Windsor downtown snapped up by Shmuel Farhi.
By Dave Battagello, The Windsor Star August 24, 2010

Photograph by: Nick Brancaccio, The Windsor Star
Property on both sides of Janette Avenue at Riverside Drive West has been acquired by Shmuel Farhi.

WINDSOR, Ont. — London developer Shmuel Farhi has expanded his downtown land holdings, securing two prime riverfront properties.

Farhi Holdings has completed a $1.4-million deal to buy two half-acre sites on the east and west corners on Janette Avenue and Riverside Drive West.

Each property is zoned for mixed residential and commercial use, with permission to build up to 26 storeys.

"We are basically moving forward with our plan to develop the unique part of the city," Farhi said Monday. "This is part of a much larger plan and purchase.

"I don't come to Windsor to build a coffee shop. I come there to build and transform this great city that was hit so hard by the economic meltdown. I hope my vision for this part of town will be sooner rather than later."

Farhi said he would like to see fruition of the city's canal plan or construction of a marina in that area, but hinted that of greater importance would be expansion by either St. Clair College or the University of Windsor into the city's core.

Mayor Eddie Francis and council have for months been working with the two local post-secondary institutions and private landowners in a bid to bring more students downtown.

"We have to do something to bring people -- more white-collar jobs, those who stay after 6 p.m. and reside down there," Farhi said. "No community can exist if downtown has the perception it's not safe and healthy.

"With post-secondary education -- the college and university -- you move a mass of students."

Hundreds of students attend classes in the riverfront St. Clair Centre for the Arts -- the former Cleary International Centre -- and starting this fall dozens more will attend the college's new mediaplex in the former Salvation Army building at University Avenue West and Victoria Avenue.

University and college officials have provided few specifics about talks with the city.

"University of Windsor is continuing to explore opportunities to partner with the community to do what is best to revitalize the downtown core," said spokeswoman Holly Ward.

"We are looking at ways to work together to determine whether the university could enhance this important area of the city."

Farhi is a prominent -- and sometimes controversial -- figure in London where he owns 87 downtown sites at last count, including 16 parking lots.

Some political and economic development leaders in London complain about Farhi asserting his will because he owns so much, while others applaud his commitment to the city.

The developer owns four million square feet of office, retail, industrial and residential space in at least 17 municipalities throughout Ontario.

His entry into Windsor's downtown dates back to 2005 when he gained control of riverfront land at the corner of Riverside Drive West and Bruce Avenue valued at about $2 million in a land swap deal with the city that led to the construction of the $72.1-million WFCU Centre.

Farhi bought the former Lear plant land off Lauzon Road, chopped off a third of the property to sell to the city for its arena site and in exchange also received the riverfront land next to the art gallery.

In June, Farhi acquired a 24,000-square-foot, two-storey office building in the 200 block of Pitt Street West connected to the riverfront Radisson hotel. That agreement followed his purchase in late April of the former Bill Docherty-owned parking garage across the street from the office building for $4 million.

Farhi indicated Monday he has reached tentative deals for more property downtown which he will reveal in the coming weeks.

He did not want to discuss any further details about those deals.

"In time you will find out," he said.

Coun. Alan Halberstadt said he was aware of Farhi's recent downtown land purchase, but not of specifics regarding plans.

"I would certainly welcome redevelopment in the area -- it's been dormant," he said. "But not seeing his plans and how much it may impact city taxpayers, it's hard to make a judgment.

"I know he has had some struggles in London because I've talked to people with the BIA there. Perhaps that happens when one individual gets a monopoly of land and sometimes can dictate how a city or downtown develops. But that's premature here."

Coun. Ron Jones represents the ward where Farhi purchased the riverfront land.

"Certainly he has a track record for development and it will be interesting to see what he has planned for the area," he said.

"I'd be interested to hear anything that brings people downtown."

Real estate agent Greg Barlow, who brokered the latest Farhi transaction, said the developer purchased the lands from a local family which held the two properties for over 20 years.

The lands have remained vacant for decades, although in 2003 a 32-storey condominium-hotel development was pitched for the site by a group of Michigan investors.

The plan was killed by city officials after neighbouring property owners in the Waterpark condominium complained of such a large structure obstructing their riverfront view and being in such close proximity.

Farhi did soil testing and core sampling before completing the deal, Barlow said. The deal closed on July 30. The real estate agent was not made privy to any specific plans Farhi has for the properties, he said.

RIVERFRONT TENANT

Real estate agent Greg Barlow also provided an update on the Investors Group move into the former Canderel Building at 1 Riverside Dr. W.

The firm has already moved staff from its Temple Drive location into the building's fifth floor, where it is occupying 5,000 square feet. Investors Group will not move into the first-floor riverfront storefront location next to the Keg Restaurant until August 2012 when its lease on Temple expires.

The firm has a 10-year commitment to the location where it will occupy 10,000 square feet of the available 28,000 square feet of the building's ground floor.