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Is that delay really necessary?

The big news this week in Toronto planning & development is the province’s decision to approve three downtown development projects using a tool known as a “ministerial zoning order.” The impetus for doing this was to speed up the approval and delivery of about 1,000 affordable housing units (along with about 2,000 market-rate units).

The province has made it clear that it wants to do what it can to reduce red tape and unnecessary delays when it comes to building new affordable housing. But this, not surprisingly, upset a number of local councillors who feel the province is overstepping and not allowing the city to govern its own city building affairs.

Alex Bozikovic’s view in the Globe and Mail this week was: hey, maybe that’s not so bad. The planning process is painfully slow (and political). And Toronto is going to need a lot more housing over the coming years and decades. So why not speed up its delivery? Especially when there’s an affordable housing component and the architecture is exemplary.

The reality is that our housing delivery system is rife with tensions. A big part of the process is predicated on local voters, who already live in a particular place, opining on their own interests and on the interests of people who don’t yet live there. The incentives in place are anything but aligned.

We can debate which level of government should have more power and what might be considered an unnecessary delay, but what is clear to me is that it should not take 2-5 years to get new housing approved in this city.

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The game of life

“Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance.” — Seth Godin

I mention and quote Seth Godin fairly often on this blog and so it only seems right to share this recent podcast that he did on the Tim Ferriss Show. Broadly speaking, the conversation is about “the game of life, the value of hacks, and overcoming anxiety.” I think most of you will find it useful regardless of what you do and what you’re involved in. It’s over an hour long, but there’s a full transcript available if you’d prefer to read, rather than listen. If you’re looking for something even shorter, here’s a quick video by Tim Ferris that has Seth talking about why worrying isn’t productive and that it’s really in service of our need for status quo and reassurance.

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TikTok studios are the new multi-family amenity

I just finished reading about an apartment building in Los Angeles that is currently retrofitting its amenity spaces to include, among other things, an appropriately spread out co-working space, two podcast rooms, and a TikTok studio. This latter amenity will be a roughly 100 square foot room with camera-ready lighting, tripods, and mirrors. It was described in the article as the perfect place for one or two people to create things and entertain themselves.

The gist of the article is that home offices are the new must-have amenity and that developers have started to rethink apartment amenities in light of this. But I also take this to be a sign of the times. We are living in a world of content creation. Whether you’re a so-called influencer or not, TikTok has, for a lot of young people, replaced many other forms of entertainment and everybody, at this point, probably needs their own podcast.

It is also true that there’s an “amenities arm race” going on within the apartment sector. This is nothing new and doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with this pandemic. Amenities have been how you differentiate your offering. And when you’re constantly selling (i.e. leasing all the time), they do become important. So here’s to podcast rooms and TikTok studios. If you had your pick, what kind of amenities would you like to see in your building?

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Suicides, cities, and the concept of coupling

I am reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book right now, called Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know, and I am intrigued by the chapter on Sylvia Plath’s unfortunate suicide and the concept of “coupling.” The idea behind coupling, which stands in contrast to displacement, is that when someone makes the very sad decision to commit suicide, it can often be coupled to a particular place or context.

Malcolm starts by giving the example of “town gas.” Prior to it being phased out in the 1960s and 1970s, most homes in Britain relied on a form of gas that contained carbon monoxide. And sadly, it became the most popular way for people to kill themselves. When Sylvia Plath took her own life in 1962, the death-by-carbon-monoxide-poisoning stat was 44.2% of all suicides in England and Wales.

The concept of displacement, on the other hand, surmises that if somebody wants to kill themselves, they will eventually find another way. But Malcolm convincingly argues that that is not necessarily or very often the case. As town gas was phased out of British homes, the number of suicides also declined in lockstep. Turns out that many of the previous suicides had been coupled to that particular tool.

Why this is potentially valuable to this blog audience is that this same coupling phenomenon can happen within our cities and to particular places. Malcolm gives the example of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which has been the site of many suicides since it was first erected in 1937. The same, of course, can be the said about many subway systems around the world.

But again, there’s evidence to suggest that if you can save somebody on the Golden Gate Bridge (a suicide barrier was erected in 2018) or on a subway system by installing safety doors, there’s a good chance that many of those people will never actually find another way to commit suicide. In other words, you can save a bunch of lives by having the right provisions in place and not assuming that something is a foregone conclusion.

Photo by Chris Leipelt on Unsplash

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CloudKitchens has spent more than $130 million on property over the last two years

According to a recent Wall Street Journal review of property and corporate records, Travis Kalanick’s ghost kitchen startup, called CloudKitchens, has spent over $130 million over the past two years buying more than 40 properties in about two dozen cities.

Travis is co-founder and the former CEO of Uber and this latest startup provides commercial kitchens to restauranteurs who are looking for a low-cost way to launch delivery-only food concepts.

In some ways, it can be compared to coworking spaces for delivery-only restaurants. Instead of renting a full restaurant space, you lease 200-300 square feet of real estate at a lower cost address. CloudKitchens then handles all of the distribution and fulfillment, effectively lowering the barriers to entry for food startups.

