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San Jose approves 800-unit co-living project

Earlier this year, an 800 unit co-living project was approved in downtown San Jose. The developer is Starcity. And it is said to be the largest co-living project in the pipeline in the United States right now.

A few months later (presumably because of this project), San Jose also created a new “co-living” land-use classification. It is similarly thought to be a first for US cities.

I think it still remains to be seen how broad the market can be for co-living. Do older generations also want to go back to dorm-like living? Or is this a housing solution mainly for twenty-somethings?

At the same time, it’s not an entirely new housing idea. I like the parallel that Sarah Holder of CityLab draws between today’s co-living and yesterday’s single room occupancy buildings (SROs).

There are, of course, many differences, including the amount of space dedicated to common areas (the community aspect). But in both cases, part of the value proposition is about affordability.

Where do you see co-living going?

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Helium launches new decentralized wireless network

San Francisco-based Helium launched a new wireless communication standard today that it is calling “LongFi.” It has 200x the range of WiFi and operates at 1/1000th the cost of a cellar modem. It is perfectly suited to IoT (Internet of Things) devices, such as the electric scooters that are proliferating across our cities. Helium’s goal is to build out the “world’s first peer-to-peer wireless network.”

What’s potentially very exciting about this technology is that it represents decentralized network infrastructure. Anyone can install a Helium Hotspot in their home (to grow the network). And if you do that, you’ll be rewarded with tokens, which, in theory, will have some value going forward. Another way to think of a Helium Hotspot is as “the equivalent of bitcoin mining for network infrastructure.”

Put yet another way, it’s a new kind of wireless protocol and an entirely new business model — which is often how startups end up beating entrenched incumbents. Here is a short description from Union Square Ventures (an investor in the company) on how the Helium network will work:

Hotspots, the backbone of the Helium network, can be deployed by anyone, anywhere, simply by plugging into an existing router.  The Helium network will be assembled, over time, by a broad community of volunteers, civic organizations, commercial partners, and ideally a new class of entrepreneurs building out connectivity in new cities and towns.

Economic activity in the Helium network is coordinated through a new type of blockchain that uses “proof of coverage” (proving that a Hotspot is actually located in physical space) to secure the network and incentivize deployment where it is needed most.  We believe that the Helium network has the potential to become one of the most decentralized blockchain networks in existence, due to physical location as the underpinning of the economic and security model.

This is a good example of the potential of the blockchain technology. We are still waiting for mainstream consumer applications to be built on top of it, but many people within the industry believe we’re only a few years out from that. I’m going to try out a Helium Hotspot as soon as they’re available in Toronto.

Images: Helium

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What I like about Sidewalk Labs’ generative design tool

Last week I went for a tour of Sidewalk Labs’ “307” workshop here in Toronto. In it they have a generative urban design tool that allows you to toggle things like density, building shape, building height, the amount of green space, the distribution of green space, and so on.

Perhaps some of you have seen it or used it before. The controls look like this:

After you’re done playing around with the dials, you are then able to provide feedback on the design that you’ve birthed through two very simple feedback buttons. One is a happy face. And the other is a sad face. (I wonder if the placement of these two buttons has any impact on responses.)

What I like about this tool is that it immediately imposes a certain degree of reality and it forces you, the participant, to acknowledge the various trade-offs that need to be considered when you’re designing and planning a city.

For example, if you want lots of parks and public spaces, but you want to hold population density constant — perhaps because you’re trying to make use of an investment made in transit infrastructure — well then you’ll need to accept taller buildings.

A very similar thought process goes into each and every development pro forma as we all try and manage the myriad of competing interests. But I guess this is also true of life in general. There are gives and there are takes.

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First impressions of the new Focals by North

I am on my third Fitbit device. The first one I got was their very first release. I wanted to try it out and so I put in a pre-order. It was pretty cool, but it wasn’t yet great. So I eventually stopped using it. The second one I got was better, but I somehow lost it, possibly at a bar. Its whereabouts are still unconfirmed to this day.

The FitBit Inspire, which is what I am using now, has really stuck with me. I bought it for the heart rate monitor and for sleep tracking, which is why an Apple Watch wasn’t for me. But the ability to read incoming text messages on my wrist has, surprisingly, also proven to be a feature that I like.

