Trump vs. Trump: Inside Toronto's 5-Star Tower Struggle

Monday Apr 18th, 2016



At Trump International Hotel and Tower, the developer is fighting Donald Trump and what it sees as a tainted brand. Trump's management company is not going quietly. 

In a 29th-floor superior room at Toronto's Trump International Hotel and Tower, you can eat Trump-branded chocolate wrapped like a bar of gold. Lounging on your king-sized bed in your Trump robe and Trump slippers, you can browse a moody black-and-white sales advertisement for Trump Residences - the luxury condominiums several floors above - that invites you to "own Toronto's most influential address."

You can telephone your humble servant, the Trump Attache, to inquire about the Trump Experiences touted in a slick bedside brochure, such as the Exhilarating Super Car Experience or the Exclusive Hockey Hall of Fame Tour with Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk.

You can express your displeasure when you learn the Van Riemsdyk Experience is "no longer available" because staff are "curating new Trump Experiences." You can ask how much the tour would have cost, and the Attache will pause politely as though she is checking for you, and then say that she is sorry, she doesn't have that information. 

Beneath the dazzling surface of what is, yes, a very nice hotel, you may find more reality checks. A package of Trump chocolate bars costs more than breakfast. Half of the residential condos at Toronto's "most influential address" remain unsold. James van Riemsdyk has never even hard of the James Van Riemsdyk tour, and - whoops - his name is misspelled in the ad. And behind the scenes, Donald J. Trump is at war with the developer of the tower that bears his name. 

After 15 years of controversy, an investor revolt and now a U.S. Republican leadership campaign that has seen the billionaire businessman morph from bombastic long shot to presidential prospect, Talon International, the property developer, wants to erase his name from the Toronto skyline. They believe Donald Trump has tarnished his brand and the tower that wears it. 

Donald Trump holds no ownership stake in Trump tower. As with many of his hotel-condo projects around the world, he has licensed his brand for a fee. In Toronto, his company also has a long-term contract to manage the building.

Together, Trump and Talon - the company that built and marketed the tower - have faced years of bad press and a lawsuit by buyers who say they were misled by marketing materials. Now they are going after each other.

Trump's hotel management company, anticipating an attempted ousting, filed a motion in December seeking to block Talon from delivering the blow, and threatened to sue the company and the tower condo boards for "hundreds of millions of dollars." Trump argued that it manages the building at a five-star level, and said Talon is the real problem. 

Trump was right, in one sense. Talon does want to cancel its licensing and management agreement, according to documents filed in court and Talon's lawyer. However, Talon says it has every intention of doing so through the proper legal procedure, despite Trump's allegations to the contrary. 

Talon alleges Trump Toronto Hotel Management is not meeting its obligations. In an interview, Talon lawyer Symon Zucker says his clients are "no longer interested in the Trump brand" because Donald is actively diminishing it.

"It's more important for him to be president than run a successful business," Zucker said.

Alan Garten, general counsel at the Trump Organization, called Zucker's comments "baseless and ignorant", and pointed to the many accolades the Toronto hotel has received. The five-diamond rating from AAA. The five-star rating by the Forbes Travel Guide. Named the No. 1 hotel in Canada for 2015 by Conde Nast Traveler. Consistently ranked among the top three hotels in Toronto on TripAdvisor.

Garten took a new swipe at Talon, blaming the developer for problems that have plagued the tower since Trump ceremonially broke ground with Talon executives nine years ago. Garten said Talon has been acting in its own best interest by imposing "unncessary and excessive fees" on unit owners "to make up for the fact that the building was completed behind schedule and grossly over budget."

"At this point, the unit owners, the vast majority of which support Trump's management of the building, have had enough, the lawyer said.

In its December motion, Trump alleged that Talon wants to terminate the agreement in order to orchestrate a bulk sale of "more than 280 hotel and residential units" remaining in the developer's ownership or control. Talon denies all of these claims.

