums under one roof has become virtually the only way to get four- and five-star hotels financed. Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Residences in the U.S., for example, are springing up in Washington, D.C., New York and Boston and the Florida cities of Key Biscayne, Coconut Grove and Sarasota. The current incarnation of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., headquartered in Atlanta, is a division of Washington, D.C.-based Marriott International, which purchased the company in 1995.

The first Ritz-Carlton hotel in North America opened in downtown Montreal in 1912 and remains the dignified empress of that city's leading hotels. It has been renovated several times over the years, most recently in 2000 at a cost of $6.4 million.

The Montreal link in the exclusive chain has been preserved architecturally as have other Ritz-Carlton hotels in Berlin, San Francisco, Philadelphia and New Orleans. The chain's cachet has remained undiluted, captured in the logo designed by Cesar Ritz — an artistic integration of the British royal seal (the crown) and financial backer (the lion).

Remaking Toronto's skyline

Atlanta-based Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. is coming full circle by opening a new hotel tower in Canada, while scouting other locations there to find possible sites for new projects. One Canadian project on the drawing boards is the 60-story Toronto Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Residences in the downtown business district of Toronto — Canada's financial capital. In two years, if everything goes according to schedule, Ritz-Carlton will open and manage the $192 million project, which will include 228 rooms/suites, 255 corporate suites and 187 condominiums. Although hotel rooms and condominiums will share the same building, each will have its own entrances, lobbies and elevators.

Toronto-based Bowmore Group of Companies Inc. is the owner/developer of the project. It took a certain development flair and adventurous spirit more frequently found in New York investment circles than Toronto's to get it moving. Sheldon Salcman, Bowmore's president and CEO, said the company initiated the Ritz-Carlton project because it became convinced “there is a need in Toronto's downtown core for residential facilities combined with services to support them. Hotel facilities downtown are tight as well.” Moreover, the company was encouraged by the example of several hotel-condo projects of this kind typically selling out in less than two months — the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton's 47 condos, for example, flew off the market in a few weeks.

‘Sales of condos in a project allow for profit to be plugged into the hotel, making it financeable. It also means less financing is required.
Bowmore Group of Companies

Bowmore is building, and selling, thousands of condominium units in several metro Toronto projects, although the company originated in the U.S. and still has a 2 million sq. ft. commercial and apartment portfolio in New York and New Jersey.

In the upcoming Toronto Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Residences project, the lower seven floors will include the lobby, ballroom, meeting space, retail space and restaurants. Guest rooms and suites will span floors 8 through 20. At the mid-tower level, 255 furnished, corporate suites will be sold to individuals who will be able to lease them by the month or year.

Also at the mid-tower level, a 20,000 sq. ft., two-story spa and fitness center will be available to hotel guests, condo owners and corporate landlords and/or their tenants.

Condo owners will live in 187 apartments from the 39th floor to the penthouse and will pay $300,000 and up for a 575 sq. ft. unit. On the 59th and 60th floors, the 11,000 sq. ft. penthouse will have its own spa, lap pool, sauna and 360-degree view from the top of Canada's tallest residential building. The price? A cool $11.5 million.

Condos drive luxury hotel financing

Salcman emphasized that it is practically impossible to get a hotel financed these days, especially a five-star property, on a stand-alone basis. Banks are reluctant to lend money if developers do not have a proven record of profitability, out of concern that the developers will default on their loans.

“Sales of condos in a project allow for profit to be plugged into the hotel, making it financeable. It also means less financing is required,” Salcman noted.

Financing the hotel or the other parts of the 640,000 sq. ft. Toronto tower was not particularly difficult, not with the Ritz-Carlton imprimatur on it. It is the current hotel chain's first venture in Canada, with parent company Marriott International buying the rights to participate in hotels in Canada from Montreal's Ritz-Carlton's franchise owners three years ago.

