Sam Mizrahi is making a great city greater with Toronto’s The One

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The question is a simple one: “What makes a city great?” As someone who’s been travelling the world since early childhood, Sam Mizrahi doesn’t lack for answers, but one of them sticks out as particularly insightful.

An easy way to measure the greatness of a place, he suggests, is a blindfold test.

“As soon as the blindfold comes off, you know if you’re in Paris,” Mizrahi offers. “You know if you’re in Milan, you know if you’re in Venice or London. How do you know where you are? Montreal does it with its skyline. In Toronto, you’ve got the CN Tower.”

Known today as one of Toronto’s most successful entrepreneurs, forward-thinking developers, and community-minded philanthropists, Mizrahi is changing the skyline of his home city, drawing on the inspiration of his youth. 

He began collecting passport stamps early. Before he’d even started kindergarten he’d been on family trips through Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

“My father travelled a lot, and he thought that seeing different cultures and experiencing different countries, at any age, created a positive imprint,” Mizrahi recalls. “He worked hard, and wanted to be able to enjoy and visit other places and countries with his family, and always made a point of taking the kids with him.”

Mizrahi was six when his family, then based in Iran, made their first trip to North America in 1976. Montreal—which was hosting the Olympics—was stop number one, and it made an impact that was both immediate and life-changing.

Impressed by the beauty of Canada and the openness, friendliness, and values of its people, the Mizrahis would a year later leave Iran to start a new life in Toronto.

A very young Sam Mizrahi, meanwhile, would, for the first time, have his eyes opened to the power and beauty of architecture.

“The Montreal Olympic Stadium was basically this UFO, saucer-shaped architecture that was just ‘Wow’,” he marvels. “You had that in contrast with old Montreal—nobody had really done that at the time. Today, you can look at the Louvre museum in Paris and see modern and old coming together with the glass. The Montreal Olympic stadium was kind of the first of that.

“Even now when I go to Montreal I still have memories of it as a young boy,” Mizrahi continues. “The imprint it made on me was really the architecture, and how different it was in the landscape, while at the same time looking like it belonged there. It wasn’t out of place, but it was extraordinary.”

On trips that followed, Mizrahi would see, and soak up inspiration from, some of the greatest cities in the world, with Paris and London ranking high on the list of places that opened him up to new ways of looking at things.

While that love of architecture and the way cities look remained deeply ingrained, there were other paths to explore as he got older. While still in high school in his teens, Mizrahi founded a wildly successful consumer-electronics company that sold blank audio cassettes at a time when making Maxell XL-II mixed tapes was a rite of passage for anyone who cared about music. Smart enough to stay ahead of the curve, he sold the business in the ’90s as CDs began to take over the market.

As he was getting his feet wet in the real estate business in the late ’90s, his entrepreneurial spirit kicked in big-time again, leading him to found high-end eco-minded dry-cleaning business Dove Cleaners in California.

Two years later, he brought the business to Canada. Looking back, Mizrahi can see that Dove in some ways helped create a blueprint for the obsessively detail-oriented condominiums that he’s known for building today.

“We changed the industry with what we did in a lot of ways with Dove,” Mizrahi says. “What I’m doing with real estate now—moving boundaries and the details of luxury—trails back to Dove and that perfectionism. Making sure a shirt is pressed right, with no cracked buttons. Stuffing everything with tissue and making it look like a present when you get your clothes back.”

That attention to detail is writ large in The One, an 80-storey skyscraper currently being built by Mizrahi at Toronto’s fabled Yonge and Bloor intersection. Designed by celebrated British architect Norman Foster, the slim, soaring structure with striking exterior latticework is also a labour of love for the man bringing it to Toronto. Famously hands-on and passionate about even the smallest parts of his projects, Mizrahi has involved himself in everything from picking mortar colours to the kind of hinges used on doors.

To get a handle on why The One is so important to him, it helps to back up a bit. Big moments in life have a way of making one stand back and reevaluate things. In 2007 Mizrahi’s life changed in a beautifully monumental way with the birth of his daughter. That spurred him to refocus on things that he’s been inspired by since childhood.

“Going back to the passion of how I felt about becoming a father, that made me realize that I wanted that in my work life,” he recalls. “Real estate development and building these buildings gave me a canvas for doing something that will be here long after I’m gone, and continue to benefit and enrich people’s lives.”

When The One is completed it will not only be the tallest building in Canada but—like the Empire State Building in New York and Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur—a structure that serves as an instant landmark for the blindfold test.

The kind of building that makes great cities even greater. And, which maybe, and importantly, will inspire future generations the way the Montreal’s Olympic Stadium once inspired a young Sam Mizrahi.

“In Toronto, we’ve got the CN Tower, and one of the things that we wanted to do with The One is building a secondary focal point in the Toronto skyline. A building you will see, and identify as Toronto, whether you’ve been there or not.”

Learn more about Mizrahi Developments here.

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