Some of the properties that they have been buying include a vacant restaurant space in Miami Beach for $9.2 million (May 2020) and an industrial property in Queens, New York for $6.6 million (March 2020). They’ve also bought in cities like Portland and Las Vegas.

As you might imagine, now is a pretty good time to be buying some of these properties. And if you think about it, there are some real cost advantages to what they are doing, not to mention some co-working-style arbitrage on the real estate.

The company is apparently going to great lengths to conceal what and where they are buying. But what is perhaps more interesting is their asset-heavy approach. They’re buying lots of real estate, which is inline with what companies like Opendoor are doing, but is distinct from Uber’s asset-light approach.

It is also different from what many other ghost kitchen startups are doing. It seems that most are leasing their spaces. There has to be a reason for this difference.

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Super-prime property transactions in the first half of 2020

This is a chart from Knight Frank showing the average value of “super-prime” residential real estate transactions in 12 global markets between March and June 2020, and versus the same period last year.

Knight Frank classifies super-prime real estate as having a value greater than US$10 million and ultra-prime real estate as having a value greater than US$25 million.

In this particular chart, London takes the top spot with an average super-prime transaction value of US$38 million. This is a big jump compared to 2019 where the average value was US$16.9 million.

Typically it is Hong Kong that takes the top spot in this ranking, but this year it fell to third. Still, Hong Kong had the highest number of transactions with 60 super-prime sales taking place in the first half of 2020. This is down from 155 in the first half of 2019.

Overall, Knight Frank recorded 281 super-prime transactions across these 12 cities in the first half of this year. This is, not surprisingly, a decline compared to last year, which saw 594 transactions over this same time period.

But all things being considered and given some of these price increases, the super-prime market is certainly holding its own.

Chart: Knight Frank

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The Map: Geometry vs. geography

A friend of mine sent me this video today in a brief email that basically said, “you’re gonna love it.” Naturally he was right. It’s great. The 10-minute video is about how creative agency Work & Co rethought and redesigned New York City’s subway map for today’s digital age. Rather than a static map, which is historically how all cities have communicated their transit networks, they created a digital map that changes both as you interact with and as the network itself changes (closures, time of day, etc.). This means that they no longer had to make certain design compromises. They no longer had to choose between geometry (clarity of representation) and geography (accuracy of representation). The system does both.

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A mismatch of expectations

Seth Godin’s blog post this morning, called “I hate this restaurant,” is really excellent. I would encourage you all to read it. In it, he talks about a mismatch of expectations. More specifically, he gives the example of somebody going to a restaurant and not liking what’s on offer, and therefore being upset. It’s not that the food was bad or that the restaurant has failed, it’s just that the person didn’t get what they were expecting. There’s a mismatch. And this, of course, happens all over the place and not just in restaurants. In his view, this failure is caused by a few different factors that ultimately result in us — the people that are involved in everything from the arts to business — having to make a decision about the kind of operation we would like to run. Below is an excerpt of those things. For the full post, click here.

This failure comes from a few contributing factors, all amplified by our culture:

First, you can’t know if you’re going to like an experience until you experience it. All you know is your understanding of what was on offer. And because there are so many choices and there’s so much noise, we rarely take the time to actually read the label, or we get carried away by the coming attractions, or we just don’t care enough to pay attention until we’re already involved.

[And marketers are complicit, because in the face of too much noise, they hype what’s on offer and overpromise…]

Second, because many people are afraid. They’re afraid of the new and even more than that, afraid of change. Most people in our culture would like to be entertained not transformed, lectured at instead of learning.

Third, the double-edged sword of giving everyone a microphone means that we’ve amplified the voices of dissent at the same time we’ve given people a chance to speak up about their desires. This means that mass culture is far more divisive than it ever was before, and it also means that bubbles of interest are more likely to be served.

And so the fork in the road:

You can either turn your operation into a cross between McDonald’s and Disney, selling the regular kind, pandering to the middle, putting everything in exactly the category they hoped for and challenging no expectations…

Or you can do the incredibly hard work of transgressing genres, challenging expectations and seeking out the few people who want to experience something that matters, instead of something that’s merely safe.

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The WRLDCTY 2020 Virtual Festival

This Thursday is the launch of a brand new city event called the WRLDCTY Virtual Festival (vowels, clearly, suck). Presented by Vancouver-based Resonance Consultancy, the “host cities” are New York, London, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and Toronto.

The idea is to bring together thought leaders and city lovers from all around the world on a virtual platform for three days. The speakers include people like Richard Florida, Bjarke Ingels, and Dan Doctoroff.

The other thing they’re doing is offering up over 20 virtual urban experiences. Think yoga on Santa Monica Pier, burlesque in Brooklyn, and graffiti art tours in Toronto. It’s clearly no substitute for actual travel, but this is the best we’ve got right now and we’re all trying to adapt.

A general admission ticket is free, but some of the headline events require a pro pass and if you’d like to do some virtual networking and chat with other guests in the “Community Center,” you’ll also need that same pass. Here’s the full agenda.

Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash