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Learning from Lisbon

This happened earlier in the week:

And it got me thinking about how much I love Lisbon:

But the important story here is that these tweets made it abundantly clear to me that (1) people from all over want far more from their parks and public spaces and that (2) Lisbon’s kiosks are a truly beloved urban feature.

I’m putting this all out there because I received a ton of inbounds following these tweets, and I would love to find a way to execute on the kiosk idea that I outlined in the above twitter thread. So if you’d like to help, please continue to get in touch.

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SvNSpeaks: How to remove overly prescriptive and rigid development policies

This event poster has reminded me that, every now and then, I probably need to pull out a cooler headshot. In any event, next week I’m going to be a guest on SvNSpeaks, along with John Lorinc, talking about the obstacles that overly prescriptive and rigid development policies are creating for our climate goals. This is obviously a really important topic. Because if we were singularly focused on reducing carbon emissions, we wouldn’t be building the way we are building today.

For more information and to register for the virtual event, click here.

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Autonomous trucks are coming

I hate driving. So I’m looking forward to the day when autonomous vehicles will be able to take me where I need to go, such as out for a late-night poutine.

But as we all know, autonomy has proven to be a trickier problem to solve than most people initially anticipated. Though I do believe that we’re getting there, especially for certain use cases.

The WSJ recently published an interesting article talking about why autonomy is likely to reach the trucking industry well before it reaches general consumers. And that feels right to me:

Here’s the promise of robot trucks: While full self-driving in all conditions is still a pipe dream, engineers seem to be close to achieving it in limited circumstances, such as on highways on clear days. And highway driving, in good weather, happens to be exactly the context in which long-haul trucks operate for a substantial portion of the time.

The article also gets into some of the economic benefits of figuring this all out:

Adding even $20,000 of hardware, in the form of additional sensors and powerful computers, to a long-haul truck is quickly offset by the elimination of labor costs, which typically represent 15% to 20% of the cost of operating a truck. Another big economic impact is that by law a human driving a truck must stop and rest. That means every truck, which can cost between $100,000 and $200,000, is only being used about 30% to 40% of the time. Just running them 24 hours, stopping only for fuel and maintenance, increases their utilization by a factor of two or more.

For the full article, click here (paywall).

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We love you

I was in New York today for meetings. Our office is next to the 9/11 memorial pools and so I walked over with a colleague during lunch. It was my first time visiting the completed memorials and it was hard not to feel things as I stood there watching the water fall into the mysterious squares in the middle of each pool. But even more impactful were the flowers that people have inserted into the various names, and the messages that they have left for their loved ones.

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So how is the Market Street pedestrian-only pilot project going?

A portion of the street that I live on has been thinking about going pedestrian-only for a few years now. Last summer it was pedestrianized for a few weekends. And this summer, it’ll be pedestrianized until, I think, September as part of a more extensive pilot project. These sorts of moves can be controversial and so our usual approach is to ease-in with a pilot project.

When our condominium board sent out a notice about the pilot project, they framed it as a closure to vehicles. But of course, the other way to frame this is that the street is now open to pedestrians. And since I happen to walk this street every day (and oftentimes multiple times a day), I’ve been tweeting out pedestrian usage updates.

Click here to view on Twitter if the embedded tweets below aren’t showing up for you properly. Spoiler: it’s all working according to plan.

Not every street (or area) is necessarily a good candidate for a pedestrian-first focus. But there are many great examples across the city, including Kensington Market and this stretch of Market Street. So let’s start investing in mechanical bollards, as they do in Europe, and make this pilot a permanent fixture.

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Infill balcony housing — an adaptive reuse proposal

Balconies are a never ending debate here in Toronto (and in many other places). In some cities, like New York, they don’t seem to matter for new housing. Residents seem to be generally content without them. But here in Toronto, we have typically included them in new high-rise housing and there has been a lot of debate and criticism around both their utility (high up in buildings) and their impact to overall energy performance.

I have noticed that we are starting to see fewer balconies on new buildings, and I suspect this might increase with the way that costs are right now. And for some people and some (sub)markets, this will be just fine. But I happen to be a huge fan of outside. As my tanned dad likes to say when asked about the value of outdoor spaces in multi-family housing, “you don’t get this dark by staying inside.” He is pretty tanned.

I also believe that great outdoor spaces are an important ingredient in shaking off the deep-rooted cultural biases that this city has toward low-rise housing. Since pretty much the beginning, low-rises houses with backyards have been seen as noble, whereas apartment buildings have been viewed as disease-breeding tenements liable to morally corrupt even the best of intentions.

This is one of the reasons why we created the two-storey House Collection of suites at Junction House and why One Delisle is almost entirely formed by its outdoor spaces (both balconies and terraces). We wanted to celebrate multi-family living.

At the same time, I really like this adaptive reuse proposal by Peter Song over at BDP Quadrangle. The idea is to allow people to infill their balconies with more interior space so that our existing stock of housing can become more flexible for growing families and for when people’s lives just generally change.

