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Time to market and managing costs

If you’re building a purpose-built rental building, you spend nearly all of your money up front and then you start earning revenue (i.e. collecting rent). On the other hand, if you’re building a condominium building in a market that generally relies on pre-sales for construction financing, which is the case here in Toronto, you spend a bit of your money up front, lock in (but not collect) most, if not all, of your project revenue, and then you spend the majority of your money.

(This is obviously a simplification and when I say “spend all of your money” I’m speaking on an unlevered gross basis and not based on equity in. But this nuance doesn’t change the point of this post.)

I have written about the above difference before on the blog, but I think it’s particularly relevant in today’s cost environment. Looking at the construction cost chart that I posted a few days ago, it is clear that a lot of us, myself included, have never had to work and build in an environment like this.

In the past 30 some years, we have never had to deal with construction costs rising as quickly as they are right now. Though I recognize that things did also suck in the early 80s when we had high inflation and double-digit interest rates, and in the early 90s when the real estate sector was particularly hard hit.

In any event, what does this current environment mean for development projects? Well for one, and this is a big one, it means that spending a bit of your money up front and then locking in most of your revenue (i.e. pre-selling condominiums), can present a lot of risks if you don’t have a good handle on how much it’s going to cost you to finish the project. And the reality is that nobody has a crystal ball, especially in this kind of environment.

So in my humble opinion, I think you need to spend a bit more of your money up front. I think it makes sense to spend the time and money on solid working drawings and on running a tight construction procurement process — all before you begin selling.

It used to be the case that many developers would start selling before they even had their zoning in place. That is far less common today (from what I can tell) for reasons like what I’m describing here. Of course, this means it’s going to take you longer to get to market. And time equals more money. But it feels like a necessary move in this environment.

Photo by Matías Santana on Unsplash

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How much money a traffic camera can collect

Most of us are aware that most of our cities have traffic cameras, which are setup to photograph us doing bad things and then to send us bills in the mail. I can’t say I’ve ever wondered how effective these camera systems are or how much they actually collect, but in case you’re curious, here is one example from the City of London.

The camera is setup in the busy Bank Junction, which from 7AM to 7PM on weekdays has been off limit to any vehicles other than buses and cyclists since 2017. If you disobey the restrictions, you’re hit with a £130 penalty, although if you pay within 14 days, the penalty drops to £65.

Between 2019 and 2021 (so during COVID, when traffic volumes were less), total penalties paid were £15.2 million. I don’t know how many people paid on-time or paid late, but based on these numbers, the number of delinquent incidents over the past three 3 years was anywhere from 116k (everybody paid late) to 233k (everybody paid on-time).

I also don’t know how many repeat offenders there where, which is why I said incidents and not drivers, but I’m guessing that there were more than a few repeat offenders. I wonder how many were taxi and Uber drivers.

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Hard costs are insane right now

Marlon Bray over at Altus recently shared the above chart on LinkedIn. Normally I only go on LinkedIn about once every quarter, if that. But thankfully our team likes to follow nerdy charts and so it got circulated around.

The chart is from Statistics Canada (table 18-10-0135-01 to be exact) and what it shows is the % change per annum of their construction price index, going all the way back to 1989. It is good context for the massive cost increases that we are all currently working through.

Increasingly, I think that most people in the industry feel as if we’re now reaching a tipping point. Costs — both hards and softs — cannot continue to go up like this. At some point supply will start to taper off or even shut off. The former has likely already started.

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Disease-breeding tenements

What do you think of this beautiful low-rise apartment building? It is called Spadina Gardens and it was built (allegedly illegally) on Toronto’s Spadina Avenue in 1906, shortly before the City enacted an outright ban on “disease-breeding tenements” (i.e. apartment buildings) in all residential neighborhoods.

This, of course, is a form of exclusionary zoning. Our predecessors had decided that apartments were bad, they promoted disease and immorality, and that they were likely to destroy or at least corrupt Toronto by making it, you know, less waspy.

