Brad J. Lamb is not, to put it gently, universally loved.
As head of his eponymous Brad J. Lamb Realty, he is a titan of Toronto’s condo industry, the closest thing we have to a Trump — right down to his new TV show that airs in February, Big City Broker. And, as titans tend to be, Lamb is a polarizing character; indeed, it seems that the only thing Lamb has in common with the meek animal that shares his name are his omnipresent posters that show his head plastered onto a lamb’s body with the tagline “This Lamb Sells Condos” above it.
There are several sites calling for a boycott of Lamb’s condo development firm (one of which is, significantly, the second result on Google for his name), and several stories circulating about rude agents on the web. The most recent manifestation of public distaste for Lamb and the city’s gentrification came from everyone’s favourite violin virtuoso Owen Pallett, who wrote a song based on him (appropriately named “This Lamb Sells Condos”), a scathing ridicule of condo development in Toronto and — with its purported overheard conversations between Lamb and a girlfriend at the end of the track (“Contentment? What’s contentment? I am bald and impotent”) — quite a personal attack on the broker.
On the other hand, Lamb boasts of endless numbers of satisfied clients; a staff of talented and hard-working employees; and of the differences he’s making in Toronto to prevent it from becoming a sea of ugly and unfriendly condos, if still a sea of condos nonetheless. Lamb’s website includes accolades from NOW, Toronto Life, and The Globe & Mail, among others, and he is cited as an expert on real estate and urban growth by everyone from the National Post to Eye to the CBC’s The Hour.
Fortunately for us, this Lamb conducts interviews. Torontoist spoke with Brad over the holidays to talk about his reputation, the role that condos play and will play in Toronto, and just what he thinks about Owen Pallett’s song about him.
Torontoist: How did the marketing campaign come about?
Brad J. Lamb: Well, it came about from me being concerned about looking like a dick on a billboard, so I wanted to play down that and make fun of myself. One year, I did this whole Brad Pitt thing where I lied horizontally on my logo and it said, “Ok, he’s no Brad Pitt, but he sells tons of condos,” and it was kind of like that Burt Reynolds Cosmopolitan shot, but I was making fun of myself. From that came the idea that I would only do these billboards if they were silly. So one day I was driving along on Adelaide street, and I looked down Jarvis and I saw a billboard of the Serta lambs, and I thought, “Oh, they’re kinda cute. I wonder if I could stick my head on that and kinda make light of myself,” but then also have a fairly serious message. The fact you make light of yourself draws attention to the billboard, and then the message gets read.
What would you say your proudest moment has been at your job over the past sixteen years?
The largest project to date that we had been given was the Candy Factory, and it was really a tough, tough project because the previous developer Harry Stinson had it, then his partners took it over and they hired a real estate broker to sell it, and it failed — it didn’t go anywhere — and then they hired us. My company was able to get it started and finished so that the thing actually was a reality, and it didn’t end up being knocked down and turned into some awful other thing that it could’ve been; it ended up being the Candy Factory, which to me is one of the most important buildings in the city for a whole pile of reasons.
What are those reasons?
Well, it opened up Queen Street West. Prior to that, nobody would ever venture past [Trinity] Bellwoods commercially. It was very very hard to make a living west of Bellwoods on Queen Street West.
For commercial properties?
For commercial property, and real estate prices were very low and most people considered that area to be a bad area, and they were wrong. I think that the Candy Factory helped open people’s eyes and show that a lot of people like this neighbourhood and want to invest money in this neighbourhood.
Can you describe to me, then, the perfect condo [building] or loft [building]? Is the Candy Factory it?
No, I don’t think it’s the perfect condo, because I don’t think the Candy Factory is a fantastic representation of that era’s architecture, I just think it’s an iconic building that’s so big and it meant so much to keep it and not have it destroyed. I think the perfect building actually is probably a new building, one that encompasses as much green technology as possible, one that provides stylish, affordable housing to the whole gamut of people who want to get into the real estate market, and, most importantly, one that meets the street and engages the street for pedestrians to be interested by the building, and also one that makes people when they walk by stop and look at and say, “Wow, isn’t that nice? Isn’t that a great looking building?”
