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Master-planned communities: Huge projects, huge efforts

Master-planned communities present more challenges than erecting a single building, putting more...

IMAGE: First Gulf's master-planned Toronto East Harbour community, shown in an artist's concept. (Courtesy First Gulf)

First Gulf’s master-planned Toronto East Harbour community, shown in an artist’s concept. (Courtesy First Gulf)

Master-planned communities present more challenges than erecting a single building, putting more pressure on developers to both pay attention to detail and, at the same time, build flexibility into their plans.

“Don’t fall in love with your master plan, because the first one is going to be wrong,” said First Gulf senior vice-president of development Derek Goring during a panel discussion at the recent Land & Development conference in Toronto. His company is overseeing the development of Toronto’s 60-acre East Harbour site and its 10 million square feet of office, retail, institutional, hotel, recreation, arts, culture and entertainment space.

Goring stressed the importance of master planning for things that happen underground, including parking, utilities and environmental remediation. He said if a developer focuses all of its attention on what’s happening above ground before considering what’s going on below it, the project probably won’t work.

Canopy Lands Inc. president Asad Niazi said he’s kept up at night these days by the added documentation contributing to a longer and more expensive approval process in his home base of Calgary. He added that limited road, water and sewer capacities are often challenges when developing brownfield communities.

Urban Equation director and Windmill Developments partner Justin George said a major challenge in starting master-planned communities is adjusting to long timelines which require you to think five to 15 years ahead.

Most such developments also require plenty of infrastructure investment, which can be difficult to finance and plan. George stressed the importance of developing long-term partnerships so “patient” capital is available from investors willing to go through multiple financial and political cycles with you.

Communicating with politicians important

A major concern of Choice Properties REIT (CHP-UN-T) associate VP of development Joe Svec is the political planning process. Major master-planned projects can involve multiple governments and jurisdictions because they take so long to plan and develop.

“We try very hard to get along with everybody because you don’t know who’s going to be in government next,” said Goring. “You try to tailor your messaging, your objectives and what you’re trying to accomplish to the goals and objectives of the government you’re trying to interact with.”

Niazi said he gets involved with city councillors at the earliest stages of development.

He becomes hands-on with media and social media so he knows what politicians are thinking, and he engages with them. That, he said, is a practice elected officials appreciate.

Engaging the public on master plans

In addition to the discussion about engaging politicians, the panelists also advocated good communication with members of the communities in which they plan to develop.

“By talking extensively on an ongoing basis, and starting very early, it helps to flush out the hot-button issues that you’re going to run into at some point anyways,” said Goring. “So why not find out about them early and see if there are things that you can do in the design of the project, or the way you phase the project, to help address those hot-button issues?”

First Gulf held public meetings for East Harbour asking community members to help identify assets and deficits in the area. It took information from that exercise and built it into its master plan, which created support and cut down on opposition during the approval process with the City of Toronto.

Niazi said you should never play bait-and-switch with the public. He now makes it a point to show people sketches of a proposed development right from the start, and to stick with the proposed density and square footage to create confidence and trust.

Choice converted a portion of an old Zellers store at its Bloor Street West and Dundas Street West development site in Toronto into a 2,500-square-foot “community idea centre” that can hold 500 people and host community engagement events and workshops for children.

“It’s really important for the project and for us to get our image out as a community builder,” said Svec. “It shows that we have a lot of skin in the game and we’re there for the long term.”

Importance of public transit and parking

Since a large office employment component was proposed for East Harbour, Goring said First Gulf was able to convince the municipal and provincial governments to build a transit hub at the site.

Likewise, Choice received permission to build a bridge from north of Bloor Street to its development between Bloor and Dundas Street. This allows easier access to the offices it plans to build from the multiple lines of public transit in the neighbourhood.

Canopy has six current projects in the Calgary area. Niazi said he’s working with the local government to subsidize transit for one suburban development. He’s considering an on-demand transit system, where people call and a small bus comes and takes them to a central location, for another one.

Ottawa-based Windmill is considering a development site near a transit hub where it can benefit from an extra building height allowance. That’s offered because the city wants to recoup its investment in its oft-delayed LRT system.

George is wary, however, because he said even downtown Ottawa is still very car-centric and he doesn’t know how many riders will use the LRT when it’s finished.

“We try to theme our communities and buildings with sustainability in mind, and we’re pushing for less parking,” said George. “The challenge when you’re selling condos at the higher end of the market is that people want to have a car or maybe two cars.”

Windmill and Choice are both attempting to future-proof expensive underground parking garages, however.

They’re building the structures so they can be converted to offices, gyms, indoor gardens or other amenity spaces if, as predicted, in 20 years or so fewer people own vehicles.

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