Archive for commercial development

Canadian City Job Trends Outpacing National Average

Whether one looks at the recent monthly figures, or the five-, 10- or 15-year trends, most of Canada’s major cities have seen jobs growing faster than the national average.

This is intriguing. Canada’s economic growth is heavily dependent on resource extraction–whether oil, natural gas, lumber, coal or copper. This activity takes place far from most major cities, save for Edmonton (and even Edmonton is a 2-3 hour journey from the nearest oil sands project).

This urban job growth demonstrates how much overall economic development resources generate–and the more knowledge intensive nature of this activity in the 21st Century. The oil sector is no longer a pump pulling liquid from the ground and putting it in a tanker car.

Instead, Calgary office towers are filled with accountants, lawyers, engineers, more engineers, financing specialists, construction and project managers, etc. etc. all working directly or indirectly on energy-related activity in Alberta, BC and around the world. The Oil Sands are a brain-intensive activity. Forestry and coal, are less changed from their historic roots, but their influence drives employment in Vancouver, the hub for companies and for exports. The wealth this generates then flows through the economy as people buy homes, go to restaurants, and partake in cultural events.

In Toronto, the head offices of these legal and accounting firms provide further support. Moreover, in Canada’s economic hub shares are traded, mortgages for the vast workforce in Alberta processed, etc. As the strong energy economy bolstered the Canadian dollar following the 2009 recession, Canadian banks (Toronto based) went on a foreign acquisition spree, generating more employment.  If one excludes the structural change in manufacturing in the GTA, Toronto has been growing (job wise) almost as fast as the juggernauts in the West.  This can only be attributed to its connection to the resource sector–as a hub of financial and other business activity.

My conclusion: there is a symbiosis between Canada’s major cities and Canada’s continued place in the global economy providing raw resources. ALthough the cities have other sectors that don’t rely on resources–like software–these do not compare in terms of economic impact to the resource sector.

Anyone have a different explanation?

Ordinary working people own financial districts

The Occupy Wall Street movement is spreading to financial districts across North America and the world.  Seems an appropriate time to think about who actually owns and profits from that real estate.

Union pension funds are the owners of many office towers in Canada’s financial districts

Increasingly Canadian union pension funds are buying up US office towers too. US pension funds are also big owners of real estate.

Gatherings and protests can sometimes become destructive, often against the original organizers vision. We’ve all seen the TV footage or been first hand eye witnesses when a peaceful gathering turns into something else.

Various unions are now endorsing the “Occupy” movement.

They just might want to be extra vigilant to make sure no one trashes their pension fund’s office buildings or those belonging to the pensions of fellow unions from across the country or around the world.

The banks are merely tenants–renters.  A lot of hard working ordinary people are the actual owners of the real estate via their union pension plans.

Supermarket parking lots as new neighbourhood hubs

Could supermarket parking lots in now-dense urban areas become public squares? or be re-designed as great public places in other ways?

Neal Pierce recently penned an intriguing piece about supermarkets on

We perfected the buy-and-drive model from the post-World War II expansion onward. But is it necessarily the future?

No, asserts my Seattle friend and urban design planner, Mark Hinshaw. He sees a dramatically transformed role for supermarkets. They’ll actually become the anchors of new and walkable neighborhoods, he predicts in a Planning magazine article co-authored with markets analyst Brian Vanneman.

Why the shift? Americans’ high personal consumption levels were starting to wind down even before the Great Recession. Households have shrunk in size and the population is aging, with more taste for close-by shops and facilities. Many young people are eschewing the scattered suburban pattern in favor of denser urban living. Buying a house on the urban fringe, once seen as a ticket to wealth-building, now looks to be a big risk. Walking for health and weight loss has begun, for many Americans, to outshine the sedentary lifestyle of using an auto for every conceivable errand. And many people are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

Neighbourhoods that offer the option of walking to do one’s errands have grown in popularity for all the reasons cited above.  In some places this has resulted in homes (including town homes, mid rise and high rise buildings) now surrounding what used to be a more isolated supermarket with a massive, attached parking lot.

In these cases, it seems that turning this space into something more could be great for everyone.

  • If additional small stores or service businesses were added to the space, it would attract more shoppers–great for business.
  • If there was some public space like a small playground, or a sitting area to enjoy one’s coffee, people would come to connect with their neighbours and not just to shop.
  • And if this space connected to other walkable–perhaps retail–streetscapes, more customers would be drawn in.

The owner of the supermarket and parking lot could also benefit through increased property values or options.  A redevelopment of the space might allow for the creation of office or residential space above.

To be sure, parking would still be required at these new versions–sometimes the groceries you need to get are heavy and the car is the logical option–but perhaps fewer spaces, or underground.

While many suburban supermarkets-and-parking lots will likely remain auto-centric destinations for a while.  There are places where density has grown up around these expansive uses and the whole community could benefit from the “accident” of having a big empty space that can now be used for community building rather than parking.

Future transit oriented retail developments

When more people are taking mass transit, it creates new challenges and opportunities for offering urban retail conveniences.

Recently Richard Layman offered a good discussion of what might be ahead:

Picture the following scenario: Mr. or Mrs. suburban Anoka pulls into the parking structure adjacent to the train station along the Northstar Commuter Rail Corridor in Anoka. It is 6:50 a.m. He or she has 10 minutes to complete some errands and buy some essential sundries before boarding the 7 a.m. train headed for downtown Minneapolis. He or she can buy coffee, a breakfast sandwich and a newspaper before boarding the train.

If there is extra time, the same transit rider could drop off dry cleaning to be picked up later, leave the car at the nearby “convenience auto” stop for a wash and an oil change and deposit the toddlers at day care or pre-school.

The transit commute home in the evening presents more possibilities. How about a take-away, prepared food counter where a broasted chicken or take ’n bake pizza could be secured for the evening meal or a “mini-fitness” workout locker room?

Of course, the challenge with these “transit station marketplaces” is attracting customers and patrons during the midday hours when the train volume and passenger traffic will be at their low point.

 It seems that transit oriented “park and ride” stations as described by Lehman (who lives in the Washington DC area) may face the challenge of not having an adequate “daytime” population to patronize restaurants and retail.

Perhaps a key to future transit stations will be ensuring enough people live there or nearby.  For example, combining the concept of a transit station with a lifestyle centre complete with condominiums and townhomes.  Or, putting park-and-ride transit stops in existing”town centres” or satellite city downtowns seeing a renaissance could help.

Putting at Transit-Oriented retail development in the middle of a low-density suburb sounds like a recipe for retail failure, which could also lead to a failure to attract more transit users as going to an abandoned mall is far less appealing than going to a “happening place” full of people.

Hope against the spread of generica

Visiting a new city becomes far more meaningful when you can find unique places where local people live and interact — when you can find an actual community.   Usually this requires finding locally owned and operated restaurants, cafes, shops, etc. that often anchor neighborhoods.
In so many cities, whether in North America or around the world, global brands have taken over certain commercial areas, including (or particularly) around where visitors might congregate such as off ramps from freeways, around tourist hotels, and near tourist attractions.   Not knowing whether any alternative exists just a few minutes drive or walk down a side street means that people often patronize the familiar generic chains at the expense of local independent business.

Brendan at the Where Blog offers hope against the spread of generica.  He proposes that RSS feeds on small devices like the Blackberry might offer a way for visitors to explore a new neighborhood.

Now imagine that you’re a tourist on a first-time trip to New York. Subscribe in advance to a feed like this and have bite-sized neighborhood tours sent to you every three hours. These tours could even be sequentially linked to start you off in each neighborhood, allowing for a few hours of independent exploration between tours. Heck, with the ubiquity of GPS technology, you could download a series of geo-coded tours in advance that would be triggered when you passed from one neighborhood to the next. As you walk north across Houston Street from SoHo to the Village, your phone rings. You answer, and a voice suggests that you walk three blocks east to Houston and Thompson to begin the Greenwich Village tour.

With this sort of technology, unfamiliar territory becomes a bit less intimidating. Recent transplants get out and meet more of their neighbors. Tourists get a boost in confidence that would likely encourage them to cover more ground and venture farther off the beaten path

What intrigues me about a technology like this is that it would allow many visitors to venture beyond Burger King for lunch and thereby support more independent businesses.

The same technology could provide links to restaurant menus, customer reviews and other information such as prices and speed or type of service (ie is this a restaurant for quick take out meals, or more of a sit-and-linger place).   Perhaps photographs could be available — or even live web cams.  The latter might allow locals could check to see who is there and would allow anyone to see if the place is busy or would have room for them.

With this information more people might try someplace new, whether close to home on when further away.

Neighborhood guiding technology, written by locals, could be a great way to preserve independent businesses and the character of communities within cities.

Want to live above a car dealership?

At the Northwest corner of Kingsway and 12th Avenue in Vancouver there is a 10 storey condo tower going in above a Honda dealership.  My first reaction was huh?! Followed by “who would want to live there?”

But the more I thought about it, the more this seems like the cutting edge of a trend.

In a geographically constrained city that is growing in population, it represents a needed land use.  Car dealerships — necessary in our automobile oriented society (or a necessarily evil, if you prefer) — tend to occupy a lot of space in order to display vehicles and service them.  As land prices rise, putting a condo tower above makes it affordable to the dealership, and makes the dealership much less of a “waste of space” than if it stood alone.

But the location still leaves something to be desired.  With a  muffler shop and a Toyota dealership across the street, this condominium residence at first struck me as a post-modern, urban version of living on a freeway frontage road lined with automobile related businesses.

However, because “location, location, location” is what drives up real estate prices, perhaps units in this tower will be more affordable than those in trendy Yaletown, Fairview Slopes or Kitsilano.  And, a good elementary school is only two blocks away.  Major transit lines are equally close and downtown Vancouver would be just 5-10 minutes away by car, or perhaps 20 using the bus and 10 minutes by bike.

The next unique use I’m waiting to see are residences above a gas station.

New lens on New York (Warhol Economy Reviewed)

Elizabeth Currid, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City (Princeton University Press, 2007). See also the earlier post, “Top Three Reasons to Read the Warhol Economy.

Elizabeth Currid seeks to turn our assumptions about New York‘s economy upside down. Most people assume that New York‘s economic core and global pull comes from its financial core — from Wall Street. Currid argues that its true global importance comes from its artistic and creative cluster — artists, musicians, fashion designers and writers and the activities that surround them. An assistant professor of urban planning, Currid also wants to make planners recognize the importance of the cultural economy as well as show how this cluster is intricately intertwined within the city — almost any policy or action that affects New York, affects the culture cluster.

The main evidence for the cultural economy’s importance to New York‘s economy is in chapter three. Until then, I was skeptical of her assertions that the arts community mattered that much — (a better organizational flow for the book might have been to have made this the first chapter). Using a methodology called location quotient, Currid illustrates that arts and culture workers and the media sector are more concentrated in New York than employees of any other industry when compared to other cities. Among the other evidence Currid cites, she found that New York has been steadily losing its share of US corporate head offices, from holding 31% in 1955, today the entire metro region (which includes parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut) only holds 14%.

Currid provides a focused lens into how the arts and culture community is intricately intertwined with New York‘s history as well as its present. In chapter one she illustrates how, during the late 1960s though early 1980s, when New York’s economy was struggling and crime was high, the arts flourished. Artists, musicians and related creative types found cheap housing and inexpensive studio space in particular neighborhoods like SoHo. Inexpensive rent also allowed night clubs to flourish in these areas. Since that time, rents have gradually increased, pushing out artists as well as their haunts (the closing of CBGB being the most notable).

The dense concentration of artistic types allowed them to meet, socialize, and cross pollinate ideas as well as promote each other’s works. Currid has many great stories about how well known artists and musicians got their breaks. Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah was a local indie band until David Bowie and Talking Heads’ David Byrne heard a buzz on the street, went to a show, loved the music, and started telling their friends. Soon Clap Your Hands had a record deal and a tour. Madonna became known, in part, through dating a famous (or infamous) New York graffiti artist. The artistic scene in New York allows this to happen.

The numerous formal and informal — and even messy — interactions that connect the people and companies within a cluster come alive under Currid’s direction. Currid offers a detailed, thorough account of how a cluster works at the micro level where people cross over related industries (graffiti artist and fashion designer, for example), cross-pollinate ideas, and work through word of mouth. Artists, musicians, fashion designers, and their media supporters and critics run in the same social circles, attending the same gallery openings or indie band concerts, and frequenting the same night clubs (like the famous CBGB). People and their ideas cross-pollinate in the social, informal milieu.  A cool part of the book is how Currid herself became part of her subject – the arts network — attending gala gallery openings and exclusive parties, talking to people who then introduced her to others. It really is all about “who you know.”

