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More protections needed for pre-construction homebuyers, says Ontario’s warranty program CEO

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The CEO of Ontario’s home warranty program says the recent cancellation of two condo developments in Vaughan suggests it is time the province looks at upgrading protections and transparency for pre-construction homebuyers, including flags on Tarion’s own website that would alert consumers to builders who have cancelled projects.

Howard Bogach said the building industry’s reputation has taken a hit in light of two cancellations involving more than 2,600 condos at the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, and he warned more condo cancellations could be coming.

Buyers in the Icona development sold by Gupta Group/Easton’s Group of Hotels received cancellation notices last week.
Buyers in the Icona development sold by Gupta Group/Easton’s Group of Hotels received cancellation notices last week.

“We’ve looked at a series of projects that have been sold for three years where construction hasn’t begun yet,” he said.

That doesn’t mean they won’t be built, but, “I would say these are the vulnerable ones.”

Bogach did not specify the number or the location of those projects. But he advised buyers in those circumstances to contact their builders. If the developer doesn’t respond, Bogach urged consumers to call Tarion directly.

Last week, buyers in the Icona development sold by Gupta Group/Easton’s Group of Hotels received cancellation notices. In April, Liberty Development cancelled its Cosmos towers along the same stretch of Highway 7 near Jane St.

Both companies cited non-specific financial reasons for killing the projects. Apart from letters to their buyers, neither firm has commented on the decision to kill their projects or the disappointment of buyers, who had their deposits tied up for one and two years, respectively, as home prices continued to rise in the GTA.

Although he cautioned against knee-jerk responses, Bogach told the Star on Wednesday that the industry, governments and developers should look at whether the notifications and disclosures on new home projects “could be improved from what we’ve learned in these two instances.”

“Are there more steps we could take,” he said.

A Star investigation published online Thursday revealed that the LeMine Investment Group has failed to break ground on 339 condo units it sold in 2014 at The Academy at 3070 Ellesmere Rd. in Scarborough and another 410 units sold two and a half years ago at Central Park Ajax, a project mired in legal turmoil.

Tarion, which has a builder regulatory function and also considers itself a consumer protection agency, advises buyers to do their research before purchasing a home. But Bogach admitted that while Tarion’s own online builder directory shows whether a builder is registered in Ontario and whether there have been issues addressed by the warranty program, it does not alert consumers to builders who have cancelled projects.

“You know the line, ‘The best indication of future performance is past performance.’ If you look at the directory, you’re not going to see an issue of past performance,” he said

The 10-year-old Tarion Addendum, a standard form with the sales agreement that sets out agreed-upon occupancy, payment schedules and termination conditions, should also be reviewed, he said. That discussion, he stressed, needs to include the province, municipalities and developers and reflect the growing approval times for getting projects built.

“For the vast portion of that 10 years the Tarion Addendum has worked pretty well,” said Bogach, who attributed most cancellations to zoning issues and developer’s failure to meet the banks’ threshold for financing, which usually means a builder needs to sell between 70 and 90 per cent of the proposed units to raise the millions needed to build.

He said he understands consumer skepticism when builders offer only vague financial reasons for terminating a project. But, unless Tarion’s investigation leads it to ask the province to pull that builder’s licence, it won’t reveal the details of the investigation.

Bogach said it is also worth discussing the “salt-in-the-wound issue” of the lack of interest paid to consumers who have their money tied up in development. The Ontario Condominium Act says that refunds on cancelled condos include interest — but the prescribed rate of two per cent below the Bank of Canada is so low, consumers seldom see any interest accrued.

Meanwhile, frustrated condo buyers who received refunds on their deposits for the Vaughan projects are looking at legal action. A group of 451 buyers in the Cosmos towers have asked a court to declare their contracts void so they can sue Liberty Development for lost appreciation in their homes over the two years the company had their deposits held in trust.

Icona buyers have asked Tarion to investigate whether Gupta had any right to sell condos last year on property that was bound by a restrictive covenant that prohibited anything but a hotel from being built on that land.

Ontario Minister of Government and Consumer Services Todd Smith said last week the government is looking for ways to better protect homebuyers left in the lurch by condo cancellations.

Tarion’s critics have suggested that the organization can’t be impartial on the matter because eight of its board members are homebuilders. Following a review of the new home warranty program by associate chief justice J. Douglas Cunningham, the former Liberal government promised last year it would overhaul the warranty system. But some consumer advocates say it failed to act on the recommendation that the warranty program and builder regulation be held in separate organizations.

Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski

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‘We’re back’: Montreal festival promoters happy to return but looking to next year

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In downtown Montreal, it’s festival season.

In the city’s entertainment district, a musical act was conducting a sound check on stage Friday evening — the second day of the French-language version of the renowned Just For Laughs comedy festival. Tickets for many of the festival’s free outdoor shows — limited by COVID-19 regulations — were sold out.

Two blocks away, more than 100 people were watching an acoustic performance by the Isaac Neto Trio — part of the last weekend of the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique, a celebration of music from the African continent and the African diaspora.

With COVID-19 restrictions continuing to limit capacity, festival organizers say they’re glad to be back but looking forward to next year when they hope border restrictions and capacity limits won’t affect their plans.

