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What if versus should be city planning

Witold Rybczynski makes an interesting comparison between military and civilian (city) planning in a recent blog post called, “The Fog of Life.” Here’s an excerpt:

Good military planning, as I understand it, is based on preparing for “what if,” that is, developing different scenarios. What if this happens, or that happens? City planning is different, more like advocacy, that is, what should happen. This advocacy is based on certainties: open space is good, density is good—or bad, depending. The problem is that what planners think should happen—separation of pedestrians and cars, superblocks, megastructures—often runs into trouble when it hits the fog of life.

These are two very different perspectives. “What if” planning responses assume that a thing has already happened. You’re not working to affect a particular outcome, you’re responding to one that already exists. Does this necessarily make this approach more reactive than proactive?

Either way, what should happen implies that the thing isn’t currently happening, but that it should — presumably because the thing is nice and desirable. It could also imply that the thing is sort of happening, but just isn’t happening quite enough.

Let’s use the example of 3-bedroom condominiums and apartments, which is a topic of discussion that has been circling in Toronto for as long as I’ve been in the business. Developers here, are generally encouraged or mandated to build a certain number of larger family-sized suites in every new housing project. Oftentimes this number is 10% of the total unit count.

The reasoning behind this is sound. Cities should be inclusive and they should work for the young, the old, the single, and for families, among others. The problem is that, for a variety of reasons, the market, when left to do its own thing, tends to build more small units than large units. At least that’s the case here in Toronto. (I’ve talked about some of the reasons why in previous posts.)

There is a view that if only developers built more large units that more families would choose to live in apartments. It’s an issue of supply and availability, and also a question of design. You need to design for families too. This you could say is a “what if” approach. Families want to live in multi-family buildings; so let’s build more and better family-sized housing.

But is this really the case or is there some advocacy going on here? All things being equal, does the market want low-rise or does it prefer higher density? It’s a fascinating set of questions, but unfortunately all things aren’t equal. It’s not just a question of availability and design, it’s also a question of economics. Large family-sized units cost money.

I suppose this is the fog of life.

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New condo sales totaled 5,385 units last quarter

Urbanation released its Q1-2021 quarterly condo market update for the Greater Toronto Area at the end of last month. And there’s some good stuff in it. New condo sales totaled 5,385 units in the first quarter of this year, which is higher than the 10-year average of 4,924 units and only slightly below sales from a year ago (Q1-2020). By and large, the numbers are starting to feel a bit pre-pandemic-like.

If you remember what happened back in the second quarter of last year, there was a quick shift in demand toward the suburbs and outskirts of Toronto. Part of this was driven by affordability. But I guess part of this was also driven by the fact that some people seemed to think that our cities had never before experienced a health crisis and were going to somehow die. Or perhaps it was because Zoom is so much fun (and not at all exhausting) and that this time was destined to be different. Either way, I never understood this.

Fast forward a year and the core is not surprisingly coming back. The oldest part of the city (former City of Toronto) saw 2,886 new condo sales in the first quarter of this year. This is actually higher than sales in Q1-2020. New condo openings in downtown Toronto sold for an average price of $1,419 per square foot. And overall absorption was about 76% in the quarter, which is the highest it has been since 2017.

Some of you may be looking at these numbers and thinking WTF. But when developers look at the costs in their pro forma, as well as what’s on the horizon — ahem, inclusionary zoning — it’s usually that same feeling. So it’s hard to imagine average prices and rents going anywhere but up.

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Plastic surgery, LA mega-mansions, and digital NFT art

Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” -Warren Buffet

According to the Wall Street Journal, there is a real estate trend underway in Los Angeles: Celebrity plastic surgeons are piling into the business of building over-the-top spec homes. (Spec means that they are built speculatively, without a buyer in place, and sold — hopefully — upon completion.)