Donald Trump was not available for an interview because he is busy on the campaign trail, according to his lawyer. Trump hasn't spoken to the Star since before 2012, when a journalist who had been reporting on the investor revolt was banned from Trump tower's grand opening. But his confidence doesn't seem to have wavered.

"I don't think there is a hotter brand in the world than the Trump brand," he told Bloomberg in February. 

In that interview, Trump put a different spin on his dispute with Talon. He said his Toronto hotel is "a tremendous success" and that's why the developer wants to sell. "Normally I would let them do that. Maybe I will, maybe I won't," he said. "I'd rather buy it."

The deterioration of the Trump-Talon relationship, which is documented in records filed in Ontario Superior Court, is unfolding like a messy divorce. The outcome will determine whether the Trump name has a place in Toronto.

Trump swoops in.

The tower that stands in a former parking lot at the southeast corner of Bay and Adelaide Sts. wasn't supposed to be a Trump hotel. 

Donald Trump was a surprise addition to the project team when he first came to Toronto in 2001 to trumpet his involvement in a press conference with then-mayor Mel Lastman. Trump had joined forces with the Bowmore Group, a Toronto developer, on a plan to build a five-star hotel-condo that would be a Ritz-Carlton.

As the cameras rolled that day at city hall, Trump boasted that actors Bruce Willis and Sylester Stallone might even buy units. 

"We have a following where if we build something, people sign and they don't even know what I'm building," Trump said.

The project was a big deal for Toronto. The city was becoming a major financial power centre, but it didn't have a five-star hotel. The closest thing was the old Four Seasons, which was dated. It was rumoured that some VIPs would fly in for the day to do business and then leave, not wanting to sleep between four-star sheets.

Leading the development plan for the Bowmore Group was Leib Waldman, a 53-year-old businessman who would quickly turn out to have a padded resume and a checkered past. His partners were surprised to learn, from a Star investigation in 2002, that he had been convicted of bankruptcy fraud and embezzlement in the U.S. in 1995 and had skipped out on his jail term. 

Months after the revelation, the Ritz dropped out. It looked like the idea was dead, but in 2004, Trump was back with a new plan and the project was rebranded Trump International Hotel and Tower Toronto.

By then, the New York real estate mogul's star power had grown. It had been more than a decade since Trump narrowly escaped bankruptcy, rolling loans and packaging debt to salvage his empire. Now he was a reality TV star on The Apprentice, which has premiered on NBC in January. He hosted Saturday Night Live. He grinned from the book cover of Trump: How to Get Rich.

Talon International took over as developer. Company chairman Alex Shnaider, a Russian-Canadian entrepreneur, was a 36-year-old married father with an intriguing story of his own. He had made a fortune in the steel-trading industry. He drove a $400,000 steel-grey Bentley. He bought a Formula One team for $50-million. More recently, he hired Justin Bieber to sing at his daughter's 16th birthday party.

Shnaider and a friend, Val Levitan, formed Talon to develop the Trump project, with Levitan as CEO. It was their first Toronto real estate venture. As owner, Talon would build the 65-storey tower and take charge of marketing and selling its 118 residential units and 261 hotel condos. Trump would lease his name to the project and, once it was built, his company would manage it, running all services and amenities except for parking, food and spa.

Despite alluding to one, Trump made no financial investment. His involvement is limited to the licensing and management agreements.

Talon kicked off sales in late 2004. In a glass-walled office on the future project site, the company marketed two types of luxury units. Investors could purchase hotel condominiums - basically a traditional hotel room with the word "condo" in its name - which would be placed in a profit-earning rental pool to be managed by Trump. Or they could buy residential condominiums, which were permanent homes with kitchens and dining rooms that would sit atop the hotel and see owners benefit from amenities such as the pool and spa.