Charles Décarie, Just For Laughs’ CEO and president, said this is a “transition year.”

“Even though we have major constraints from the public health group in Montreal, we’ve managed to design a festival that can navigate through those constraints,” Décarie said.

The French-language Juste pour rire festival began on July 15 and is followed by the English-language festival until July 31.

When planning began in February and March, Décarie said, organizers came up with a variety of scenarios for different crowd sizes, ranging from no spectators to 50 per cent of usual capacity.

“You’ve got to build scenarios,” he said. “You do have to plan a little bit more than usual because you have to have alternatives.”

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MELS new major movie studio to be built in Montreal

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MONTREAL — MELS Studios will build a new film studio in Montreal, filling some of the gap in supply to meet the demand of Hollywood productions.

MELS president Martin Carrier said on Friday that MELS 4 studio construction will begin « as soon as possible », either in the fall or winter of next year. The studio could host productions as early as spring 2023.

The total investment for the project is $76 million, with the Quebec government contributing a $25 million loan. The project will create 110 jobs, according to the company.

The TVA Group subsidiary’s project will enable it to stand out « even more » internationally, according to Quebecor president and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau. In the past, MELS Studios has hosted several major productions, including chapters of the X-Men franchise. The next Transformers movie is shooting this summer in Montreal.

Péladeau insisted that local cultural productions would also benefit from the new facility, adding that the studio ensures foreign revenues and to showcase talent and maintain an industry of Quebec producers.

STUDIO SHORTAGE

The film industry is cramped in Montreal.

According to a report published last May by the Bureau du cinéma et de la télévision du Québec (BCTQ), there is a shortage of nearly 400,000 square feet of studio space.

With the addition of MELS 4, which will be 160,000 square feet, the company is filling part of the gap.

Carrier admitted that he has had to turn down contracts because of the lack of space, representing missed opportunities of « tens of millions of dollars, not only for MELS, but also for the Quebec economy. »

« Montreal’s expertise is in high demand, » said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who was present at the announcement.

She said she received great testimonials from « Netflix, Disney, HBO and company » during an economic mission to Los Angeles in 2019.

« What stands out is that they love Montreal because of its expertise, knowledge and beauty. We need more space, like MELS 4, » she said.

There is still not enough capacity in Quebec, acknowledged Minister of Finance, the Economy and Innovation Eric Girard.

« It is certain that the government is concerned about fairness and balance, so if other requests come in, we will study them with the same seriousness as we have studied this one, » he said.

Grandé Studios is the second-largest player in the industry. Last May, the company said it had expansion plans that should begin in 2022. Investissement Québec and Bell are minority shareholders in the company.

For its part, MELS will have 400,000 square feet of production space once MELS 4 is completed. The company employs 450 people in Quebec and offers a range of services including studio and equipment rentals, image and sound postproduction, visual effects and a virtual production platform.

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Anglais

Birdhouse Wingerie & Bar is the Latest to Hatch in West Island’s Bubbling Restaurant Scene

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Wings are the thing at the latest restaurant to make its mark on Montreal’s West Island: Birdhouse Wingerie & Bar.

At the buzzy new Dollard-Des Ormeaux eatery, the bird limbs come aplenty, with a menu listing eleven “wet & messy” wings, including smoked apple habanero, sriracha lime, and cherry cola BBQ; and four — cacio e pepe, ketchups chip, Nashville hot, and the garlicky, lemon pepper “vampire slayer” — dry rub flavours. They come 10 for $18 or 20 for $34, plus the option of ranch, parmesan, or blue cheese dipping sauce.

Tacos, nachos, poutines (one made with bone marrow, another with tater tots), smashed burgers, salads, and a classic buttermilk fried chicken dinner are just sampling of the other dishes that round out the offering. On the drinks side, there are cocktails, sangrias, and spiked milkshakes in popular chocolate bar flavours: After Eight, Skor, Bounty, or Reeses.

Opened on July 5, Birdhouse is among a recent influx of restaurants to grace the island’s western end, including birria taco slinger Tacos Don Rigo and barbecue joint Smoke Box — a double whammy in the same Pierrefonds area strip mall. That comes in addition to plans for Fairview Pointe Claire’s incoming “District Gourmand” (slated to usher in Tommy Café), and, of course, a number of the area’s longer-standing stalwarts — from southern belle Bistro Nolah to old-school casse-croûte Smoked Meat Pete — that have helped bolster the West Island’s culinary credentials.

The brand-new Brunswick Boulevard restaurant is the brainchild of Montreal entrepreneur Lorne Schwartz, restaurateur George Massouras (of Madisons and Arahova Souvlaki), and among the other partners involved, Brahm Mauer, son of the founder of beloved buffalo hot wings expert Wings ‘n’ Things. Mauer has tried his hand at reviving the original Wings ‘n’ Things recipe — the restaurant originally opened in 1986 — over the years, including with a Royalmount Avenue location in 2012, then as a roaming summertime food truck and NDG pop-up. That same truck has now been made over with a Birdhouse-branded livery to be deployed for private events.

A likely draw to many, Birdhouse is reprising the “famous flavours, untouched” of the once-upon-a-time NDG staple, represented on its menu as “The Legendary WNT Buffalo” chicken wing.

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