While she briefly acknowledges the social informal networks in other clusters, Currid downplays its importance outside the culture cluster. However, you can replace the gallery openings in Currid’s treatment with a golf course or the box suite at a hockey or football game and the process is remarkably similar. Because of the details, students interested in clusters generally should be able to glean some good insights and develop new theories into how they work.

The artistic and creative economy evolved organically in New York. The density of artists allowed them to support and inform each others work – and the density attracted more creative people. But how do you preserve the physical milieu in which the arts culture thrives — the night clubs, cheap artists studios and housing, galleries, etc. — in light of gentrification forces? (Assuming that you can stop or profoundly shape urban evolution and organic change, which Currid does seem to assume).

In her final chapter, Currid offers advice to public policy makers and urban planners. While I commend her for offering ideas to this challenging issue, I found some of Currid’s suggestions problematic or contradictory. On the one hand, Currid illustrates how the artistic cluster evolved and thrived when more chaos reigned in the 1970s and 1980s. Government wasn’t doing much; the city was almost being let go. But later she calls for government intervention.

One solution she suggests is subsidized artist housing. But she also mentioned this exists now, and bankers, lawyers etc. end up living in it. She suggests finding a way to stop “non artists” from using it. Somehow I don’t think most American people — especially the free thinking creative types portrayed in the book — would accept the level of surveillance on their lives that would be required to make such a policy work.

Something notably absent from Currid’s otherwise thorough work was what she believed the impact of Guiliani’s crime-reduction and disorder-reduction policies were on the arts scene. Everywhere in the book she connects the disorder to creativity, and the higher crime to lower rents and the flourishing of the artistic scene.

One characteristic of a good book is that it inspires further thought and research – and this book had me thinking about myriad issues on every page. A few bigger questions that come to mind:

  • How do the arts and culture clusters work in other cities?
  • How have other clusters risen and fallen with the economic history and cycles of New York and other cities?
  • She hints that the artistic cluster actually ties in other clusters as well – the accountants who know indie music, the lawyer who attends gallery openings. In other cities is there a cluster that connects accountants, lawyers, doctors etc? maybe a sports cluster for example?
  • Can government policy really stop urban evolution? Or shape it?
  • What is the relationship between crime, disorder, and a flourishing arts scene?

Currid’s evidence leads to a question she doesn’t directly address: if we want a thriving artistic economy, should we be wary of policies to bring more order to a city (such as by reducing graffiti, crimes, drug use, etc. ) That might be a tough one to sell to voters.

Dubai – a microcosm of globalization?

What does globalization really mean? It’s a loaded term with many meanings. Perhaps one way to understand what the shrinking distances between people, economies, cities and countries really means is to look at life in one city that exists in its current form because of global trade and travel – Dubai.

Dubai is a city in the United Arab Emirites that has long historic routes as a regional trading centre, but only recently has become well known internationally. The government has undertaken a bold scheme to use the income from the limited oil reserves of this emirite to build a global financial center as well as international shopping and tourist destination.

Most work is done by foreigners, imported for their particular skills. This is where Dubai seems to encapsulate a darker side of the global economy — the stratification of jobs, and incomes, sometimes along national lines. Creative, professional and management type jobs tend to go to North Americans and Europeans. Skilled and semi-skilled labor is typically done by people from the Indian sub-continent but also Africa and other parts of the world. Tourists are typically caucasion, and usually from Europe — or UN workers and non-profit development staff stationed in places like Afganinstan taking a break. The class/race stratification is shocking. The few who are true emirate citizens are either managers or live off the income from oil and investments.

I’m trying to decide if Dubai and its social stratification is a microcosm of the world, or just a unique place.
This week south-Asian workers staged a strike. According to CBC news, construction workers were protesting poor working conditions and wages.

Dubai is currently home to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai expected to be completed in 2008 and home of the world’s first Armani luxury hotel, and authorities report an annual average growth rate of 12 per cent over the past decade, largely driven by construction.

