I have said this before on the blog, but one of my favorite tall buildings is the Mira tower in San Francisco by Tishman Speyer (developer) and Studio Gang (architect). Now that it’s pretty much complete and residents have started to move in, John King, urban design critic for the SF Chronicle, has published this review of the building. It’s behind a paywall, but you should be able to at least see all of the photos, and below is an introductory excerpt.
Even with today’s grim need for social isolation, San Francisco’s most eye-catching residential tower wants to pull you close.
From the Bay Bridge or the Embarcadero, the 39-story Mira at the corner of Folsom and Spear streets is a flowing stack of tightly wound white metal bays, frozen in motion. Fragmentary glimpses from nearby blocks defy expectations, whipsawed slivers amid the stodgy norm.
Finally, there’s the view straight up from the sidewalk — a crisp commotion of stacked angles, precisely arranged but seemingly ready to fly out in a dozen directions at once.
Though Mira has been in the works since 2014, the architectural show still feels fresh as the first residents begin to unpack. But this 392-unit residential complex was also conceived as a celebration of triumphant urbanism — a far cry from the mood of this troubled summer.
Condo developers are merchant builders. They build a project and then move on. Because of this, there’s a belief that there’s little incentive to build for durability, in comparison to say purpose-built rental buildings where the developer might continue to own over an extended period of time. While it is true that putting on an operations hat will make you hyper-focused on everything from garbage collection to how you’re going to manage all of your suite keys, there are a few things to consider in this debate.
One, as developers we certainly think and care a lot about our brand and our reputation, both with our customers and with Tarion (warranty program). We ask ourselves: “What will our customers think if we do this?” Irrespective of the tenure we’re building, we want our projects to be carefully considered. And in the case of condominium projects, we would like our customers to feel excited and comfortable about buying in one of our future projects. That’s the goal. This is no different than any other product that you might buy that doesn’t come along with some sort of ongoing subscription.
Two, there’s often a spread between condominium and rental values. For example, let’s consider a brand new 550 square foot condominium in a central neighborhood of Toronto and let’s say it would cost you $1,300 psf to buy it today. (Obviously it could be more or it could be less depending on the area and the building.) Now let’s start with a rent and back into a value, using some basic assumptions.
Unit Size (SF)
Rent PSF – Monthly
Rent PSF – Annual
Here I’m assuming that same suite would rent for $2,400 per month. I’m converting that to an annual PSF rent. And then I’m assuming that if you were managing a whole building of these kinds of units, your operating costs might be somewhere around 28%. Crude back-of-the-napkin math to get to a Net Operating Income (psf). Finally, I’m capping this NOI at 3.75%. We can debate my assumptions and if this were in a development pro forma you might “trend” the rents. But I find this comparison helpful. Here we are getting to a value of around $1,005 per square foot. Less than our $1,300 psf above.
The point is that the margins are tighter, which helps to explain why for a long time we saw very few purpose-built rentals being constructed in this city. So even though you might argue that the incentives are in place to build for durability, you do have to weigh that against the realities of what you can actually afford to build. Development is filled with all sorts of these tradeoffs. But if you and/or your investors really want a consistent yield, this strategy can work just fine. Personally, I’m a fan of the long-term approach.
Three, rent control policies can have an impact both on the feasibility of new projects and on people’s ability to actually perform maintenance. If you have a scenario where your operating costs — everything from taxes to utilities — are rising faster than your allowable rent increases, then you’re in a bad situation and you have zero incentive or financial ability to actually invest in the building, despite being a long-term owner.
Finally, there is nothing stopping a purpose-built rental developer from also being a merchant builder. i.e. Selling the entire rental building once it is done and it has been stabilized. So you could argue that we’re right back at my first point. Whether you’re selling to individual condominium owners or the entire building to one entity, you as the developer have to sit back and ask yourself: “What will our customer(s) think if we do this?”
I noticed this week that Google has started to overlay augmented reality-type place markers onto Street View. The markers are designed to help surface the kind of local business information that you might otherwise find in search — phone number, hours of operation, and so on. Apparently not everyone is seeing them, but the feature is starting to roll out in certain cities. Above is a photo of Dundas Street West in the Junction.
This transforms Street View into even more of a wayfinding tool, but it also offers up a glimpse of how the world might look with augmented reality. But to make this ultimately happen, you really do need to figure out how to get people to start wearing smart glasses. Lots of companies, including Google and Snap, have been trying. None of their products have really stuck — though Snap’s Spectacles are easily the best looking ones.
However, last month Google did announce that it had acquired Canadian smart glasses company, North. I was invited to try out a pair of North Focals 1.0 glasses, which I wrote about over here. They were exceedingly cool, but definitely not ready for mainstream and daily usage. The sides were thick and you had to wear a ring joystick in order to navigate through its menus. Too much work. Too nerdy.
But that’s okay because Google didn’t buy North for the Focals product. They bought them for talent, patents, and for probably a bunch of other things. They bought them to help Google invest in its “hardware efforts and ambient computing future.” The little markers you might now be seeing on Google Street View are likely part of that.