The Toronto project will not be the last Ritz-Carlton in Canada. James Veil, a regional vice president for the hotel chain, said: “Our goal is to have other hotels in Canada — in Vancouver, British Columbia, and possibly a resort hotel in the Canadian Rockies.” Those projects would be part of the company's larger ambition to at least double the 38 hotels and resorts it manages across several continents within two years.

Scouting for a site

Phil Keb, Ritz-Carlton's senior vice president of development, said the company had been looking for an opportunity in Toronto for quite some time, and had considered a few sites in Midtown — the territory of such resort hotels as the Four Seasons Hotel Toronto and Park Hyatt Toronto — as well as downtown neighborhoods.

‘With the possibility of Toronto hosting a future Olympics [in 2008] and plans for redevelopment of the waterfront, the city's future has never looked more promising.
President & COO

Keb described Toronto as a “key market” for the hotel chain and the city's business district as “a very good hotel market Sunday to Thursday.” With the emerging revitalization of the downtown core, he expects weekends to be successful as well. As Ritz-Carlton president and COO Horst Schulze put it: “With the possibility of Toronto hosting a future Olympics [in 2008] and plans for redevelopment of the waterfront, the city's future has never been more promising.”

Most of Ritz-Carlton's urban projects, Keb added, include residential components. Is there anything unique about the forthcoming new Canadian link in its international chain? “All of these buildings tend to be tall, to get the residential component up in the air, although this one will be taller than the norm,” he said. “The site, with a particularly small footprint [15,000 sq. ft.] is unique.” It was once occupied, somewhat incongruously, by a Woolworth's department store.

Favoring tall, slim glass towers

Bowmore chose Kirkor Architects & Planners, Toronto, to design the project, Salcman explained, because Ritz-Carlton favors the tall, slim, glass-clad point-tower style these architects have created in Vancouver. The firm won the Toronto project in an international design competition that included two rival firms that have designed Ritz-Carlton hotels in other cities.

Kirkor may well be back in Vancouver with another Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Residences project. Keb confirmed Veil's earlier comment that the company wants another such opportunity in Vancouver with Bowmore, although they have yet to find a site that fits their criteria. Glamorous, highly popular Whistler, British Columbia, in the Rockies, which is a two-hour drive from Vancouver, beckons as well, but Keb said suitable sites there are limited.

‘Our goal is to have other hotels in Canada — in Vancouver and possibly in the Canadian Rockies.
Regional Vice President

Meanwhile, development paper work and design refinements on the Toronto Ritz-Carlton continue at Kirkor. Clifford Korman, who designed the tower with architect partner Mario Gumushdjian, noted that a “tall, vertically integrated, thin, elegant glass tower topped by a cupola and spire will relieve the monotony of tall, bulky, flat-topped buildings clad mainly in granite, pre-cast and steel downtown.”

When the cupola is illuminated in the evening, it will position the tower as a landmark visible miles from the downtown area.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Residences tower podium will be clad in red granite to complement the adjacent Scotia Plaza tower and Victorian red brick of the neighboring private National Club, where many of the business elite gather. The tower will taper to a 100 ft. high titanium cupola and spire.

The hotel interior, by Cecconi Simone Interior Design, Toronto, will reflect contemporary and classic elements, from the carpets and wall coverings to the furnishings and in-room amenities. Kirkor Architects sees the tower as an evocation of classically elegant and sleek skyscrapers that remade New York and Chicago skylines in the 1920s.

Upon completion, the development will be connected to the subway system, other downtown towers, and 1,500 retail and service outlets in the cavernous, climate-controlled underground system under Toronto streets.

Downtown Toronto is awash in condominiums, with 50 projects scheduled to come on line in the next few years, and three hotel/condo projects under construction. There will be only one Ritz-Carlton, although it will sit under several hundred condos. If he were still alive, Cesar Ritz might well be annoyed at the dilution of a stand-alone hotel standard, but then again, he didn't have to raise the money.

Albert Warson is a Toronto-based writer.

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