Recent discussions and real estate developments have once again brought Shmuel Farhi and Farhi Holdings Corporation into the spotlight. I spent some time looking into Farhi's successes and follies while building a visualization tool to help understand how he influences the City of London.
About Shmuel Farhi
Shmuel Farhi is an influential landlord, property manager and investor. His company Farhi Holdings Corp owns commercial and residential properties, many of which are located in London, St.Thomas and Windsor. Below is a CBC profile on Shmuel from a number of years back. You can also read his profile, news articles and other information on his company website.
The Sign of Success
Farhi Holdings Corporation and Shmuel Farhi himself have had a number of successes. Their recent renovation for Voices.com at 100 Dundas St. has allowed Voices.com to keep their large workforce downtown. They purchased Idlewyld Inn & Spa and maintained its operation as restaurant and spa. He is converting the Children's Museum into apartments, once the Museum finds a suitable location that meets their needs.
In my hometown St.Thomas, he has been revitalizing a number of buildings. The one I am most pleased with is the demolition of the burned out Ramada Inn and construction of a new seniors residence. There is also this curious and under-utilized plot of land downtown.
There is no doubt that Shmuel Farhi is thinking ahead of the curve, understanding the intrinsic value that heritage, downtown and waterfront properties provide. Recently, he opened the NASDAQ and hosted dinner for the next Premier of Ontario. His accomplishments are significant but sometimes his business practices conflict with public interest.
The Sign of Vacancies
One Twitter user said he allegedly asked council why the downtown was poorly used, to which the user commented that it must be the vacancies.
Farhi says downtown #LdnOnt is getting worse and wants to know why. I would suggest it may be connected to all the vacant buildings.
— Spencer Sandor (@SpencerSandor) May 3, 2017
These comments are probably related to the high vacancy rate of Farhi's buildings in London's downtown core at Richmond and Dundas. High vacancy rates affect surrounding businesses and the general atmosphere of downtown. Shmuel Farhi provided his perspective in a January interview, he was asked about the high vacancy rates in downtown London and Windsor.
Q: Is your buy-and-hold strategy in London and Windsor hurting those downtowns?
A: ‘Hurting’ the downtown? After I have spent literally tens of millions of dollars buying and maintaining 100 sites in downtown London? And more tens of millions bringing life back to the hotels on Windsor’s Riverside Drive? I don’t think any serious, informed observer would ever make such an ill-founded claim.
Since Farhi has demonstrated an interest in building heritage and capability in their restoration, it seems reasonable to wonder whether there is more incentive to leave commercial buildings empty. In fact, London City Council is considering phasing out the vacant commercial and industrial building tax rebate. They are accepting comments until August 31st, if you wish to learn more. Earlier this year, the government introduced a private members bill to encourage restoring and repurposing heritage buildings, such as London's old library that has sat gutted and vacant for over a decade.
While it probably makes fiscal sense to leave these buildings empty, holding vacant buildings hardly helps the community. There are some suggestions that he may be changing his position on keeping these downtown buildings, as he recently sold several properties to a Real Estate Investment Trust. Our governments can do more to encourage productive building use and discourage neglect.
The Sign of Signs
Back around 2010, Shmuel Farhi blanketed London with giant real estate signage. The nuances of heritage and character were abandoned as he turned London into a city-wide tacky billboard for his company. City council ignored complaints for quite awhile and Farhi ignored requests to take them down voluntarily. When City Council finally began pushing back, he initially fought council's decision and sought various exemptions and concessions.
The banners no longer dominate the London downtown landscape. Most of the large vinyl banners have been replaced with fairly tasteful permanent signage simply bearing the Farhi logo. They are still prominent outside of the city core where you can find transport trailers and barns plastered with them.
Anyone living in London, Ontario or keeping up with its politics knows that there is a lot of discussion surrounding the proposed Bus Rapid Transit project. The most recent public input session was held at Budweiser Gardens. I didn't attend in person but followed some of the discussion over Twitter.
At the public participation meeting regarding the Bus Rapid Transit plan, Farhi warned that 87 out of 94 of his tenants on Richmond Street were preparing to sue if the plan proceeds as-is. Many others were expressing similar concerns about the impact of this controversial construction project. He wasn't unique among the chorus of voices speaking in opposition but his voice carries weight in London and possibly had an effect on the councilors.
Thinking about his statement further, I realized that I didn't really know which properties his company owns. His website has a pretty decent listing of his properties but I quickly found the sheer number of them difficult to visualize. So I went about collecting the addresses, geolocating them and plotting them out on a map so that I could visually understand where the points of contention might be. I have shared that map below.
This data may be inaccurate, out-of-date, incomplete, incorrectly geolocated or erroneous in other ways. It was generated as a visualization aide and shared for discussion and I make no guarantees regarding its accuracy. Any inquiries about properties should be directed to Farhi Holdings Corporation.
The relationship between Shmuel Farhi and the City of London will continue to be complex but there is clearly room for improvement. There is no doubt that Shmuel Farhi has invested a great deal in London, St.Thomas, Windsor and elsewhere. He speaks of London with great pride and his criticisms of city council are often warranted. However, it is difficult to dismiss the vacant and under-occupied buildings in key downtown locations, some of which have been vacant for over a decade.
In 2015, the City of London established The City’s Strategic Plan (PDF), and a component of this plan is the Future City Strategy. The four pillars of the Future City Strategy are: Smart Living, Smart Infrastructure, Smart Economy and Smart Governance. Improving the use of data analytics and quality of public/private partnerships are key factors in making smart governing decisions. The London Plan, approved in 2016, frequently mentions intensification and infill. It is time for London to stop holding onto its dilapidated buildings and move forward with urban regeneration.