Two-storey single-family houses on Tiffany Place
04 . 11 . 2018

Developer Bill Teron helped shape postwar Ottawa

AUTHOR Alex Bozikovic

Bill Teron was born into a family of carpenters, and he spent his life as a builder: shaping suburban Ottawa, as well as Toronto and Vancouver’s waterfronts and structures around the world.

Mr. Teron, who died of natural causes on March 12 at the age of 85, was the founder of Teron International, a development and building technology company that worked around the world. But he was best known for his work in Ottawa: Along with Robert Campeau and the Greenberg family, he was among the leading builders of postwar Ottawa – and an advocate for thoughtful planning and good design, dedicated to building good places and communities.

Dorothy Wigmore moved into the first house completed in the Qualicum neighbourhood of Nepean, a house that Mr. Teron completed for her parents, in 1961. She remembers the builder visiting with her family: “He was quite hands-on, in my 10-year-old’s memory,” she says. “He insisted on a cedar shingle roof, to show off the material’s possibilities, and didn’t charge extra for it.”

 But Mr. Teron was particularly adamant about trees: “Like the [neighbours,] we had to plant a red maple in the front yard near the road,” Ms. Wigmore says. “He also kept the old farm trees along Graham Creek, which went through our backyard. They were the homes for lots of birds and animals, including three raccoons we adopted one summer.”

This attention to detail, and to the entire picture of building and landscape, paid off through the lives of clients such as Ms. Wigmore’s parents. “He was absolutely a detail person, and he insisted on quality,” says Mr. Teron’s son Chris, who worked alongside him for 40 years. “He had to make his homes cost-competitive, but he absolutely believed that good design didn’t have to cost more.”

 Mr. Teron inherited his talent for making things and making them well. He was born Wasyl Teron in Gardenton, Man., a small village south of Winnipeg, on Nov. 15, 1932. His grandparents on both sides were from Bukovina, now part of western Ukraine, and immigrated to Manitoba in the 1890s with their families.

His great-grandfather, Wasyl Kekot, a carpenter, was credited with leading the construction of the St. Michael’s Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church in Gardenton, along with his son-in-law Onufry Tyron. Young Wasyl, who became Bill, learned carpentry from his grandfather Onufry and his other grandfather Wasyl Sandul. Yet Bill also learned from his father that “while carpentry is good, the people who get the real credit are those who design the buildings,” Chris Teron recalls.

In high school in Winnipeg, where his family had moved, Bill showed himself an excellent draftsman. He entered a national competition in 1951, and won the prize: a job as a draftsman for the federal government. Only 18, he made the move to the nation’s capital.

This was where Mr. Teron would build his future. His initial job in the civil service didn’t last long; his salary, his son says, wasn’t enough to pay the bills. Mr. Teron moved to a job with a home builder, Charles Johannsen, and soon clients were asking Mr. Teron to design their homes for them. He did, and entered a business in which he would be highly successful.

Ottawa was rapidly expanding, and Mr. Teron saw opportunities, first in Qualicum, on the edge of Nepean, and then outside the region’s greenbelt in what would become Kanata. Here he had the opportunity to articulate a big vision of “a complete community,” his son says. This was in keeping with the planning theory of the period; and when real estate developers followed planners’ precepts of mixed-use and mixed-income “villages,” as in Toronto’s Don Mills, the results were successful.

Mr. Teron tried. “When he set out to build Kanata,” Chris Teron says, “he set out that it would not be simply a bedroom community, but would have as many jobs as people.” This was the impetus for the Kanata Business Centre, which became a hub for the region’s tech industry.

Mr. Teron’s vision for Kanata would not be fully executed. The rest of Kanata – and later Ottawa suburbs – were largely built out as bedroom communities.

Mr. Teron’s vision for Kanata would not be fully executed. The rest of Kanata – and later Ottawa suburbs – were largely built out as bedroom communities.

Mr. Teron’s home life during this period echoed that of many of his home buyers. In 1955 he married Jean Woodwark, and the first two of their children, son Chris and daughter Kim, were born in 1957 and 1959. Two more sons, Bruce and Will, would follow exactly a decade after their siblings. They were “a very, very close-knit family,” Chris Teron recalls, growing up in a neighbourhood that the elder Mr. Teron had developed in Qualicum. Chris and Kim would go on to work with their father until his death.

But first Mr. Teron would go into the public sector, accepting a position from Pierre Trudeau’s government as head of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., a position he held from 1973 to 1979. This was a tumultuous period at CMHC, when a crowd of younger bureaucrats tried, as one told a reporter in 1973, “to turn this damned corporation around from being a banking institution into something else.” That meant constructing social housing, including for Inuit and other Indigenous people. “He was a change agent,” says Karen Kinsley, who worked with Mr. Teron before going on to head CMHC herself.

Also in the 1970s, Mr. Teron came to play an important role in Toronto’s history. He assembled land along the city’s old port lands, which were being superseded by new larger facilities; the old buildings and lands seemed ripe for redevelopment. But Mr. Teron had a bigger vision for the land, as a public park. “He saw the magic of the waterfront city,” Chris Teron says.

Bill Teron agreed to sell the land to the federal government at cost. “And the Liberal government of the day announced the establishment of Harbourfront,” recalls David Crombie, Toronto’s mayor from 1972 to 1978. “That was possible because he’d assembled it.”

Mr. Crombie recalls Mr. Teron in this period as a force. “He understood real estate and he understood development,” Mr. Crombie says, “and he had lots of youthful energy. I’m not short on energy myself, and after I spoke with him I always felt like I’d been gassed.

“Bill never had small visions,” Mr. Crombie added. “‘Let’s do the big thing and let’s do it well.’ That was his stock in trade.”

At CMHC he introduced programs to stimulate home ownership and to support rental housing. “Affordability was very important to him,” Ms. Kinsley adds. “And his vision in that respect is very relevant today.”

Mr. Teron’s vision extended beyond housing. A series of CMHC’s “Demonstration Projects” showed how central cities might be adapted as their industrial economies shifted; under Mr. Teron, CMHC drove the creation of Vancouver’s Granville Island as a cultural and recreation centre.

Mr. Teron’s ambitions for large projects never went away. In the 1980s and 1990s he continued to advocate for his vision to bury Toronto’s waterfront Gardiner Expressway under nearby Lake Ontario, thereby remaking the waterfront area. He also worked with then Paris mayor Jacques Chirac on a plan to bury part of the Périphérique expressway “and on top of that expressway build parks and new buildings,” Chris Teron recalls. Neither idea was executed in the end.

While out of government in the 1980s, Mr. Teron went back full-bore into the development business, and spent much of his energy on research and development. His companies developed a modular building system to improve efficiency and speed. These began as U-shaped concrete modules that could be arranged to form the interior walls of houses, containing within them such elements as cabinets or bathtubs. Larger variations on this system were used to build industrial buildings, including a large factory for Bell Helicopter in Montreal and a hotel near Toronto. In the later 1980s, Mr. Teron moved himself and the company’s headquarters to Toronto, constructing office, condominium and hotel projects in the region during the era’s real estate boom.

In later life, Mr. Teron never fully retired, though he received the Jane Jacobs Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Urban Institute in 2013. He had also been named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1982.

Family and work were linked for Mr. Teron, just as they had been for his ancestors. While his two younger sons went on to professional success outside of Ottawa, his older two children worked with him from their teen years until the end. “My mother always complained that we got to have lunch with him five days a week,” Chris Teron says. But “it was always a pleasure.”

“All his work was motivated by a grand vision. And that never went away.”

Mr. Teron leaves his wife, Jean; his four children and seven grandchildren.