Here is an interesting study about personalities and places (Journal article here and study here). It is interesting because so many of us are working from home and away from our regular environments. But it is also interesting because a lot of us, here on this blog, are in the business of creating spaces. And these environments have an impact on all of us.
The researchers for this study started by assessing the personalities of some 2,000 university students. The objective was to determine their baseline temperaments according to the “Big Five” personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Once that was established, the students were sent out into the world with a location-based app on their phone.
Four times a day, the participants were asked to enter their current location, as well as answer a few questions about their current state of mind. The big takeway from this study is twfold and is as follows: “People actively select their environments, and the environments they select can alter their psychological characteristics [both] in the moment and over time.”
The first bit is perhaps not all that surprising. We all have different personality traits and we choose environments that suit what we like. Extroverts, for example, tend to spend less time at home and more time at restaurants, bars, clubs, and at friends’ places. (Presumably this means that quarantine was a lot harder for extroverts.)
The second part of this finding suggests that once we have actively chosen where we want to be, that environment then impacts how we feel at that exact moment, as well as over a certain period of time. You’ll have to read the study for the nuances around this. But it is fascinating to me because it helps me explain why I feel different now that I’m mostly working from home.
Beyond poor video call connections and the lack of in-person collaboration, there also seems to be the psychological impact of not being in a particular environment. Not having to commute is a nice feature, particularly for some, but it also means not being around colleagues and not being able to meet for that impromptu craft beer. Turns out those things matter for our mental state.
Currently, if you’re building an Ancillary Secondary Dwelling Unit (such as a laneway suite) in the City of Toronto, you can defer the payment of any development charges for 20 years from the date that a building permit is issued for the unit. But really what this means is that, if you don’t do anything bad for 20 years (event of default), you won’t have to pay anything. The payable charge goes to $0 at the end of the term and the agreement goes away. Cool.
So what are some of the bad things that you’re not supposed to do?
Well the main thing is that you’re not allowed to create a new lot at any point during the 20-year deferral period. This is because the laneway suite policies are designed to encourage the creation of new rental housing and not new for sale housing. So you can’t sever off the back of your lot. The other thing you need to do is make sure that if you were to ever sell your property that the new owner(s) assumes these same obligations.
This all makes sense.
There is some fine print to consider. The payable development charge amount that the City enters into these agreements is the rate for single detached dwellings. Currently that figure is $76,830. This is more than double what you would have to pay if you, well, just paid the DCs for your ancillary secondary unit instead of deferring them. The reason for this is because, if you do do something bad such as sever your property, you’ve now no longer built an ancillary secondary unit. You’ve built a detached dwelling. Rates go up.
Moral of the story: Don’t create a new lot. For more information on the program, click here.
P.S. I’m not a lawyer. Please don’t take this post as any sort of legal advice. This post was also revised from its original version to correct a misunderstanding on my part.
As many of you already know, the City of Toronto is currently studying ways to increase the supply of “missing middle” type housing in our low-rise neighborhoods. This week they published a new report called, “Expanding Housing Options in Neighbourhoods.” The Globe and Mail has already written about it over here, but I would like to share some numbers from the report to help put things into context. All of these are verbatim from the City’s report. I’m just arranging them neatly into blocks.
Development applications active between 2014 and 2018 were reviewed to identify those representing “missing middle” housing typologies, i.e. more than 1 proposed residential unit and 3-6 storeys. 144 “missing middle” applications out of 508 total active applications in Neighbourhoods were identified during this time frame.
The missing middle applications represent 5,090 units approved or built in Neighbourhoods. The vast majority of these applications—94% of applications and 89% of proposed residential units—are 4 storeys or less, consistent with the general height limits for Neighbourhoods in the Official Plan.
Of the 5,090 proposed residential units, almost half were part of large site redevelopment projects, often townhouse subdivisions on former school sites in inner suburban areas of Scarborough, Etobicoke, and North York. The remaining half of proposed missing middle type units were in lowrise intensification and infill of existing housing, with activity clustered primarily within the former City of Toronto.
The approximately 5,000 missing middle type units in development applications represent approximately 1% of the 400,000 total proposed residential units in projects active between 2014 and 2018, while the approximately 2,500 net new units added through as-of-right building permits from 2011 to 2018 represent only 0.6% of the total proposed residential units.
One percent. I guess that’s why it’s called the missing middle.
Back in February, I shared a presentation by Benedict Evans about the macro and strategic trends that have been playing out in the tech industry. (Of course, the potential impacts go well beyond tech.) Well that was February and lot has happened since then. So he has updated a bunch of his slides and it is now called, “Tech and the new normal.” We know that things have changed, but we don’t know what things will really look like when this is all over — and which changes will have durability. Benedict doesn’t necessarily prognosticate in his presentation, but he does provide valuable historical context and some great data. So there are a lot of conclusions that you might be able to draw from it on your own. It’s also my kind of slide deck. Not a lot of text. Lots of graphics/diagrams. And really only one key takeaway per slide. Here you are.