What is clear from this phenomenon is that there appears to be a bit of money to be made in the world of LA plastic surgery. What is also clear is that the market value for a 21,000 square foot mega-mansion in Los Angeles is basically who-the-hell-knows:

The rush of new contemporary spec homes built in the Los Angeles area has put downward pressure on prices. While Dr. Nassif says he’s had significant interest in his home since listing it earlier this year, Dr. Kanodia recently slashed the asking price of his home to $99 million from $180 million. Developers like Nile Niami, known widely as the king of Los Angeles spec homes, handed the keys over to his lenders on at least one project and is facing default on others, The Wall Street Journal has reported.

Is the market price $180 million? Is it $99 million? Or is it much less? Probably depends on which way the winds are blowing that day. At this snack bracket, you’re looking to harpoon a whale and there are only so many of those. But ultimately, the market price is whatever someone is willing to pay.

One thing that is interesting to see in some of these homes — besides hidden DJ platforms on hydraulic lifts — is that NFT art displays are now starting to get incorporated into these new builds. Assuming that digital NFT art does continue to take off, which is still TBD, there is going to be an explosion of different display/gallery solutions.

Perhaps these mega-mansions are a leading indicator for that trend.

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The new AirTags and Apple’s global mesh network

Apple recently released a new tracking device called AirTag. It is similar to the small Tile devices that have been in circulation for many years in that they help you find misplaced items like your keys or a bag. They locate your stuff and work like this. I pre-ordered a 4-pack of them last month but they aren’t scheduled to arrive until June. Maybe it’s because I got custom engravings on the back of them.

Perhaps the most obvious use case for these new AirTags is to place one inside of your checked bag(s) when you travel. There’s nothing worse than an airline losing your luggage and you not knowing where it is. So I can see myself using one of these every time I travel. Hopefully that will be very soon.

But the other really interesting thing about these devices is that they run on Apple’s “Find My” network, which is the same network that allows you to find your other iOS devices if you happen to misplace them. This is essentially a decentralized mesh network that is powered by all of Apple’s devices around the world, as opposed to some big telco network.

According to Wikipedia, there is believed to be about 1 billion Apple devices around the world that are capable of transmitting anonymous signals. Your phone may be doing it right now. What this means is that these new AirTags are being located not by way of a cell network, but by way of some dude with an iPhone standing nearby to your AirTag.

Why I find this so interesting is that the internet has way of decentralizing things and also cutting out intermediaries. We’ve seen that happen with travel agents and we are now seeing it take place with cryptocurrencies and blockchains. These new AirTags feels like a microcosm of that trend. They are running on a giant global network that has been created one device at a time.

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Below grade at Yonge & Eglinton

I often hear people lamenting about all of the construction that is taking place right now at Yonge & Eglinton in midtown Toronto. But that’s kind of what happens when you build a new subway line (okay, a partially buried light rail transit line). Above is a recent drone video that Metrolinx released showing the progress at Eglinton Station (I think I would have gone with a little Booka Shade for the soundtrack instead). I bet that most of you will be surprised to see how much is happening beneath street level. If you can’t see the above video, click here.

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One big tower split into two

The OMA-designed Greenpoint Landing Towers in northern Brooklyn recently topped out. Photos and announcement over here. If you aren’t familiar with the project, it’s very OMA. What I mean by that is that there’s a kind of simple rationality to it. (I just made up this architecture speak.) Big bold moves with a certain logic behind it. Here’s the story and thinking behind Greenpoint Landing:

Supposedly this project is in a part of Brooklyn that stipulates a maximum tower floor plate size of 11,000 square feet. Following this rule, you get a two-tower design that looks something like image number one in the top left hand corner of the above diagram. The resulting tower separation would be 40 feet, or just over 12 meters. (Are you seeing these numbers, Toronto?)

What OMA did was taper one tower (diagram image #2) and then create an inverted ziggurat form for the second tower (diagram image #3). The effect is two towers that look like they were almost one giant tower that had been simply pulled apart. The resulting tower separation distance in this final scenario is 60 feet, or just over 18 meters.

I am assuming that there’s some area loss in this design because of the increased tower separation, though maybe the larger podium makes it up. Either way, from what I can tell, there are two main benefits to this design: (1) you get a tower with stepbacks facing the water (so places for outdoor spaces) and (2) it breaks up the visual monotony of two equally extruded towers.

If any of you are more familiar with this project, I would welcome your thoughts in the comment section below.

Image: OMA

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Make your voice heard in the City of Toronto’s “Garden + Suites” housing survey

As many of you know, Toronto currently allows “laneway suites” across the entire city on an as-of-right basis. What this means is that no variances or special planning permissions are generally required to build. Assuming you meet the by-law, you can go straight to a building permit.

This is how Mackay Laneway House was built and, though it required an extra layer of approvals from the forestry department because of a large on-site tree, getting a building permit was relatively straight forward. I think it took between 6-8 weeks from initial submission.

As part of the City’s efforts to increase overall housing supply, another form of accessory dwelling unit is currently being studied: garden suites. Public consultations are now underway and, from what I have heard, the hope is to make these similarly as-of-right before the end of the year. Hopefully it’ll be earlier.

I think this will be a positive thing for Toronto and so I would encourage all of you to complete the online garden suite survey that the City has open until June 1, 2021. Public consultation is an important part of the planning process and too often it is the voices of a few representing the views of many.

So if you’ve got 5 minutes, now is your chance to speak up.

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More drivers, more supply

This week, Lyft announced that it is going to be selling its autonomous vehicle division to Toyota for some $550 million. (Apparently $200 million of this will be paid upfront, with the remaining $350 million paid out over a five year period.) This is notable because Uber did the exact same thing last year when it sold its autonomous vehicle business to Aurora (which happens to be working with Toyota), and because the reasons for selling seem clear: getting to full autonomy is going to cost a bunch more money and both Uber and Lyft are determined to reach profitability sooner rather than later.

The other thing that you might be able to glean from these announcements is that neither company seemingly feels like they need to fully own/control the autonomous piece. Presumably the thinking is that someone else can spend the money on developing full autonomy and they’ll just stick to building out their ride-hailing network. Once we have autonomous taxis, they’ll need a network to run on anyway, right? I guess. But wouldn’t this dramatically undermine the network effects of Uber and Lyft?

If you go back to Uber’s S-1, there was a diagram that explained Uber’s “liquidity network effect.” See above. It starts with more drivers and more supply (1), because more cars driving around means that wait times and fares are lower (2) and so more people are likely to use Uber (3). Network size matters. But if you no longer have drivers — only autonomous vehicles — isn’t it relatively easy to add more supply to any network? I suppose this partially depends on how the ownership structure will end up working for these autonomous taxis. Still, I wonder about the barriers to entry under this scenario.

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The tokenization of cities

The web in its current state is like a city without public spaces. People can only interact in places owned by someone else, and a small group of landlords captures an oversized share of all economic activity. – Dror Poleg

I would encourage you all to read Dror Poleg’s recent article called, “The Token Society: Cryptocurrencies will change the way we work, live, and love.” It’s an interesting read, particularly for us urbanists. Poleg starts with urban history. He first talks about how the emergence of industrial cities allowed for new divisions of labor. The example he gives is that of the quatorzième, which is a job that emerged in Parisian society sometime in the late 19th century. The job of a quatorzième was literally to be the 14th person at dinners and functions. Since a headcount of 13 was thought to be bad luck, it was important to be able to call on someone at a moment’s notice to fill this critically important role. While this probably seems silly in today’s context — I mean, who goes out anymore? — it was a real thing and it was a thing that the modern city was suddenly able to provide. Poleg goes on to thread this idea all the way through to today. Web 2.0 enabled a new sharing economy and much larger digital communities (though note the quote at the top of this post). However, we’re nowhere near done yet. Web 3.0 is going to, in his words, enable “the finalization [or tokenization] of all human activity.” Welcome to the new token society.

