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Opening comments:  More at the end.

Globe & Mail May 25 2000, Thur. - by John Barber

Land comparison reveals province's audacity

TORONTO Comparisons are odious, but in real estate (odious itself, often enough) they are necessary. So let us compare two vacant lots in downtown Toronto.

This is actually a cultural exercise -- an attempt to discern the deeper values embedded in the superficial dollar values assigned to each lot. As my economist friends always say, prices reveal all. Bear with me. One of the lots occupies the southeast corner of Queen Street and University Avenue. It is owned by the people of Ontario. In 1997, the province offered to sell the lot to the Canadian Opera Company for $16-million.

At that time, according to provincial officials, $16-million was the lot's fair-market value. The Mike Harris government was doing its bit to help the COC build its long-coveted new opera house, but that didn't include any special deal on the price of its prime land. Heavens, no.

By the time the offer expired this March, ending the COC's dream of building a new opera house on University Avenue, the market value of the land had more than doubled, according to provincial officials. At that time, Culture Minister Helen Johns contrasted her government's largesse offering such a valuable property at such a low price -- with the stinginess of her federal and municipal counterparts.

The beneficent minister "was offering a $40-million chunk of property at the fire-sale price of $16-million," The Globe and Mail editorialized, noting that the province's "generosity" amounted to "an effective donation of $24-million."

But the deal never went through.

The other lot occupies the northeast corner of Bay and Grosvenor streets. It was owned by the people of Ontario until this January, when the provincial government sold it to Cadillac dealer Clarke Addison for $2-million.

In this case, the Mike Harris government was doing its bit to reward along-time tenant who has sold used cars on the vacant lot for decades, according to spokesmen for the Ontario Realty Corporation.

But that didn't include any special deal on the price of its prime land. Heavens, no. Two million dollars was the fair-market value, officials said. Two vacant lots in downtown Toronto, but the government says that one is worth 20 times more than the other. What gives?

For one thing, the University Avenue lot is larger than the Bay Street lot. It has similar frontage along its main street -- about 100 metres -- but is more than twice as deep.

The University Avenue site also features higher-density zoning -- an allowable 12 times coverage, versus 7.8 times coverage on Bay. And it has the potential to become an office tower, as opposed to a mixed-use condominium, which could be said to further increase its value.

That premium is hard to determine, because nobody has built an office tower in downtown Toronto for more than a decade, and last year Cadillac Fairview backed out of a deal to build one on University in partnership with the COC.

In the last office boom, some unfortunate (now bankrupt) companies were paying as much as $100 per buildable square foot for prime office sites. The size and density of the University Avenue site combine to permit 900,000 square feet to be built. At $100 a square foot, the opera-house property would be worth $90-million.

It's not, of course -- not today. Today, the lot is worth about the same as any site slated for high-end condos downtown, according to professionals familiar with the market. With several formerly valuable office towers in the core recently converted into condominiums, that seems to make sense. Provincial spin doctors clearly agree. Their $40-million figure translates to $44 per square foot, which is at the high end of the price paid for the best downtown condo sites. (At $35 a square foot, perhaps a more realistic estimate, the site would be worth $31.5-million.)

So, to repeat an earlier question: What gives? If the University Avenue site is worth $44 a square foot, why is the substantially similar Bay Street site worth only $8 a square foot -- the price Addison Properties paid to acquire it in January?

How can provincial officials defend both prices as fair-market value? Maybe they're not both fair prices. Maybe one party got concessions that the other failed to obtain. That's just a guess.

Here's something a lot closer to being certain: If the Harris government extended the same sweet deal it gave Addison Properties to the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto would be watching an opera house rise on that site right now.

Instead, it is holding out for top dollar while audaciously claiming to be generous. With respect to the Addison deal, it discounted a property and is audaciously claiming to be hardheaded.

Used cars or highbrow culture? It's all a matter of values.


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