Up until a few months ago, this was the only wearable tech that I owned. However, this spring I was given a pair of smart glasses: the new Focals by North. They are a much better and sexier version of Google Glass. (You can read about my Focals fitting, here.)

The premise behind Focals is that they are the next step toward conflating real life and tech. In other words, instead of pulling out your phone or looking at your wrist, now you can remain engaged and get the information you want by looking straight ahead. The objective is to help you stay present. And they certainly help with that.

Focals are the opposite of Snap’s Spectacles in that the former allows you to consume information, whereas the latter is all about narrow types of content creation. With Focals, you can read and respond to texts, get directions, talk to Alexa (there’s a microphone), see your appointments (and the weather), and even get speaker notes when you’re giving a presentation.

Now that I’ve had some time to test them out, here’s what I would tell you.

Because I don’t wear glasses anymore (I got laser eye surgery so that I could avoid things on my face), it was a bit of an adjustment. While very well designed, they do have some heft. The arms are thicker than normal glasses. So I found myself using them more as sunglasses (they come with great clip-ons). Perhaps I would feel differently if I still wore glasses.

I’m also not a huge fan of the Loop (pictured above), which is the 4-directional joystick that you wear as a ring and use to control the glasses. For me, it simply feels like a bit too much tech to wear on a regular basis. Though I will say that, for what it is, it is well designed and easy to use inconspicuously. The other input mechanism for the glasses is your voice.

With all that said, Focals by North are exceedingly cool. The Canadian company is creating a new category and the glasses do feel like a hint of what’s to come next in the world of wearable technologies. In the same way that I was surprised by just how useful (some) notifications on my wrist could be, I am impressed by the ability to see notifications right in front of me.

North has also been consistent with rolling out software updates and new features. Similar to my experience with Fitbit, the product keeps getting better. Over the last month, they announced conversation awareness (notifications are delayed if the glasses think you’re busy talking), as well as integrations with Google Fit and Google Slide.

Sometimes all you need is one really strong use case for a product or service to work and I think presentations could be one of them for Focals. Having presentation notes float in front of you means you’re not looking down at your notes and away from your audience. And being able to move from slide to slide with your thumb transforms the Loop into now a pretty slick clicker.

I am looking forward to seeing this space develop and I am excited that a Canadian company has jumped out in front. If you’d like to check out Focals for yourself, there are permanent showrooms in Toronto and Brooklyn, as well as pop-ups all across North America.

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Software developers are half of the homebuyers in San Francisco

A couple of months ago I wrote about the relationship between IPOs and home prices. It was in response to the current wave of tech companies — most of which are headquartered in San Francisco — that have gone public or are expected to go public this year (2019). What impact will this have on the city’s housing market?

I cited this academic study on the topic, which already discovered a “positive and significant association between local house price changes and firms going public.” But today I stumbled upon another interesting study by a San Francisco real estate agent, name Deniz Kahramaner, who happens to also be a Stanford-trained data scientist.

What Kahramaner wanted to figure out was, who tends to buy residential real estate in San Francisco?

So he started with title data and then scraped the internet to try and match up individual buyer names with specific companies and industries. Since not everyone has some sort of public profile and because real estate is sometimes held within a company, he was only able to traceback about 55% of home purchases in San Francisco last year.

Still, the data looks pretty clear. About half of the homes bought in 2018 were by individuals whose employment has roots in “software.” The next biggest buyer segment was “finance.”

The other interesting thing about this data set is that it shows where people have been buying (at least last year). Historically, the north end of the city has been the wealthiest, but the above data shows things moving in a southeasterly direction. Though, it remains to be seen what all of this will look like when the dust settles after this current crop of tech IPOs.

Chart: The Atlantic

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Skateboarding to debut at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo

The 2020 Summer Olympics, which will be held in Tokyo, have added 5 new sports, one of which is skateboarding. As someone who grew up skateboarding as a teenager, and is all too familiar with being chased out of public spaces, this lends a great deal of legitimacy to the sport.