P.S. I’m by no means an expert on cryptocurrencies. I have just been watching from afar for the past several years. But over the last few months, it has been hard not to pay attention to what is happening with NFTs and the Ethereum network. And I’m not just talking about the price of ETH (which is up ~56% over the last month alone). I am now of the opinion that we are seeing one of the first mainstream use cases emerge on top of a blockchain network. And yes, I believe it will also change our cities.

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It’s okay to put buildings close together

This morning I came across this beautiful photo by @callicles of the 11th in Paris. After admiring it for a few moments, I then immediately tweeted it out with the above caption: “It’s okay to put buildings close together.” Because here’s the thing about this photo: It represents one of the great paradoxes of city building. When most people look at this photo, I suspect that they will find it beautiful. They will like the mid-rise architecture and they will like the quaint European-scaled streets. But despite its fairly universal appeal, very few cities are able to build this way today. It’s often not allowed. So instead what people do is travel to Europe in the summer, sit in cafes, admire the architecture and urban design, and then lament the fact that we don’t build cities like we used to.

What is it that makes this intersection so inviting? Well, the buildings are tight up against each other. I’m guessing that the right-of-ways (ROWs) in this picture are maybe 6-9 m wide. There are no building setbacks or stepbacks to speak of, save and except for the penthouse floors which taper back slightly. And so all of the spaces in these buildings would likely have some sort of direct facing condition with their opposing neighbors (but partially mitigated by the fact that these aren’t all glass buildings). The ratio of ROW to building height is, I’m guessing, something like 1:4, which, at the end of the day, is a large part of the reason why these streets feel so intimate and inviting. The buildings frame the streets and public realm.

What I just described breaks many of the guidelines that I suspect many of you in the industry are accustomed to following. In our world, the streets should be wider to allow for adequate fire and service vehicle access. The buildings should stepback to allow light to reach the sidewalks, to mitigate impacts on any surrounding single-family homes, and to provision for sky views. Here in Toronto, the midrise guidelines also stipulate that buildings should have a ROW to building height ratio that is closer to 1:1. Though to be fair this guidance is often rightly broken. But the truth remains, we generally don’t build like this anymore. Why is that?

It’s not because we can’t do it. We certainly could. We are, for whatever reasons, choosing not to. Is it because we’re bad at understanding what we actually like and what makes for great cities? Is it because what we end up liking is a bit counterintuitive? My unproven and untested theory is that it is at least partially the result of an approach to planning that is defensive — instead of offensive — in nature. We plan around and bow completely to existing contexts. We plan to mitigate impacts. We plan to satisfy some very individualistic concerns about how cities and neighborhoods should be built. For better or for worse, we plan to piss off the least amount of people. Politics also play an outsized role.

What is far less common to think about is how to plan offensively. The fact of the matter is that the Paris we all love today pissed off a lot of people when it was being constructed. The approach was top-down and hugely disruptive. It ignored and completely erased much of the city’s previous urban context. Artists at the time, and probably many others, despised the new regularity of Paris’ street wall buildings. They longed for the old hodgepodge of medieval blocks and the visual variety that they created. But today, it’s hard not to think of this offensive move as anything but visionary. Of course, there are also countless examples of top-down offenses turning out terribly bad for cities.

Perhaps the right approach, then, is to simply start being more deliberate about introducing elements of planning offense. My friend David Wex of Urban Capital likes to remind me that Montreal is a city with grandeur and that Toronto, for the most part, is a city without it. So as I have argued before, over here, I think it’s time we rethink our approach. Instead of just worrying about things like shadow impacts and angular planes (defensive), we should also be asking ourselves offensive questions. How refreshing would it be to sit down in a project meeting and have someone ask: “Okay, but does this design contribute to the overall grandeur and beauty of our city?”

And maybe once we take this new perspective, we’ll come to the conclusion that sometimes it’s okay to put buildings close together.