The balcony offers extra space for children to play, and parents to work. ©Peter Song

It would be a great way to capture additional space within our existing stock of buildings, and I think it would be pretty interesting to see what people ultimately choose when given a binary option: more interior space or more outdoor space. Maybe it would help provide some clarity to the great balcony debate.

Technically, it is my understanding that this is entirely doable.

In the middle of writing this post I shot an email over to one of the best structural engineers in the city (James Cranford, Principal at Stephenson Engineering), and he confirmed that strength is no problem. Typically balconies are designed to accommodate more load than the suites. The thing we’d have to look at is slab deflection, since this is not usually limited on balconies.

The greater challenge is likely to be the overall coordination.

In some cities this sort of thing happens all the time on an ad hoc basis. People just do it and the end result is likely more functional, but the building elevations end up looking pretty schizophrenic. Here you’d need each condominium corporation to bless the change (since the envelope is a common element). And people would also need to agree on what design(s) should be used across the building.

It would require some work, but I think Peter’s idea is a really good one. What do you think?

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The cost floor

Generally speaking, the cost of building a new building is always going up. There are moments in time, like during a recession, where costs might temporarily correct downward. But generally speaking, there is a cost floor that is constantly rising. This includes everything from hard costs to rising development charges.

We have spoken before about how developers typically look at their costs, and then price accordingly through “cost-plus pricing.” Put differently, it is answering the question, “what do I need to rent or sell this space for in order to cover all of these projected costs?” This can be tricky when costs are all over the place, as they are right now with double percentage point swings, but that’s a different conversation.

As long as there remains some price elasticity in the market, cost-plus pricing can work just fine. Costs are up, but I’m just going to increase pricing to absorb most of it, or in some cases all of it. However, problems occur when and where you can’t increase pricing. Maybe it’s in a marginal area where rents aren’t increasing. Or maybe interest rates are rising and overall price elasticity is tightening.

Whatever the case may be, in this scenario, it likely means that development will stop and supply will slow or possibly even shut off. We are starting to see some evidence of this happening in Toronto right now.

But if the fundamentals of the overall market remain strong, this should only be a short-term problem. Eventually the market will catch up (through higher pricing and/or some reduced costs), and then projects will return to being feasible. But if there’s a structural problem in the market, maybe development never returns without some kind of subsidies.

Thankfully, it is obvious to most that markets like Toronto have incredibly strong fundamentals. We can screw up a lot of things as long as we remain open to smart immigrants from around the world. This makes it fairly easy to have conviction around what will happen over the longer term. And this is generally how I like to make decisions, whether we’re talking about real estate or crypto (see above tweet).

But all of this doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t also be managing the short run.

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Looking south toward High Park

What a beautiful day in Toronto. I love the heat.

I took the above photo this morning from the 7th floor of Junction House. It is a view south toward High Park. More specifically though, it is the view from the second and upper floor of what will ultimately become suite 607 (a suite that happens to be still available for sale).

Now that the building is almost topped out, I’m planning to run through a bunch of the suites with my camera and photograph all of the different views. I don’t think I’ve seen something like this done before and I think it could be a pretty cool little photography project.

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Ground, broken

Buildings take a long time. Slate started investing in the Yonge & St. Clair area in 2013 and we acquired the first parcel for One Delisle in 2015. And here we are now in 2022. When it’s all said and done, it’ll be over a decade.

So it’s important to celebrate the milestones when you can, and we did that today with the official ground breaking event for One Delisle. It takes an army of smart and dedicated minds to realize a project like this, so a huge thanks to everyone involved. You know who you are.

Today was a real milestone. But I’m looking forward to concocting some others so that we have more reasons to celebrate as we complete this very rewarding marathon.

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Small-scale retail is set to return to Toronto

Progress is happening slowly but surely.

Over the years we have spoken a few times about this nice little coffee shop on Shaw Street here in Toronto. It is a good looking and widely visited coffee shop that has made many guest appearances on urbanist Twitter.

The problem, though, is that it was a real battle to get it approved, thanks to the opposition of a single neighbor. That’s all it takes to hold up a new project. In this case it was a coffee shop. But it could also be thousands of new homes.

But that was then. Today if you look on the City of Toronto’s website you’ll actually see this exact coffee shop on a page that speaks to the benefits and the historic role of small-scale retail, service, and office uses.

Right now these uses are only permitted in low-rise neighborhoods on major streets and through an amendment to the Zoning By-Law (unless the nonconforming use already exists). This is a lot of unnecessary work (see above) and it has translated into a steady decline in these sorts of uses across the city.

Thankfully, the city is now looking to change this and permit these uses on an as-of-right basis. So it looks like the good fight was worth it.

For more info, head over here. And if you’d like to attend the public meeting to talk about how brilliant this is, you can do that on July 5 over at City Hall.