So what about the worst possible condo?
Well, there’s a company called Plazacorp that has given the city many examples of the worst kind of condos, so you just have to look at their work to see it. For instance, 18 Stafford and 1000 King Street West [are] just a couple examples of what’s wrong with development today, where a developer hires an inferior architect, and the developer doesn’t have any sensibilities of design or architecture, so they don’t know how to advise their architect in the direction they really want to go…it’s all about cheap, let’s make it cheap, and so they use too many materials and the massing ends up being bad. On a street like King West or any major street in Toronto, it needs to have life on the street, and the worst thing is how [those buildings] treat the street: they just insult pedestrians as they walk by with their bad retail. That’s the worst kind of building.
So what is it about condos that gets such a negative reaction from people — are those kind of buildings the reason why?
Well, I think there’s a few things. I think, number one, big bad buildings, or any bad buildings (and bad to me is bad design and architecture that scare people). I think that what happens from that stuff being done is that it causes irrational thought and irrational behaviour towards anything that is related to it. So someone sees a terrible building in the city that’s forty-five storeys, and it greatly crowds the street and it causes terrible shadows and it’s ugly and the commercial is terrible, and then everybody thinks you can’t do forty-five storey buildings, because forty-five storey buildings are like that, and that’s just not true.
Is there such a thing, then, as too many condos, even if they’re well-designed and meet the street, as you’ve said?
Well, sure. A city has to have responsible planning, so you can’t build condominiums on top of condominiums and create terrible cold chasms of brick and concrete and steel and glass — of course there’s a situation where there can be too many condos. But I can tell you that Toronto has no feeling of density; even our downtown core, even our densest part of the city doesn’t feel dense to me. Chicago and New York and London and Paris feel denser. London and Paris don’t have a lot of high-rises, but they feel a lot darker and a lot denser than Toronto does, so there’s a lot of room for Toronto to grow — a lot of room. We’re nowhere near where we need to be. If anybody thinks that we’re anywhere close to having too many condos, we’re nowhere near to that.
So we need to grow up, then, not out?
We are gonna grow out — there’s no question that that’s going to happen — the question is how do we limit the growth out, and the way we limit the growth out is by growing up.
Photo by *Mute of a Brad J. Lamb development being done at the south-east corner of Portland and Richmond.
Why do you think more than other real estate agents or condo developers, you and your firm in particular have seemed to attract the greatest amount of negative attention?
Well, ok. I don’t think we attract a lot of negative attention, I think that I have attracted some negative attention, but I think it’s greatly over-shadowed by the amount of phenomenally great positive attention we get. I would say that I would love for everybody to find me…I would love for everybody to like me…[Lamb laughs and corrects himself]…I don’t really care, but what I mean is I would rather have people like me than not like me, and I think it would be great if everyone thought everything I said was the direction to flow in and that everybody loved what I did and that everybody thought that I was a personable fine young man. But the great thing about the world is that everybody has a right to their own opinion, and I’m not gonna be a hundred out of a hundred — there’s no way I can bat a hundred out of a hundred with everybody. Some people aren’t going to like me because they don’t like the way I look; or they make assumptions about how I am or they misinterpret something I say; or they hear something, a third-party hearsay comment, and I have no control over that. But I would say this: for what we do in this city, we’re really good at this, and the only mistake that I’m making is that I give a shit about our clients and I give a shit about what we’ve put out in the marketplace and I really care about how our clients are treated by other people and by this office. And if that means that people aren’t gonna like me, I can live with that.
