Jeryl Bier: Why We, Canada sold off four buildings, when things are falling apart

What happened on Wednesday is a classic example of how a rule-bending charity got a badly needed payoff from a University of Toronto tenant who did nothing wrong but, in a rare instance, had…

Jeryl Bier: Why We, Canada sold off four buildings, when things are falling apart

What happened on Wednesday is a classic example of how a rule-bending charity got a badly needed payoff from a University of Toronto tenant who did nothing wrong but, in a rare instance, had the audacity to want to leave a country with a higher standard of living than he could find in Canada.

The charity We, Canada, sold four downtown Toronto office buildings for $36 million to the University of Toronto. Naturally, the tenants, law firm Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, are delighted at the deal.

The Sutherland clients bought the buildings, some of them dating back to the 1960s, three years ago. They had little trouble finding good tenants in the market, in part because rents have been falling lately. The new deal pushes tenants out of the buildings. So Sutherland decided to move downtown to a larger location on the ground floor of the University of Toronto, a quarter of a mile away.

This is where the controversy starts, because university and library assets cannot be sold without approval of the provincial government. Of course, students, and some of the faculty, and some of the board of the university didn’t like it. They were the original sponsors of We, Canada, and see the charity as it should be seen: as a public benefit, not a private asset.

The charity says it took a business approach to the issue. It offered to let Sutherland stay at the ex-students’ older digs in Exchange Place, in exchange for removing some very affordable studio and one-bedroom apartments and replacing them with market rates.

The charity also took out a lot of bad press. It was either a madhouse of half-sack plots, or a grand bid for an exclusive downtown location. Time to go somewhere nice.

Business acumen? No. We, Canada has history on its side. Many people went to law school and worked at law firms in Toronto, but most went to law school and worked on Wall Street in the 1990s. It is now up to the professors to straighten us out.

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