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photography by Sofie Kirk

Want to know the value of your home? Of course you do. Everyone in Toronto does. Where you live, what you own, what you do. It’s how Torontonians size each other up. 

But Professor James McKellar would go a step further. He’d ask about your lot size and location, to him the true marker of soaring real estate prices in the city. 

“It’s not the house people are buying,” McKellar says assuredly. “It’s the land and where it is.” 

As the former director of the Brookfield Centre in Real Estate & Infrastructure at York University’s Schulich School of Business, he should know. 

An urban expert with graduate degrees in both city planning and architecture, on top of professional experience as a home builder and consultant in Canada, Japan, Poland and Russia, McKellar has spent a lifetime ruminating on cities – how they function, flourish and even frustrate. 

His experience is vast, nurtured first in the hallowed halls of academe and then sharpened on the streets in cities around the world. His mentors include Louis Kahn, the so-called poet of modernist urban design whose architectural drawings are housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. McKellar also studied with Edmund Bacon, the celebrated urban planner known as “the Father of Modern Philadelphia” (and patriarch of a famous Hollywood actor son). 

Both teachers inspired McKellar to become an academic himself. 

After founding the first real estate program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston in 1984, McKellar caught the attention of Schulich Dean Dezsö J. Horváth who recruited him for York University in 1991. 

“People asked me, why would I leave MIT for a university that many of my colleagues at the time had never heard of,” McKellar says. “But I saw opportunity.” 

One of the first things he did at York was establish an MBA specialization in real estate, and then infrastructure, to which recently was added a 12-month full-time Master of Real Estate & Infrastructure program, the first graduate degree program in Canada offering a combination of courses in both real estate and infrastructure. 

“City building is really the combination of two things: infrastructure and development. In other words, you can’t have real estate without infrastructure. Those are the two essential building blocks,” McKellar explains. “We write and talk a lot about real estate, but I don’t think we know a lot about infrastructure. People think of sewers and pipes and all of that. But that’s not my interest.”

His area of study more concerns a select group of cities that he identifies as being the engines for economic growth in North America – Toronto, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta. They are all different, McKellar observes. But what they have in common is that they have done very well for themselves despite the absence of any kind of professional guidance. 

“They are doing well not because of good planning. They are doing well not because of good zoning. They are doing well not because of good transportation or good social housing policies. They’ve managed to do well in a much more organic way, which is fascinating because you have all these city planners, with their regulations and processes, but all you have to do is look at what the cost of a square foot of land is. That’ll tell you everything. Because land is a fixed commodity. We don’t make land. And so, for every square foot of land, everyone’s competing for it. And that is a telling fact of today’s cities.”  ■

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