So your firm is definitely — I don’t want to use the word “cutthroat” — but your firm is very competitive with the other firms in the city…
Well, we’re no more competitive than any other real estate office. We’re not. But here’s the things we are: we’re better, and the reason why we’re better is because I’m better. Before I became a real estate broker, I was the top real estate agent or one of the very few top agents in the city, the country, and in North America, and so I have taken what I know about selling real estate and I have taught sixteen people a lot of that, and so they’re very very good. When you go into most real estate offices, like a RE/MAX, you’re gonna have two hundred people, there are some RE/MAXes that have four hundred people —
Four hundred agents?
Four hundred agents. I have sixteen, and myself. And look at all the noise we make with sixteen and myself. So there’s lots of offices that have hundreds of agents, and in that group of hundreds of agents, there’s like five or six that are useful and the rest just kinda make a living, you know? They don’t do anything in the way of big numbers, but they fact they are a big number in terms of the number of people [means that] they make a big noise with that. But I didn’t want to have guys hanging around sipping coffee and complaining about how bad things are, I want guys out there saying how great things are, because people want to be around positive people. So I’ve hired people that would listen to me, and adopt my selling thought patterns and my systemology and [though] they’re not me, they’d be doing their best to do what I did or do. And so, we’re not cutthroat, we’re extremely ethical. I have never once been fined for unethical behaviour. I’ve been to the Toronto Real Estate Board for unethical behaviour, where someone has brought me up for it, and I’ve never ever once been charged with it, because we’re not unethical. But we’re very very good, and what happens in this business is that it’s very competitive, and when people lose, they don’t look to themselves to see how they could have won, they look to the victor and say, “Oh, well that’s not fair because…” And the truth is that every tool we use to win is above board and ethical and honest, but we’re just really good at what we do.
Have you ever received a legitimate complaint about an agent? I know, for example, that there’s the Tony Walsh story…[Walsh complained that one of Lamb’s agents, Robin Pope, acted “discourteously” towards him and got into the building that Walsh was a resident of without a proper key]
The Tony Walsh complaint is not legitimate; it’s silly. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have sent anything [Lamb’s response to Walsh’s complaint was a simple and dismissive “I suggest you find a better thing to do with your time than this”]. If I had sent no comment back, there’d be no [site], and the whole thing would’ve been over, right? I probably shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t resist it; it just seemed [laughs] to be too inviting to not comment on. But I do get people who complain about all kinds of things. Just the other day, I was in small claims court, where a client from four years ago was suing me personally for something that he thought I had done, and it was the most absurd thing, and for three years — it took three years to finally get to small claims court — it was dismissed in ten minutes. The judge was like, “Why is Mr. Lamb here? Why are you wasting his time? He has done nothing wrong here. What is your exact complaint with him?” What happens is that you do a lot of business, you’re out there talking to people, and there’s all sorts of people out there — and, by the way, there are crazy people out there, and crazy people buy real estate. And so, when I get a complaint from a customer about something that’s going on in this office, I listen to what they have to complain about, and, if it’s a legitimate complaint — because everybody makes mistakes including me and including my agents — I am all over my staff. I really cut them a new asshole. I’m tough on my people here to not do that sort of thing. But if the client is wrong, I will pull no punches and say, “You are incorrect.”
Just like the response to Tony Walsh, which was pretty matter-of-fact…
Tony Walsh was correct in that Robin Pope in that situation should have gone back, got the keys from wherever they were, and done it the way that Tony Walsh wanted as a resident of the building to do, and I would agree with him that that’s right, but it’s like, come on, cut some slack. What harm was really done here? It was an overreaction. But, he was right; frankly Robin shouldn’t have [asked Walsh if he was the building’s “watchdog”], and I shouldn’t have sent that response, and, you know, next time, by the way, it wouldn’t happen.
Photo (“urban irony”) by Life in a Lens from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
What did you think of Owen Pallett’s song “This Lamb Sells Condos”? Did you take it personally?