Building on yesterday’s post about inclusionary zoning, below is a telling diagram from the Urban Land Institute showing which areas of Portland can support new development and which areas cannot. To create this map, ULI looked at achievable rents in each US census block to determine, quite simply, where rents will cover the cost of new development (all types of construction).
However, in their models they are also assuming a land value of $0. And typically people want you to pay them money when you buy their land. So in all likelihood, this map is overstating the amount of blue — that being land where new development is feasible.
But it does tell you something about developer margins. A lot of people seem to assume that the margins on new developments are so great that things like inclusionary zoning can simply be “absorbed” without impacting overall feasibility. The reality is that there are large swaths in most cities where development is never going to happen even if you were to start handing out free land.
This map is also helpful at illustrating some of the impacts of IZ. If you assume that rents are the highest in the center of the city and that they fall off as you move outward, then the outer edge of the above blue area is going to be where development is only marginally feasible. And so any new cost imposed on development would naturally start to uniformly eat away at the blue feasible area — that is, until rents rise enough to offset it.
Of course, this is a simplified mapping. Land usually costs money. Land values might also be highest in the center and fall off as you move outward, or there could be pockets of high-cost land. There may be more price elasticity in certain sub-markets compared to others. So the impacts of a new development cost may not play out as neatly as I outlined above.
Regardless, there will be impacts, which is why I find this map telling even if it isn’t fully accurate or up to date. Maybe some of you will as well.
I asked this question on Twitter this morning because I am planning to write more development-related posts. It’s a topic that seems to be of interest to a lot of people. One question that I received was about the kind of profit margins that Toronto developers have been making over the past few decades. More specifically: How much have they increased? My response was that they haven’t increased. In fact, if anything, they’ve been compressing as a result of rising/additional costs. (I’ve touched on this before in posts like this one about cost-plus pricing.) I think a lot of developers are actually wondering how much elasticity is left in the market to continue absorbing these cost increases.
Follow-up question to my response: Why then does this report by Steve Pomeroy claim that developers could still make a 15% margin even if they earmarked 30-40% of their units as affordable? Well, this was news to me so I went through the report and committed to responding on this blog. To be more precise, the report finds that there’s room in as-of-right developments to dedicate 10% affordable in medium-cost areas and 25% affordable in high-cost areas. For rezoned sites, the numbers are 30% affordable in high-cost areas and 15% affordable in medium-cost areas. These are a potentially dangerous set of takeaways for a few reasons.
Very little mid-rise and high-rise development happens as-of-right in the City of Toronto. I don’t know what the exact percentage is, but I suspect it’s low. It would be very difficult to buy land if you were valuing it on this basis. And when you are valuing it — that is, running a development pro forma — it’s not enough to pull averages from a cost guide and run high-level numbers. You can start there, but ultimately you’re going to have to get more granular. Are you factoring the hundreds of thousands of dollars (more for bigger projects) that the City will charge you to occupy any public right-of-ways? What about your public contribution monies? This has historically been hard to estimate because the math that is used is akin to a secret recipe.
In this particular report, they assume a 100-unit building with 88,750 square feet of gross floor area. Since GFA typically factors some allowable deductions, the gross construction area for the project is going to be greater. Let’s assume it’s 5% more — so about 93,190 square feet. This is how your construction manager will think about and do take-offs for the project. In the report, they peg total construction costs at $23,208,480. That works out to just shy of $250 per square foot (costs divided by above grade GCA). You cannot build a reinforced concrete residential building with below-grade parking for this number in Toronto. In today’s market, and at this small of a scale, you might be looking at $350 to 400 psf.
On the low end of this range, that would mean your costs have just gone up by $9.4 million — which just so happens to be the expected developer/builder profit in this model. Except now you’re underwater and you won’t be able to finance and build your project. It’s probably time to look at your revenues and see if you can increase your projected rents at all. This is what I was getting at with cost-plus pricing. I would also add that I/we typically shy away from projects of this scale. There isn’t a lot of margin for error. One or two surprises and you might be cooked. So with or without inclusionary zoning, these can be challenging projects that many developers won’t even look at.
My point with all of this is twofold: development pro formas are delicate and margins aren’t as generous and locked-in as most people seem to think. More often than not we end up passing on sites because we simply can’t make the numbers work. The land is just too expensive. Development happens on the margin. So talking about developers “absorbing” the costs of inclusionary zoning is perhaps the wrong way to frame this discussion. A more appropriate set of questions might be: Who is going to pay for the cost of inclusionary zoning? Are landowners going to suddenly drop their prices? Is the City going to reduce their development charges/impact fees? Or will developers wait until market prices and rents increase so that they can cover these new costs? This latter scenario is how it has worked so far.
If you have other questions about development that you would like me to take a stab at answering, please leave a comment below or tweet at me.
Sometimes when you’re a writer, you just really need a quiet shed in which to work. This “writer’s shed” by Matt Gibson Architecture + Design out of Australia is remarkably simple — it’s 10 square meters — but also exceedingly cool. All photos by Shannon McGrath.