"That's a typical formula in the marketplace because five-star hotels can't make enough money to stand on their own," said James McKellar, a professor of real estate and infrastructure at York University's Schulich School of Business. "But the developer can sell luxury condos with that hotel name and then use that to offset some of the development costs of the hotel. 

"The decision you make then is you better make sure you've got a good hotel and that that name is a real brand-name that stands up to time."

Shnaider shocked the city with sky-high prices. Condos were to average $800 per square foot, among the most expensive real estate in the country, with starting prices of $1.5-million. Hotel units were selling for upwards of $700,000.

Industry experts were skeptical. The developers were inexperienced, the condo market was softening and the hotel industry was in dire straits in the aftermath of SARS. "They are asking some serious Manhattan-type prices, and as much as we would like to think this is New York, it isn't," housing analyst Will Dunning said at the time. 

After securing $310-million in funding to begin construction, Talon broke ground in the fall of 2007. Trump, Shnaider and Levitan appeared together at a press conference. Grinning, they dug gold-plated shovels into a ceremonial pile of Trump-branded dirt.

Problems followed. Months later, the sub-prime mortgage crisis hit the U.S. and the ripple effects cooled the Toronto housing market. Though Talon had said the tower would be open by 2010, construction dragged on for years. Soon, Trump was no longer the only big-name luxury hotel-condo in town. The Ritz was back with a new developer and location in the Entertainment district. The Four Seasons was building a new hotel in Yorkville, and the Shangri-La has a $400-million project on University Avenue. 

By 2011, with the economy on shaky ground and four luxury hotels slated to open in a single year, analysts questioned whether Toronto could support so many high-end rooms. 

Investor revolt.

On April 16, 2012, a flank of black Cadillac Escalades pulled into the porte-cochere at 325 Bay St. and Donald Trump emerged, chin forward, hair fluorescent, squinting at the cheering crowd. He flashed a bored, tight-lipped smile, waved hello and gave the thumbs-up. Cameras flashed. Trump tower was officially open. 

Trump's entourage moved through the gleaming lobby and rode the elevator to a 10th-floor ballroom, where he stood on a stage flanked by three of his children along with Mayor Rob Ford and Shnaider.

As a triumphant drum-and-horn crescendo boomed from an unseen sound system, four women in thigh-baring dresses walked down the aisle carting gold scissors on cloth-draped platters. They handed them to Trump and his VIPs, who cut clumsily into a long red ribbon rolled out by two white-gloved Toronto police officers. The bigwigs exchanged smiles and handshakes. But behind the scenes, they had a problem. Over the next eight months, dozens of investors - mainly purchasers of the 261 hotel units - would refuse to pay closing costs and assume ownership of their units. 

The panicked buyers were not all the wealthy foreign investors people had imagined. Sarbjit Singh, a 52-year-old father of two and warehouse supervisor from Milton, was making about $55,000 a year and had no investment experience beyond the purchase of his family home when he visited the Talon sales centre in December 2006. He didn't have the $173,400 deposit required to purchase a 571-square-foot hotel unit priced at $869,000, so he borrowed the money from his father, a retired welder, who took out a line of credit on his home. 

Se Na Lee, 43, a homemaker living in Richmond Hill with her husband, Andrew Lee, 46, a mortgage agent, also borrowed money from her parents to put a $171,400 deposit on a 653-square-foot, $857,000 hotel suite.

Lee and Singh were shown marketing materials that projected room rates of $500 to $600 a night and 75% occupancy, or in a worst-case scenario, 55% and still profitable, according to a lawsuit later filed in Ontario Superior Court. Though a disclaimer warned the materials were "not a guaranteed investment program," Talon sales agents assured buyers the Trump brand and "buzz" around the project would lead to success. The buyers said agents told them Trump had mortgage programs with two major lenders, and getting a loan for a minimum 65% of the purchase value wouldn't be a problem.

