Mixed Use Developments: Part 1

Mixed Use Developments have been at the forefront of public policy and opinion for a number of years now. I have been fortunate enough to attend numerous conferences and presentations on the subject and would like to share different views associated with it, namely the public’s, developer’s and ultimately my own as it relates to Red Deer.

In this post I will present the highlights from Larry Beasley’s presentation at a recently attended real estate conference. Larry Beasley was the long-serving Chief Planner for the City Of Vancouver and now advises cities and developers across Canada and around the world. The focus on the presentation was the transformation of inner-cities across the country by adding housing back into the downtown and what the public and private sectors can do to help.

Calgary’s Strategy for Densification and Mixed-Use

Public Sector

Urban sprawl has been widely accepted as unsustainable and the move has been to create higher density, mixed-use developments with the emphasis on “live, work, play and learn”. Cities need to be managed efficiently and we need to be able to afford to pay for them. The environmental impact of developments has also become of greater importance and this leads into a necessary component of the smart growth strategy by implementing public transit and becoming less reliant on the automotive. Some statistics given were that over 200,000 people now live in Toronto’s core city; over 110,000 for Vancouver and similar numbers for Montreal. Calgary currently sits at 37,000 and counting.

Private Sector

The private sector has somewhat resisted this policy by rightfully questioning the demand from the consumer for these types of developments. Were people ready to give up the car, move from their single family homes, and relocate to the inner core? The result has been that there is a demand for this type of development. The demographics support this:

“people are living longer and healthier and a lot of them want to get out of the big single family home, freeing up their money for other things; people are coupling later and having children later, so they have time and are inclined to pursue an urban lifestyle before they settle into the longterm family home. Immigration is also helping: many immigrants to Canada come from societies where multiple family, dense living is the norm and, for many of them, it remains the preference.”

However, is this growth sustainable? He has his doubts. With all the progress that has been gained over the years, only about 5% of people have changed their preferences to this type of model. “Over 60% of people still choose to live in the suburban, low-density, single-family, auto-oriented lifestyle”. We may be hitting peak demand, this is already been shown in many American cities.  To spur new demand the focus will need to be towards households with children or family households.

 Smart Growth Myths

The first myth (and maybe the biggest) is that the car is on the way out. This is simply not the case, it absolutely is here to stay. Cars are still needed to get around and the price of gas is not as problematic as it was perceived; people value their personal mobility. The second myth is that the aspiration of owning a single family home is on the way out. There isn’t evidence to support this and even though it is becoming more expensive to own a home, the end goal is own that single family home. The final myth is that the social neighbourhood is on the way out. He believes this isn’t true and that people care a lot about schools, shops, and neighbourliness.

Strategy for Higher Density for Family Homes

Factors needed by all residents of higher density housing include controlling noise, privacy, and security; access to public transit; and an overall high quality product. Factors specific to family homes include appropriate bedroom counts and separation from living areas; private open spaces; appropriate storage provisions; in-unit laundry; secure and visible semi-public outdoor spaces for children; family gathering and party facilities; some townhouse type of units for people with pets; parks; schools; and community and childcare facilities. In hindsight, he believes Vancouver didn’t go far enough.

Parking has to be readdressed, we cannot forgot about people’s desire to own a car. In one project for inner-city Vancouver, they tried the “no-parking approach” and it was a disaster. They had to go back and build parking structures after-the-fact to accommodate the people who insisted on keeping their cars. An interesting idea was to bring the single family garage to an urban environment by creating additional storage space within a garage style parkade. Space also need to be more flexible. Family needs are constantly changing as kids grow up and their space needs to change with them.

How to Make It Happen

In order to make the urban lifestyle a reality, the public and private sectors have to work together: “developers do housing; cities do neighbourhood infrastructure – together we can do both in a way that reinforces one another”. The design has to come from the ground up, cutting across public and private property lines. Both architects and urban designers on both the public and private sector need to work together and develop a framework in which everyone can work off of.

The second challenge is how to fund and pay for these designs. A plan needs to be put into place to finance growth so that services and amenities are paid for and delivered as new residents arrive. Reshaping zoning from “policing” to “facilitating” preferred forms for the future through incentives that reward progressive production.

The final challenge is working together to market the models to new customers. The lifeystle needs to be sold, not just the individual project. “When the downtown lifestyle becomes truly ‘hip’ and ‘chic’, then the consumer shift will really begin – that is when it becomes a genuine social movement rather than just an interesting curiosity.”