Embattled condo developer Thomas Liu of the LeMine Investment Group suffered another setback Friday when a Superior Court judge ruled against him in his legal battle with the Town of Ajax.
Justice Anne Mullins found the town was entitled to repurchase the land it had transferred to Liu’s company because he failed to begin construction of his proposed development by July 15, 2017, as spelled out in their agreement.
The land was slated to be the location of Central Park Ajax, a 410-unit condo project that opened to a frenzied sellout in the spring of 2016. The condo tower was supposed to usher in the revitalization of downtown.
Liu said Friday he plans to appeal the decision. “It appears to be errors of law,” he wrote in an email.
Liu and his company were the subject of a Star investigation published online Thursday that found the 35-year-old’s ambitious ideas outstripped his abilities, that he relied on slick marketing to project credibility despite his lack of experience, and that he has failed to deliver high-profile projects. Liu, who is embroiled in 14 different lawsuits, is also the developer of The Academy, a Scarborough condo project that sold out in 2014 and has yet to break ground. Liu said that development is “stuck,” but it is not cancelled.
Twelve condo projects — with a combined 5,625 units — have been canceled in the Toronto area since the beginning of last year, according to market research company Urbanation. Barring a successful appeal from Liu, Central Park Ajax will join that list. The spate of high-profile cancellations — including two major projects in Vaughan in the last six months — have sparked concern over whether there are sufficient protections for buyers, many of whom are priced out of the market by the time their deposits are returned.
On Thursday, the CEO of Ontario’s home warranty program told the Star it’s time the province looks at upgrading protections and transparency for pre-construction homebuyers.
In the case of Central Park Ajax, some purchasers have already pulled out, paying $423.75 in lawyer fees to get back their deposits, which have not accrued interest. Some of those who have yet to ask for their money back had told the Star they were waiting for the outcome of the court case before making a decision.
“I’m ready to get my money back now,” said Ayesha Karatella, 29 after hearing of Friday’s ruling. “I won’t be waiting around for an appeal.”
Karatella purchased a two-bedroom unit in Central Park Ajax for $336,000 and paid more than $33,000 in deposits. It would have been her first home. She said she “kind of expected” Friday’s decision, but was still disappointed and frustrated by the experience.
Documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests show there were major problems with the development almost as soon as Liu and his company took it over. Liu struggled to secure financing, failed to pay tradespeople, defaulted on the property’s mortgage and let the sales centre fall into disrepair, according to internal staff emails, letters from town lawyers and property records.
Liu sued the town earlier this year for $300 million claiming they did not have the right to repurchase the land and had breached their contract. He alleged the July 15, 2017 deadline was negated because the town had neither accepted nor rejected his revised site plan submission to increase the project from 10 to 12 storeys. The town said Liu never submitted a complete application. Justice Mullins agreed.
While the town’s planners provided comments to Liu about the material he submitted, Justice Mullins wrote, they also made clear what required materials were outstanding. Specifically Liu did not submit “fully realized” roofing plans, a traffic study, as well as environmental approvals.
She also said it was clear Liu was fully aware of the deadline to begin construction. All of the evidence, Mullins wrote, points to “a mutual interpretation” between the two sides that construction was supposed to begin no later than July 15, 2017.
“The Town is pleased with the decision and can now move forward pursuing the revitalization of the Ajax Plaza site,” town spokeswoman Rachael Wraith said in a written statement.
Brendan Kennedy is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Contact him at email@example.com or 416-869-4192. Follow him on Twitter: @BKennedyStar