Actually, I didn’t know who Owen Pallett was, and I didn’t know anything about Final Fantasy — I didn’t know he existed. And I was told about it [because of the article] on Torontoist, and I went to it, and I looked at it, and I thought “Well, that’s kinda weird,” and I laughed because I thought it was funny. I don’t take myself that seriously, I really don’t, so I laughed about it. There’s a TV show being produced called Big City Broker and they got word of it when they were filming last year…
And this show’s about you?
Yeah, it’s about me and my company and what we do here, and it’s trying to showcase the back end, what really happens in the real estate brokerage business and development business. Incidentally, it airs February 7th on HGTV at 8 o’ clock. And so they did part of the show on this song, and they went and they interviewed Owen Pallett and they asked him a bunch of questions about the song, and then they interviewed me about it. Basically what he said, if I understand, is that it’s not really specifically about Brad, it’s about guys like Brad, and because his boyfriend lived in the same building as me and they had some contact with me of some kind, then I was the character. I guess also that I’ve deliberately put myself in the public’s eye and I am a visible person to attack, so I was the guy that he attacked.
So is there any truth to Pallett’s claim that the lyrics at the end of the song are part of overheard conversations between you and a woman through the walls of his boyfriend’s condo?
Well, I don’t recall any conversations to that effect. I don’t know the lyrics off by heart, but one lyric is alluding to me being impotent, and the other one [pauses]…
I have [the overheard conversation section of the song lyrics here]: “Nothing to do, nothing to do, living rent-free is boring me…got no use for my P.E. degree, got no use for my pedigree…I’m not defensive, I’m just saying this cause I love you…you know I hate it when your friends are in the pool, old money stinks send those faggots back to Forrest Hill…contentment, what’s contentment, I am bald and impotent, is that what it’s about? Oh honey, honey, shut your mouth”…so…
[Lamb pauses, then laughs] I don’t think…ok, I read the song, and I didn’t realize that all that was a dialogue of me talking to my girlfriend. No. That particular apartment that he lived in that was, I believe, below me with about eight inches of concrete, no. I’ve got to say that those comments are not correct…no.
Independent of the [lyrics], did you like the song when you heard it? Did you think it was a good song?
You know, the thing about music and me — and this is kind of me in general — I like stuff and I don’t like stuff. I like people and I don’t like people. It’s not the kind of music I like. But apparently, it’s a good song, apparently it’s a song people like and I think it’s won some awards, it’s just not my kind of music and it doesn’t appeal to me, regardless of the words.
Would you say that any of the negative attention, like [from] Pallett or Walsh — for example, Walsh’s response and that email being the second result [for your name] on Google — has any of that hurt your business whatsoever?
Well, it’s hard to tell because it’s rare that people call you up and say “You know, I was gonna use you, but after I saw this I decided I’m not going to.” But I think that publicity works in two ways: it can hurt you and it can help you. I think that the more people talk about you, the better it is for your business. But I would say that, yeah, there’s probably some people that have seen anything negative about me or anyone else, and decided because of that — rather than check it out themselves and see if it’s legitimate or whether or not the person’s worth doing work with — they make a decision based on that, and they move on. But I would say that those are the type of people that I don’t want to work with and my company doesn’t want to work with.
What vision do you have of what Toronto should be like for the future? It’s developed a lot over the past 10, 15, 20 years…
Yeah, it’s developed a lot, and it’s developed badly. What I would like to see is Toronto grow in a responsible manner downtown. I’d like us to curb the proliferation of the awful suburbs that surround the city: I think we need to hold a bigger stick to prevent people from building awful, repetitive, mundane structures in the suburbs, and I think in the city we need to be able to have another level of governance on architecture and design. I think Toronto can be one of the most beautiful modern cities in the world. I still believe there’s enough empty real estate and enough time to really make this city a showcase. But time is running out: in another five years it will be too late.