After the hotel opened in January 2012, Lee and Singh took interim occupancy, which is a temporary phase of possession - a kind of legal limbo - that is standard in the sale of new condos. With a traditional condo, it means a buyer can move in but does not immediately assume ownership. For the Trump hotel unit investors, it meant they would begin paying fees and earning income on their rooms, but Talon wouldn't transfer ownership or request the balance of the purchase price until final closing months later. 

When their first statements arrived during interim occupancy, Lee and Singh were shocked to discover their units were running at a loss, far below the worst-case scenario Talon marketers has predicted, according to their claim. Maintenance fees were higher than anticipated. Occupancy and room rates were much lower. Instead of building a nest egg, they were losing $4,000 to $5,000 a month. 

As Talon gave notice that final closing would take place in November, investors scrambled to find lenders willing to offer a mortgage on the money-losing properties. Many couldn't. Singh and others did not close. Lee was among a minority who paid final costs, and from October 2012 to December 2014, her losses totalled $134,500, according to her claim. 

Toronto lawyer Mitchell Wine represents Singh, Lee and 20 other buyers who in late 2012 sued everyone involved - including Talon, Trump Toronto Hotel Management, as well as Donald Trump, Shnaider and Levitan personally - alleging they were "victims of an investment scheme and conspiracy."

The lawsuit, which sought to cancel the deals and recover losses, alleged that Talon sales agents misled buyers with marketing materials based on "reckless and negligent misrepresentations" and led them to believe they were buying a piece of real estate directly from Donald Trump, who investors alleged was obligated to ensure Talon had "the experience and integrity to develop the Trump Hotel properly."

It also argued that Talon violated an exemption granted by the Ontario Securities Commission in 2004, which had freed the developer from regulations meant to protect rookie investors, with the condition that Talon not provide potential buyers with financial projects. The OSC investigated, but decided not to take action. 

Talon and its executives denied the allegations, arguing that all investments are risky and the purchasers were experiencing an extreme case of buyer's remorse. They filed counterclaims seeking the balance of payment. Talon said the investors weren't amateurs and they were not "buying cupcakes" as Shnaider put it in one interview. 

Trump's lawyer said he "had nothing to do wtih the sales process," but added that the lawsuit appeared to be "a desperate, last-ditch attempt by a small group of buyers to get out of what were clear and unequivocal purchase contracts."

As the case wound its way through the courts, Talon was left with more than 200 of the 261 money-losing hotel suites, and it still held more than half of the 118 residential condos. Levitan resigned and Neil Labatte, a former Fairmont Hotels executive, took over the daunting task of marketing the project. 

Luxury hotel occupancy was hovering at 50 to 60% and amid the glut of new rooms, rates were $300 to $400 a night. Trump tower has PR problems, too. A pane of glass fell from the building during installation, closing a downtown intersection during rush hour. Hotel restaurants were skewered by critics.

Last summer, Superior Court Justice Paul Perell delivered a victory for Trump, Talon and the companies' executives. Perell dismissed the claims of Lee and Singh, whose arguments were presented as test cases representing the group of 22 in a legal fast-tracking process known as summary judgment. Perell agreed that Talon's marketing materials were "deceptive documents," but ruled it wasn't reasonable for the buyers to rely on them and said they did not breach OSC marketing regulations. He said the buyers knew that all investments are risky.

Perell also specifically dismissed allegations that Donald Trump should be held personally responsible, saying the argument was "devoid of any merit." Lawyers for Talon and Trump applauded the ruling. The investors have appealed, and a hearing is set for June. Wine and his clients aren't commenting while the case is before the courts. Shnaider and Labatte refused interview requests, and Zucker, their lawyer, won't speak about the appeal. 

Win or lose, Trump and Talon now have bigger problems. 

Gloves come off for partners.

Bad feelings between Trump and Talon had been silently simmering for years, but the dispute came to a head last spring. 