Important studies are underway here in Toronto, and across North America, to determine whether we should do something about this longstanding city building tradition. Should we allow a mixture of different housing types in our residential neighborhoods, or should we keep things just the way that they are? That being low-rise and single-family.

In the meantime, we are implementing things like inclusionary zoning, which I guess makes some people feel better about themselves and the current state of affairs. But in the end, it sits very much on top of our exclusionary past.

Low-rise single-family home neighborhoods remain off limits. Apartments should only go in select locations (provided they don’t bother the single-family homes). And any efforts to create greater affordability and diversity should only impact the new apartments and not the low-rise single-family homes that already exist.

I would encourage all of you to have a listen to 99% Percent Invisible’s recent episode about Toronto’s “missing middle.” It does a great job explaining why Toronto looks and performs the way that it does today, and why it’s time that we do something about it. It’s also highly relevant to not just Toronto, but many cities across North America.

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A flexible parkade in Calgary

As a general rule, I believe that our cities should be striving for less rather than more parking. Which is why it still baffles me when allegedly progressive cities continue to mandate ludicrous parking ratios (even when the sites are next to transit). You know who you are.

But if you absolutely have to build it, the new 9th Avenue Parkade + Innovation Centre in Calgary is a good example to look to.

Designed by 5468796 Architecture in collaboration with Kasian Architecture, Interior Design and Planning, the project does all of the things to ensure that it doesn’t look ugly today and it doesn’t need to remain a parkade in the future once we all switch over to electric scooters and flying autonomous vehicles.

Some of the moves include 4m floor-to-floor heights and generally flat floor slabs that only rise 1-2%. This was done so that the floors can be more easily retrofitted to residential and/or office in the future.

And in fact, this flexibility already gotten proven out during the design process. Originally the ~335,000 square foot building was going to be entirely parking. But then an innovation centre called Platform came to the table for 50,000 sf, and a portion of the building had to be converted to flexible office space.

Let’s hope this trend continues. But in the meantime, here are some pretty pictures:

All photos by James Brittain.

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State of Crypto

Everybody wishes that they bought companies like Amazon way back when they first went public, and then held them until today. If you did that, you would of course now be rich. But what would you have had to deal with along the way?

Well, for one, you would have had to stomach an 80% decline in its share price when the dot-com bubble burst. And so while hindsight is always 20-20, do you really think that, faced with this cliff, you would have held on, not freaked out, and not sold? Yeah, who knows.

Moving to today and the crypto space, the price of Ether is down 51% over the last 6 months. That’s not quite 80%, but 51% is still a big number, especially if you dumped all of your savings into it and/or borrowed money to do so.

But does this decline really mean that crypto is rat poison?

Last year when the market cap of crypto was rising, I believed that crypto had the potential to become the next big thing for the internet. And I still believe that today, which is why I continue to dollar cost average and why I continue to collect NFTs that I like.

I may be wrong with the conviction I have (and this post will serve as permanent evidence of it), but it’s what I believe. And my conviction doesn’t depend on today’s price. It depends on what I think it could happen with crypto in the next 10 years.

So with that, here is an interesting “State of Crypto” report that venture firm a16z just published. I think the key message here is that this is a longtime coming. And while it is still early days, momentum continues to grow. But of course, you should decide for yourself what you believe.

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Peeing season is almost here

Toronto has a way of irreverently disregarding spring. Oftentimes we go from winter right into summer. And this past weekend was one of those magical times when summer just appeared and Torontonians far and wide decided to showcase their pasty bodies after a long and dark winter.

But now that the warm weather is upon us, it’s important to keep in mind a few very important things. Don’t ride an electric scooter. They’re too dangerous. You might hit a car.

Make sure you use the washroom before leaving home. Most public washrooms aren’t open yet because peeing season obviously hasn’t started yet. I think it starts sometime in late May. Or maybe it’s early June.

Purchase all of your alcohol beverages from the liquor control board. That’s the safest way to do it. And whatever you do, don’t consume said alcohol beverages in any of the city’s public spaces. That is strictly forbidden.

