Developer Shmuel Farhi Answers Burning Questions About Windsor Investments
Mega developer Shmuel Farhi has kept a low media profile in Windsor considering the high-impact property transactions in which he has participated, starting with the land swap engineered in the city’s east end where the WFCU Centre sits today.
The Owner of Farhi Holdings Corporation (FHC) purchased the vacant Lear industrial property on Lauzon Road for $8 million in 2005 and later gifted five and sold 35 acres to the City of Windsor for $1.5 million plus ownership of prime riverfront property next to the Art Gallery of Windsor at 491 Riverside Drive West.
Farhi has not yet developed that downtown property, while acquiring three other potential building lots on Riverside Drive including the infamous Docherty hole (which he filled) abutting the former Radisson Hotel.
He also owns the Best Western Plus Waterfront Hotel, the former Radisson hotel, and the former Travelodge, now under redevelopment as a Holiday Inn Express.
FHC also purchased the former 760 space Docherty parking garage at 275 Pitt Street West after it fell into receivership, and has invested several million dollars into its ongoing revitalization.
Farhi’s properties have become central to the debate over the divisive proposal by Mayor Drew Dilkens to build a $15 million underpass beneath Riverside Drive across from the Art Gallery, expressing hope that the project would spur residential development either from Farhi or someone who might purchase his nearby properties.
“It is always a risk to buy a parcel of land years in advance of a projected development nearby. The parcel was for sale on the open market so I did my homework.” ~ Fahri on his purchase of property across from the proposed new mega hospital.
In the latest of his Q and A features, Biz X columnist Alan Halberstadt posed 15 questions to Farhi on these and other matters. His answers are below.
1. Biz X: Please provide a brief biography of your life’s journey and summarize your career as a developer.
Shmuel Farhi (SF): I came to Canada from Israel in 1986 with a small nest-egg I had earned from earlier business ventures. A friend showed me the ropes in real estate and fortunately I was a quick learner. I founded FHC in 1988 and we have been growing steadily ever since, expanding into more than two dozen Ontario communities. We currently own and manage more than four million square feet of office, retail, residential and hospitality space. We have built and/or managed premises for all three levels of government, blue-chip companies, national and independent retailers, a wide cross-section of business offices, and a number of not-for-profit organizations. FHC owns and manages more than two million square feet at more than 135 sites in its headquarters city of London alone.
2. Biz X: Please specify the nature of your London area holdings.
SF: We own 100 sites in the downtown core, including many of the city’s more prominent heritage and non-heritage properties and a number of parking lots. As the largest land owner in downtown London, FHC is able to meet the premises and parking needs of any tenant looking to locate in one of our signature buildings, and we are well positioned for future development. Our residential portfolio includes luxury apartment buildings in some of London’s more desirable neighbourhoods, and we recently expanded into the luxury subdivision market with BourneWood Estates in west London. Our London and area farm properties include more than 2,500 acres. In 2009 FHC purchased the historic Elm Hurst Inn & Spa in Ingersoll, followed by London’s landmark Idlewyld Inn & Spa in 2013 (recently voted among the “Top 9” boutique hotels in the country). Both have since undergone significant restoration and renovation and are thriving.
3. Biz X: What is the full scope of your holdings in Windsor beyond the land at 1600 Lauzon?
SF: We also own four undeveloped lots and three hotel buildings on Riverside Drive and are investing millions into a complete rebuild and likely commercial expansion of our City Centre at 333 Riverside Drive West. We have also invested millions rebuilding the 275 Pitt Street West parking garage. This has been a very expensive way to maintain and create a total of more than 300 jobs that might otherwise have disappeared, but we believe in the City and its future and are willing to continue the investment. We also own 18 acres of land across from the proposed new mega-hospital (at Highway 42 and Concession 9).
4. Biz X: The signs on the former Radisson say Club Riverside Inn. How long was it offered as student dorms and why was that use discontinued?
SF: We did some room conversions and experimented with the idea of a student residence for a year, but decided not to further pursue that option.
5. Biz X: There remains intrigue over how you came to purchase the Lear property. One urban legend has you being a relative of Mayor Eddie Francis and conceiving the arena land transaction at a wedding in London. You allegedly helicoptered onto the Lear roof and met Francis there to cement the deal. Do you care to set the record straight?
SF: That sounds like quite an exciting story, but I’m afraid my helicopter licence is only good for the $49.95 electric model I bought for my little boy! Actually, the reality is much less dramatic. I was indeed introduced to the Mayor at a wedding, but the reason I later bought the property was because it was presented to me as a good value by my friend, London realtor Rick Gleed. The deal for the WFCU land was made in London with a delegation of City of Windsor representatives who arrived by car and did not include Mayor Francis. And for the record, we are not related. His background is Lebanese and mine is Israeli.
6. Biz X: You reportedly once envisioned the creation of a massive development on the remainder of that property including a hotel, a retail outlet mall and an apartment tower. Since then Rona, Sobeys and several outlets in the Tecumseh Mall have closed. Has your vision for that property changed?
Feature photo: In downtown London Fahri is photographed in front of the Farhi Holdings Corporation block at 620 Richmond Street. Photo courtesy of FHC.