In April 2015, lawyers for Trump Toronto Hotel Management slapped Talon with a notice of default, unleashing a torrent of complaints on the company. Trump alleged Talon was engaging in a "calculated scheme" to frustrate Trump's management performance by interfering in the building's operation. 

The hotel and residential units at Trump tower each have their own condominium corporations, which are made up of owners. Central to the dispute is the fact that Talon, four years after opening, still holds the majority of hotel units and residential condos in the building. That means the company vote outweighs that of the other owners. 

"Talon has openly stated on numerous occasions that because it owns the majority of units, Talon has the right to do whatever it pleases," Trump alleged in the notice, which was later filed as a court exhibit. 

Trump said it believed the interference was driven by Talon's desire to take over management. The notice ended with a warning: stop meddling or Trump would take legal action, potentially demanding the developer remove Trump branding from the property. 

In a response, Talon laywers denied all allegations, saying the notice was full of inaccuracies and omissions. The real story, according to the developer, is that Talon was forced to become more involved as it became clear the building was being improperly managed. Talon accused Trump management of hiring unqualified staff, not resolving various maintenance issues and failing to produce financial records - issues that came up again when the condo boards fired back at Trump with their own notices of default a few months later. 

Talon lawyers said in response that they believed Trump's ultimate objective is to devalue the tower and purchase it at a discount. The evidence: senior Trump executives had expressed an interest in acquiring the entire project for $100-million, Talon said, and potential investors revealed that Trump employees had been disparaging the project and Talon's handling of it. 

That fall, Talon - as majority owner - initiated a special meeting of the hotel and condo boards, outlining the purpose in a memo: to vote on whether to terminate Trump. Trump took it straight to court, filing a motion in December accusing Talon and the boards of trying to unlawfully end their contract, which is how a private fight became part of the public record. The motion sought to stop Talon from cancelling the management agreement, arguing the company was required to first participate in mediation and arbitration. 

Talon's real motive, Trump and company lawyers alleged, was to sell off its units in a bulk sale to repay "hundred of millions of dollars" owed to banks that funded the development, and then wipe its hands of the project. 

Trump warned that it could sue the condo and hotel boards, including Talon, for "potentially hundreds of millions of dollars" for cancelling the contract. The terms of the management agreement are not public, but according to financial documents disclosed last year by Donald Trump's campaign, Trump Toronto Hotel Management collected $543,094 in fees from Talon over an 18-month period beginning in 2014.

In response, a lawyer for the condo boards said they were only seeking permission from owners to terminate Trump management, not taking immediate steps to do so. Trump and Talon are now in mediation and Trump's motion has been shelved. Talon did not file a response, but in an interview, its lawyer denied Trump's allegations.

"This is not some lawless attempt to get rid of Mr. Trump," Zucker said. "We hope that we can resolve matters." Zucker said the project is a "landmark development" that will continue to experience success once the matter is resolved. 

"The project in Toronto is the unfortunate hostage to events in the United States which are outside of its control," Zucker said.

The controversy that has surrounded Trump tower is unlikely to disappear with Donald on the campaign trail, making headlines with every new pronouncement. Last year, after he made racist statements about Mexican immigrants - calling them "rapists" who are "bringing crime" to America - and proposed blocking all Muslim people from entering the U.S., Toronto turned its anger toward Trump Tower. 

In December, councillor Jos Matlow made a public call for Talon to remove Trump's name from the building, arguing it was a blemish on Toronto's skyline. Lisabeth Pimentel, president of Unite Here Local 75, the union that represents some Trump hotel workers, said hotel staff members "get a lot of questions from customers about Trump," and his positions.

"We shouldn't have to answer for his behaviour," she said. In August, hospitaliity workers staged a demonstration with a mariachi band outside the hotel-condo to protest the Republican candidate's anti-immigration statements. 

Trump's people don't see the damage others believe has been done. 

"The Trump brand is stronger than ever," said Garten, his lawyer. "Not just in Toronto, but throughout Canada." 

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