The boom has been possible due to plentiful investment from oil rich neighbours and armies of non-unionized South Asian workers whose fear of deportation, until recently, kept them from voicing discontent over low wages.

“The cost of living here has increased so much in the past two years that I cannot survive with my salary,” said Rajesh Kumar, a 24-year-old worker from the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, earning $150 a month.

This weekend the workers ignored the threat of deportation and refused to go to work, staging protests at a labour camp in Dubai’s Jebel Ali Industrial Zone and on a construction site in Al Qusais residential neighbourhoodThey demanded pay increases, improved housing and better transportation services to construction sites. On Saturday workers threw stones at riot police and damaged their cars.

The government is threatening deportation for some (foreigners have few rights in Dubai), however the construction managers and business community are generally against this as there is a labor shortage. Indeed, because of good economic times in India, cheap labor is becoming harder to come by in Dubai, generating challenges for the ambitious construction schedule.

There is another question here for cities like Dubai: Can a city survive on imported, rather than home grown labor and talent? What if not only the poorly-paid construction workers left, but also what if the highly-paid foreign real estate development managers and financial market gurus left for home as well?

And yet, I hope that the contrast of rich and poor, of highly paid talent from North America and Europe set against poorly paid labor from South Asia, is not really a microcosm of the world.


Final, personal note: I did see the social stratification contrasted against ridiculous extravagance first hand three years ago. During a 24 hour layover in Dubai en route from Islamabad to London, my husband and I stashed our luggage at the giant glitzy airport and hopped on the bus to reach the old part of town. We were the only Caucasians using the spotless, brand new public transit system. The other passengers appeared to represent the multi-ethnic planet earth. The Indian-looking driver piloted the vehicle through major thoroughfares and onto narrower streets lined with industrial looking apartments, each with a balcony crammed with clotheslines displaying colourful laundry. They instantly reminded me of apartment blocks in working class neighborhoods of Latin America or Eastern Europe. On the roads, women in jewel encrusted black burka’s drove luxury automobiles (how they see to drive remains a mystery to me) while white men and women preferred SUVs, often white in colour. The modern shopping malls were more glitzy and grand than any I’d ever seen. A friend working there (managing a major development project) also took us on a tour. The strangest stop was a small high-rise neighborhood that looked — deliberately, by design — exactly like part of Yaletown in Vancouver.

Toronto on the rise?

Toronto is changing fast. No longer is it just Canada’s financial and business hub, but it’s becoming a world centre as well, with many of the spin off benefits and challenges.

This is the argument or observation of Dr. Sherry Cooper, the Chief Economist at BMO Capital Markets and BMO Nesbitt Burns in an essay she penned last week.

In my view, Toronto is becoming a world-class financial and commercial centre on the order of New York and London. While [new ultra-deluxe] condos are going for $1,300-to-$1,800 a square foot, they are cheap by international standards. Donald Trump—at the Toronto ground breaking of Trump Tower Torontos construction at Adelaide and Bay—recently declared that comparable property would sell for $5,000 a square foot in New York and even more in London.

No where is the new wave of foreign money more evident than on Bloor Street—Toronto’s version of the Big Apple’s Fifth Avenue with its mixed-use high-end residential, office and retail space. New designer stores are opening and existing ones are expanding. Canada’s-own Holt Renfrew’s flagship store has expanded and remodeled, becoming even more decidedly upscale; as well, designer boutiques such as Chanel, Gucci, and Escada have expanded. High-priced trendy restaurants are popping up city wide and the remodeling and expansion of the ROM, the Gardiner Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario are enhancing this urban renewal. We are observing the gentrification of Bloor Street west of Avenue Road and east of Yonge Street as downscale commercial properties are replaced by upscale residences and boutiques. For example, the 16-storey ultra-luxury Museum House condominium development will take the place of the Pizza Hut opposite the ROMs new Crystal and it will be accompanied by other luxury condos on that same strip of Bloor. Even the seamier side of Yonge St. south of Bloor will change with the coming (in 2011) 80-storey hotel/residential/retail tower of 1 Bloor, touted as the tallest residential tower in Canada by its Kazakhstan-based developer. This five-star boutique hotel will join the other five larger five-star hotels opening in Toronto in the next few years, taking us from not a single five-star hotel in all of Canada to six and counting in Toronto alone.