It’s hard to think of a sport that is more closely connected with architecture and, more specifically, public architecture. Curbed’s recent long-form article about “the public spaces that shaped skateboarding” is a good reminder of that. Here is an excerpt (EMB refers to Embarcadero Plaza in San Francisco, which was previously known as Justin Herman Plaza):

When skateboarding debuts at the Tokyo Olympics next summer, some three decades after the first polyurethane wheels hit the bricks at EMB, it will have completed the long, improbable trip from criminal act to social and institutional acceptance. But even as an Olympic sport, skateboarding will remain a direct physical response to the varied terrain of American public architecture.

Interestingly enough, one could go on to argue that the history of skateboarding is really steeped in the adoption of public spaces that had, in many cases, failed to serve their intended purpose. In other words, skateboarders were often the only people using these urban spaces:

“What made Justin Herman Plaza attractive to skateboarders and work for skateboarders was its inappropriateness to the traditional city scale and function,” King says. “You had all these planners and architects in the 1950s and ’60s saying cities need these grand, celebratory spaces—and they really didn’t.” But apparently skaters did.

Welcome skateboarding to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Photo by Frans on Unsplash

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OMA’s first ground-up project in Manhattan finishes construction

121 East 22nd — which is OMA’s first ground-up project in Manhattan — recently finished up construction at the corner of E 23rd St and Lexington Ave (the site continues through to E 22nd St, where there is basically a 2nd building). I wrote about the project over two years ago, here.

Below is a photo by Laurian Ghinitoiu, via Dezeen, of it completed:

The defining feature is its “prismatic corner”, which, I understand from this interview with David Von Spreckelsen (President of Toll Brothers City Living), was largely an outcome of the site’s restrictive zoning. There was a requirement to have constant street walls. That minimized what could be done architecturally on the project’s main elevations.

The solution is two contextual street walls — the punched windows are designed to match the rhythm of their adjoining buildings — coming together and creating dramatic visual interest only at the point where they intersect. Below is a rolled out elevation from OMA. Note the gradient created by the windows as they converge toward the corner (center in the drawing below).

The other interesting thing about this project is that it reminded me just how different the built form of Manhattan can be compared to Toronto. In the case of 121 East 22nd, the streetwalls rise 150 feet without any stepbacks. There is then a 10 foot stepback before the building rises another 60 feet — similarly without any additional breaks.

I love the grandeur.

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“We” is the language of leadership

Kawhi Leonard doesn’t say very much, but when he does, he tends to focus the discussion less on himself and more on the achievements of the Toronto Raptors as a whole. He has said many times before in interviews that he doesn’t aspire to be the best player on the team; he aspires to win championships. It’s not about him. It’s about the team. And it’s hard not to respect that kind of humility.

One the things that I try to be aware of in business and in life is how I use first-person singular pronouns (such as “I”) and first-person plural pronouns (such as “we”). The subtleties of language are important and there’s lots of research out there on this topic. Some have even tracked Jeff Bezos’ use of “I” and “we” in Amazon’s annual shareholder letters over time.

Harvard Business Review also argued a few years ago that “we” is the language of leadership because it tells you where someone is focusing their attention. Studies suggest that when people are self-aware or insecure they naturally tend to use more first-person singular pronouns — they turn inward. Conversely, using pronouns such as “we”, “us”, or “you” suggest an outward focus or a focus on other people’s thoughts, opinions, and contributions.

Of course, when you write a personal blog like this one, you naturally end up with a lot of “I.” But when I write about broader topics, such as city building or the housing market, I do try and shift the focus. These are our cities. These are our buildings, streets, and public spaces. We’re in this together. And I aspire to get even better at “we.”

Oh, and go Raptors!

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Saves the dates: The House Beer Garden

We are reasonably confident that summer will eventually arrive in Toronto this year, and so we (Junction House) have partnered with Indie Alehouse to host a public and outdoor beer garden from June through to August, right in the Junction.

We are calling it The House Beer Garden because we both have “House” in our name and that’s as clever as we get.

Here are the details:

There will be four editions of The House Beer Garden and each will host a different local food vendor. For the first one, we will be welcoming Chau Toronto and their modern Asian bites.

The timing of the first Beer Garden also happens to line up with the Annual Summer Solstice Festival in the Junction (that was deliberate). So Dundas Street West will be closed to cars and it’s going to be a lot of fun.

No need to RSVP. Just show up at 2720 Dundas Street West, Junction. See you in two weeks.