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How a women-led real estate team is building a better condo in Toronto

Reina’s detail-oriented design process aims to create a new model for the real estate industry

The Reina development team: Jane Almey (Bluescape Construction); Heather Rolleston (Quadrangle); Nataliya Tkach (EXP); Emily Reisman (Urban Strategies); Sherry Larjani (Spotlight Development); Taya Cook (Urban Capital); Stacy Meek (EXP); Fatima Shakil (Adjeleian Allen Rubeli); Tara Chisholm (WSP Group); Fung Lee (PMA Landscape Architects); Lisa Spensieri (Quadrangle); and, ManLing Lau (MarketVision Research).
Riley Stewart Photography

When she saw an article in Toronto Life magazine last year titled “The Kings of Toronto Real Estate,” Taya Cook, director of development at Urban Capital, couldn’t help but notice the focus on 20 Canadian condo titans—all of whom were men.

It was a striking visual representation of her experiences in a male-dominated field. “Where are the queens?” she wondered.

“It was shocking to see it laid out that way, with all men and no women,” she tells Curbed. “I know there are so many women involved in real estate development in Toronto, and we’re often not at the forefront of projects, in leadership positions, or visualized, and I think because of that, a lot of women may not enter into the industry.”

Her answer is Reina (Spanish for “queen”), a new real estate project led by a team of 15 women. Reina is spearheaded by Cook and Sherry Larjani, managing partner at Spotlight Development, the first person Cook reached out to after reading the Toronto Life article. Women will fill every leadership role on the project, from mechanical engineer to architect to sales lead.

“There aren’t many entrepreneurial women coming into the industry on their own,” says Larjani. “No one took me seriously until I bought my first piece of land. We need to give women positive role models and prove that a career in development is a viable path. It’s incumbent upon all of us to change this narrative.”

The planned eight-story, 198-unit family-friendly residential development in Etobicoke, in the western part of the Greater Toronto Area, “will be characterized by the female perspective at every degree, from the street level design to unit layouts,” according to a statement from the team. Cook says that the collaborative way they’re approaching the project—not just saying “we know best” and forcing a vision on the site, but engaging with potential residents—will also lead to a better, smarter space for residents.

An early sketch of the Reina project.
“We know so many more people are living in condominiums now, and there’s really an agreement around the table from all of us to make it the best it can be.”

“I think first of all, this project comes from a different starting point,” says Heather Rolleston, the project architect. “Very quickly, there’s been a conversation about details, and that is quite uncommon for a developer. A number of us have lived in condominiums, we know the bits that frustrate us, and we want to improve them. We know so many more people are living in condominiums now, and there’s really an agreement around the table from all of us to make it the best it can be.”

Those details include more storage space, bedrooms designed specifically for kids, stroller storage for every floor, common spaces and corridors designed for more safety, and even a communal kitchen to allow families to host large gatherings.

“These condo units are built as tight as a drum, with every inch accounted for,” Rolleston says. “It makes a world of difference living in a place that worries about these details doesn’t have these annoying things impact you every day.”

Reina’s project comes at a time when Toronto is both growing denser and taller, with a rapid increase in condo development. At the same time, the city is making strides in designing family-friendly units, including pushing family-first design guidelines.

“I think this approach also attracts investors,” says Cook, “those looking for smart designs that will be appealing to families and increase in value over time.”

The Reina project will include a roughly 6,000-square foot linear park on the southern edge of the site, almost like a pocket park, as well as retail, part of the team’s more holistic approach. Expected to cost $110 million, the project will rise on the site of a recently demolished strip club, the House of Lancaster, on the Queensway, a main road featuring a trolley track on the median. Currently, they plan to begin formal designs in March and break ground the following year.

As part of the project’s commitment to include new perspectives, the development team held their first open house community sessions meant to bring the community into the design and development process. The results of these open, hour-long design discussions will be augmented by results from an online survey.

It’s all part of Reina’s new approach to conceptualizing and constructing new condos for Canadians.

“This is an experiment, and we’re all interested to see how it turns out,” says Rolleston. “I’m also interested in just how many people are interested in talking about an all-female team. I thought we were past that. I hope that when my daughter gets older, this conversation won’t be necessary and people won’t find it so fascinating anymore.”