Early in 2013, my daughter Emily was applying to universities and had to submit a series of photos in support of her application to the fine arts program at Ryerson in Toronto. The photos had to represent a theme, and she chose urban decay.
I had just bought a new camera, so we set out together, cameras in hand, to see what we could find in downtown London. We spent most of a January Saturday tooling around exploring.
Late in the afternoon, we stumbled across the former Great West Steak House on Horton Street. It was one ugly building -- exactly what we were looking for to demonstrate urban decay. Boarded up since 2007, it offered no clues to its fascinating past and certainly not to the renaissance it would enjoy in the spring of 2015, when hundreds of people would flock to an open house to celebrate the building’s restoration.
As you can read about in this month’s Business London cover story, beautifully illustrated by Steve Martin’s photos, the building had been a railroad roundhouse, an architectural wonder constructed in 1887 by Michigan Central Rail to service and store hulking steam locomotives that were nearly impossible to move in reverse. The roundhouse was built around a giant turntable, allowing up to six locomotives to be turned and shunted off into service bays as required.
When it was no longer used for its intended purpose, the roundhouse went through a number of owners and uses, culminating with the Great West Steak House, which hid the glories of the building not so much under a bushel basket but under tons of wood panels, drywall and other detritus.
Underneath, however, the building always had good bones. That’s what interested the co-owners of Creative Property Development when they bought the property, along with 23 other properties in the SoHo (South of Horton) area. Patrick John Ambrogio and Slavko Prtenjaca met while attending Central high school, and slowly created their company without relying on any equity partners. They have a bunch of rental space on Richmond Row, but their SoHo developments take most of their time and energy.
They love the area and are committed to restoring it, using Toronto’s high-tech Liberty Village as a template. Already SoHo has attracted a variety of creative and tech firms, most in buildings Creative Property has renovated. The London Roundhouse is the largest project of all, however. The multi-stage project will cost the partners something north of $10-million. And they’ve proposed a commercial and residential tower as the final phase at a cost of $45-million.
The key to developing the 5,500 square feet in the Roundhouse itself was finding the right tenant. Ellipsis Digital and its sister company, Engine SevenFour, were the ideal match. Operating as rtraction when they toured the building in 2013, the three partners signed up eagerly. It might have helped that they didn’t know the extent of what they were getting into, but now that it’s complete, they are thrilled with their decision.
Sure, the project can be called a renovation. But that word suggests some new paint here, crown molding there, maybe a new countertop and appliances. The Roundhouse project is better described as a rebuild: Besides the majestic beams holding the place up, virtually everything else is new. It took a year longer than planned, but it looks fantastic.
The larger project will continue for several years, initially adding more office space in a circle around the Roundhouse itself. Among the new tenants scheduled for 2016 is Royal LePage Triland Real Estate, led by two of the most pleasant men in real estate: Peter Hoffman and Peter Meyer.
The final phase might be more of a dream than reality at the moment. Given the timetable for phase one, it’s tough to believe a 15-25 storey tower will be up by 2020. If it’s even approved by then, it will be impressive.
In the meantime, the Roundhouse stands as testament to what passion and determination can deliver. Congratulations to everyone involved.