What do you think should happen to those suburbs? It’s kind of a weird thing in that they’ve been created solely for the purpose of having those kind of cookie-cutter homes…
Well they’ve been created because there’s been a need for Europeans — this country is a European colony — to have a patch of grass, so the suburbs existed, initially, solely for the purpose of getting out of the city and getting a little patch of grass, because you couldn’t have it in the city. And so, the cheapest most affordable way of doing it is the way they’ve been doing it. But it’s irresponsible: it puts a huge strain on the environment and the land and the resources that the city provides to those developments. We need to take a look at whether or not people need to live in two or three or four thousand-square-foot houses, and we need to take a look at how much land people can have around their house, and we need to look at, from a visual standpoint, how we want to create those high-density suburbs so that they’re not appalling.
Photos of three Lamb developments, from top to bottom: Mozo, Radio City, and East Market.
You mentioned environmental friendliness…how are your condos more environmentally friendly than others [from other companies] that are made?
Well, unfortunately, up until very recently, it’s been very difficult to get consumers to pay. We would sit around and we would talk about providing green roofs, and, for instance, a very simple thing [like] providing a mechanism in the exit stairs to turn the lights off when the door closes and turn them on when the door opens so that the lights weren’t on all the time, to save a lot of energy. Similarly, with light bulbs in the hallways and so on and forth, [and] high efficiency heating and air conditioning systems…these are all things that we’ve all talked about doing, and in some cases tried, and in the past consumers would not be willing to pay more for it. The bottom line is, no matter how you slice it, green is gonna cost green, so in the past I never put my foot down to force the issue and try to make people do it, and now this company is going to push very very hard for our developer clients to do it, and to market that we’re doing it and to get people excited about it. And for projects that I am personally putting my own money into and co-developing, it will be one of the things that has to happen or else we’re not going to get involved with our money. Lamb Development Corp. just purchased a large parcel of land just outside of Toronto on a lake, and we’re going to create the country’s first modern green development. You can live there year round, or it can be a vacation home, and in every way we’re going to be sensitive on the environment. We’re investigating all types of energy creation, we’re investigating all types of passive heating systems, and trying to retain as many trees as possible, and a whole pile of different things. This is going to be an impetus for growth in the future for us; we’re going to want to adopt all the things we learn now, and integrate them into developments in the future. But to do this, we’re gonna need the buyers to understand that it’s what we have to do to live on this planet for the future.
Is that what has pushed you and other people towards [environmental friendliness] — that the demand for something like it is rising?
To be honest with you, what’s pushed me towards it is education. I did not fully understand up until about two years ago exactly what we were doing to the planet, and over the last few years I’ve taken a crash course on the environment — not just this, but on all aspects of the environment we live in — and I think every person in the world is gonna have to have an amount of carbon they can use. I drive a Bentley — one of the worst cars you can drive — but I drive probably 5,000 miles a year, and so I can only drive that car if I drove 5,000 miles a year. If I drove 30,000 miles a year, I’d have to get a hybrid. And I think that we’re all going to have to look at this and say…the little things that we have to do to change the strain we’re putting on the environment, we’re going to have to do now.
As for your next project — I imagine you’ve got a lot going on at once — but is the one that you’re most excited about the green property?
We have a bunch of new things. We have a fantastic new property in the Dominican Republic, a huge parcel of land that we’re going to create — it’s all going to be repetitive because they’re all going to be environmentally-friendly developments — but we’re going to create a condominium and villa development there that’s going to be expensive, but it’s going to be green. We have this new one in north Toronto. This is not stuff that I typically do, which is high-rise condos, so that’s very exciting. We have a new development coming up in Philadelphia, which is a gigantic major redevelopment in the downtown core that is going to change how people see Philadelphia. So those are three really exciting things that we’re doing outside Toronto. We’ve been doing work outside of Toronto for years: we’ve been doing work in Ottawa and Montreal and St. Kitts and Turks and Caicos for quite a while.