When capitalists conspire …

Last April, the Dalhousie Community Association, of which I was President at the time, held its AGM. Hard pressed to come up with speaker to trump the previous year’s John Doran of Domicile speaking on the economics of condo developments, I searched around for an interesting and educational speaker.

Enter Ottawa Senators founder, engineer, professor of architecture, etc etc  Dr Bruce Firestone . He agreed to give a talk on urban redevelopment in older neighborhoods, good or bad.

He sure doesn’t pull punches.  In fact, he referred to a certain yellow brick condo development as being akin to a brown substance we don’t like to step in. Within hours, that comment had reached Neil Malhotra, of Claridge (the CBC video’d the presentation and some media recorded it, maybe they broadcast the most salacious bits).

Neil has been working hard to improve the image of the family firm. He invited Dr Firestone and myself for an off-the-record walk and talk on the Flats and around the proposed  45 storey building site at Preston/Carling.

Firestone, left; Malhotra right.

The walk and talk was scheduled for one hour. But it went on for hours. Both those guys know how to talk. And they know how to diss politely disagree with each other face to face. Some of the comments were brutal. No one, NCC or City or architecture profession, politician or functionaire, or other developer, was exempt. And it sure explained a lot about how the current building form on the Flats came about.

It is much more complex than it seems, with more guilty parties pouring in ingredients and stirring the pot while it boils. As always, post facto criticism is easy, a sin I should plead guilty to. The conversation was very frank because … I agreed not to repeat it.

While walking through the project, I snapped a few photos of things that were new to me. Here are some:

The doors in the basement lobbies of the elevators/stairwells are glass, not utilitarian steel blanks. The elevator lobbies had a mix of basement and fine finishes. The garage areas were nicely handled to reduce that “garage” feeling.

The roofs of the mid-rise building are “green roofs” with large planted sections, including some trees. They were in better shape than when I last saw them, and starting to look like more inviting roofscapes. Much of the surrounding grounds continues to look like a moonscape, thanks to the NCC, PWGSC, and City.

The excavated parking garage was under-sized for the number of units that were eventually built. Larger townhouse-type ground-floor units had to be abandonned when they wouldn’t sell. (The reasoning for this was discussed a number of posts ago, when reviewing Dr Firestone’s graph on the value of space on the ground floor of condominium towers). Converting these spaces into more, smallish apartments, which were selling, left them scrambling for parking spaces. On the south side, and introduced these car parking elevators. Residents actually get a deed to a space that has no floor, but is a space under a ceiling. Residents drive up to the gate, drive onto the lift, and get out of the car, push the activation button, and the car is lifted up and shifted sideways to a empty spot. Nifty, and very expensive.

It is easy for the owner of any firm to get caught up in planning the next project, and building the current one. In busy lives, time for retrospection is scarce. Malhotra’s observations on some of the built features were revealling.

I was surprised by Malhotra’s fluency with, and enthusiasm for,  current planning trends — things like retail storefronts, narrow frontages, finely detailed massing on the lower floors, fine grain mixed uses. I know one other developer who dismisses these things as BS. Malhotra and the good professor ended up supporting much of the same development. Both ended up agreeing that between the well-intentioned plan and the finished execution lies a quagmire that can turn any blueprint princess into a frog. Successful builders manage to make a buck negotiating the mess, surviving to build a better project another day.


One of the valuable things about the WSA blog is the quality of the comments by readers; and the lack of name calling, which mars so many other blogs and MSM sites.  I wouldn’t want this post to elicit some of the latter. As always, I reserve the right to edit or remove some comments.

8 thoughts on “When capitalists conspire …

  1. What are the economics of condo fees? Who pays to fix these car elevators, maintain green roofs and broken glass doors ( when thieves go after the car contents)?

    Do builders take future maintenance costs into account when designing these amenities?

  2. The glass doors are designed to overcome the anxiety of opening a door without knowing what is beyond it, especially in confined spaces or garages. Given that these are in a controlled-access space, glass damage is not a high probability. It also greatly facilitates women buying condos alone.The garage also had numerous “see through” holes cut in garage walls to open up sight lines.

    I dunno who pays to maintain the car elevators. Presumably the condo fees that levied on all garage parkers (non parking space owners usually dont pay garage maintenance fees AFAIK).

    Condo fees cover grounds maintenance. In addition the green roofs up high, note that almost all the grounds surrounding newish condos are in fact roof gardens over the underground parking garages.Presumably grounds (and roofs) are landscaped to enhance the value and quality of living for the homes.


  3. I am not surprised that a successful large scale developer will know about the latest trends and the latest popular ideas. After all he or she will have to defend their designs against people who will be using that language. But at the end of the day it comes down to money. What makes money and what doesn’t. Was there any discussion on how the rules could be changed so that the desirable features we all want would also be the most profitable.

    In the Citizen a while back they took a look at the new stores along baseline in front of the Walmart. The stores were supposed to be making a streetscape and so the rule was that all the stores must have a door facing the street. But as a compromise to reality there is also a door facing the parkinglot where most of the customers come from. Of course the door facing the street is underused or locked as the reporter found out. The way the planners attempted to force feed these walkability features against all economic reality is in my opinion why the latest fads in urban planning might sometimes be called BS. Instead of forcing developers to do things that don’t make economic sense we need to change what makes economic sense.

    1. Unfortunately, “we” at the municipal level have practically no ability to do that.

      At least by doing what they did, the planners have managed to arrange for that bit of street to become pedestrian-oriented in the future more readily than otherwise would have been the case.

  4. @dfg: You’re referring to “Laurentian Place”. It will never be pedestrian-friendly because it isn’t pedestrian-CENTRED. With an owner like SmartCentres (aka DumbCentres?) and an anchor tenant like a (supersized) Walmart, how can it be? Locating the smaller retail buildings near the sidewalk doesn’t change the fact that most of the site is still one big parking lot. No mixed (ie non retail) uses, no obvious or pleasant places for people to walk (except across the parking), no public space to gather in etc.

    1. I completely agree. The bit about getting the doors oriented towards the street was a sop towards the walkability advocates who didn’t want another car-centric big box center. The failure to meaningfully impact the central place of the car in the development by adding walkability requirements was my point. To push development away from cars you have to make it more expensive to build for cars than it is to build for people. We need to adjust the tilt of the playing field,and not attempt to just damn the water in order to prevent it from reaching the lowest point.

Comments are closed.