Bottom Line: this is a fascinating and important economic development, bearing with it enormous portent. On the positive side, it will be a boost to the revenue base of the beleaguered city government and certainly increase the economic growth of the city and no doubt encourage the rise of the Canadian dollar. On the negative side, it will reduce the affordability of the city for current residents, potentially displacing low-income residents. It puts additional strain on public services and adds to the de-industrialization of the inner city. Historical preservation has become an issue as we have seen with the saving of the old fire house and the frontage of the first site of Mt. Sinai hospital on Yorkville Avenue. We run the risk of creating concrete caverns that block the sun and increase gridlock on already-busy city streets. It is an opportunity and a challenge, and it is happening faster than most people realize.

Toronto is certainly changing. While I generally agree with Cooper, I think she may be over-stating the case for current change — although not Toronto’s potential. I’m not sure it is achieving the status of New York or London — at least not yet. But it may be securing a role as the number two financial centre in North America after New York. And Toronto has a lot of advantages in terms of growing in this area:

In particular, Toronto offers an attractiveness to potential foreign immigrants and an easier immigration process, in comparison to New York. With over 40% of the population foreign born in the Toronto area (know locally as the GTA), most immigrants can find an ex-pat community from their birth country, should this be important. And Canada has been easing immigration restrictions, particularly for young, educated professionals — talent — which is becoming scarce in some industries and cities.

Toronto as a city is more like New York and London than most North American places. Although automobile-centred sprawl has created some challenges in recent decades, the older districts in the core are more human centred and walkable — and well serviced by efficient public transportation options used by all levels of society (much like New York and London). As oil becomes expensive and more sustainable living desirable, Toronto like New York and London is better positioned.

Certainly, Toronto lacks the same history as a global hub that London and New York share. But has Dubai has shown, this can be overcome with ingenuity, determination, and boldness. Further growth in Toronto may, therefore, require some clever and brash steps from business and political leaders.

And, Cooper is correct in noting the challenges. One she doesn’t mention is that Toronto’s infrastructure is decaying. Roads, overpasses, sewers, etc. require upgrades. Moreover, the city is desperately short of funds and cutting back services to citizens. I’m not sure that new deluxe condos will bring in enough new revenue to really help.

Without good infrastructure, the city will start to decline under its own weight and become less livable, undermining its potential as a financial centre. It’s the federal government’s revenues that will really benefit from Toronto becoming a bolder, global city and financial hub. And its from Ottawa that more support will be needed in order for Toronto to continue on this path.

Ending an era and new beginnings

The rapid revitalization of downtowns and urban cores has driven up demand for housing in many North American (and especially Canadian) cities, raising property values and pushing some uses out. New townhouse and condominium developments often require long-standing businesses to close – as can new retail projects to serve the growing population.

Toronto Star columnist Tony Wong wrote a great piece a couple weeks ago about what is being lost.

The last customer in Tony Pontieri’s neighbourhood garage shop drove a black Honda Civic.

She had wanted a front licence plate put on her car, for which the dealer wanted to charge her an hourly rate. Pontieri did it free.

“I’m going to really miss you,” she told Pontieri, 49.

So will a lot of other customers. Independent garages in downtown Toronto are a rarity, and now one of the city’s oldest establishments is selling out for an undisclosed sum.

“It’s going to be tough leaving. I’ll really miss the customers,” said Pontieri, in shorts and a T-shirt, packing a skid as he prepared to move out by Monday. “This place is as old as I am.”

The Pontieri story is a familiar one. Toronto’s real estate boom has meant older, established businesses are cashing out to new development. Earlier this year, the iconic Addison on Bay Cadillac dealership closed its doors to make way for a condo.

The area has changed considerably from the time father Frank Pontieri opened the shop in 1958. “There were train tracks and hobos living in abandoned trains. Now I’m surrounded by million-dollar condos.”

Even the St. Lawrence Farmers’ Market next door has gone upscale. A sign outside advertises Organic Gourmet Tofu.

Pontieri figures at least half a dozen local garages have ceased to exist over the past decade.

Increasing population density in the city is generally a good thing for decreasing environmental impact and improving urban livability. But there is a cost.

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