If you have a backyard, that is an acceptable place to drink responsibly, or irresponsibly. But if you don’t have a backyard, you’re out of luck. I would encourage you to simply crack a window and linger next to it. But of course, be mindful not to get too close to it.

I don’t know why we’re so uptight about shit.

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Displacement and gentrification

Let’s consider a scenario where we have a relatively affordable 20-unit apartment building in a rapidly growing global city. This particular building happens to be of an older vintage and so let’s say that the in-place rents are about 40% below market.

Next let’s assume that the zoning has just been updated for the land and it is now possible and economically feasible to build a total of 300 housing units in a new high-rise building. This would mean demolishing the existing 20 apartment units.

But because this global city has rental replacement policies in place, these 20 units would need to be rebuilt within the new high-rise and offered to the current residents at exactly the same rents. So same price, but new housing.

Compensation would also need to be provided to these residents to cover the cost of moving around. Because they would obviously need to move off site to allow for construction and then, if they’d like, move back once construction is complete.

How would such a scenario make you feel?

The typical objections usually involve, among other things, concerns around displacement, gentrification, and overall built form. There is a concern that investments of this magnitude might push people out of the area and also change the character of it.

But at the end of the day, these 20 existing homes are not disappearing from the market. They will remain part of the housing stock, but now with the addition of 280 new market rate homes.

I think it’s important to remember that in a rapidly growing city, trying to maintain the status quo by limiting new development can actually have the opposite effect. Because what you end up doing is creating a scenario where more and more people are fighting for a relatively fixed supply homes. And that is certainly one way to encourage displacement and gentrification.

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The car versus transit job access multiple

I haven’t seen this sort of data before and it’s an interesting way of looking at job access, transit connectivity, and overall built form:

The above is a table from New Geography (using data from the University of Minnesota). And what it shows is how many more jobs, across the US, can be accessed within a 30-minute commute by car versus by transit. For example, what this data tells us is that, on average across the US, there are about 56x more jobs that can be quickly accessed by car versus by transit.

But there is also huge variation across the 50 largest cities in the US. On the top end is Detroit, where there about 130x more jobs that can be accessed by car (again within 30 minutes). This isn’t at all surprising. Also not surprising is the fact that New York is on the lowest end with only 5.6x as many car-versus-transit jobs. This is one of the reasons why I spoke yesterday about NYC being such an ideal candidate for something like NYC 25×25.

What a lower number tells us is that the city is far less reliant on personal vehicles and almost certainly has a higher urban density. That’s why you see cities like New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago near the top of this list. And in my opinion, this is where you want to be. The goal should be to minimize this multiple.

I haven’t seen a dataset like this before, but I’m now curious to see how it varies globally. It feels like something that more of us should be monitoring. Because we know that there are strong links between jobs access and the overall economic performance of a city.

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NYC 25×25

There are over 8 million people living in New York City. And if you were to look at the modal split for these people — that is, how they get to work and how they get around — you’ll see that other than Staten Island, the majority of New York City does not rely on cars.

They walk, bike, take transit, and probably use other things like electric scooters. And in Manhattan, the number of people who drive is particularly low.

So if you were tasked with coming up with an equitable way to allocate street space, one logical way to do it would be to allocate based on usage. If 5% of people are driving and 95% of people are doing things that require walking, maybe these are the numbers to use.

The problem, of course, is that cars take up a lot more space than humans and so the math gets a little more nuanced than just a straight 5/95 split.

And if you look at how most cities have decided to allocate space, this problem is reflected. In the case of New York City, about 75% of its street space is used for cars and the balance is for people to walk around and do stuff (see below chart from The Guardian).

Because of this mismatch, New York has just launched a new proposal called NYC 25×25.

The proposal is pretty simple. It is to take 25% of the space that is currently allocated to cars and convert it into space for walking, plazas, green spaces, bus lanes, and dedicated cycle paths (see above chart once more). And the plan is to get it all done by 2025, which seems entirely doable.

It’s hard to think of a better North American candidate for a shift like this than New York City. It is a city that is already heavily reliant on transit and other forms of mobility. But of course, we shouldn’t stop here.