Mixed-use positions better neighbourhoods

Better use of leveraging resources in the overall neighbourhood is key factor in city-building
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
By Rebecca Melnyk

With the rise of mixed-use developments comes the opportunity to create sustainable, long-lasting structures that enhance surrounding buildings and their respective neighbourhoods—a place where people live, work and play in the same area.

Neighbourhoods that incorporate a mix of uses are also good for the environment. At a recent talk during April’s Green Real Estate Conference on greening mixed-use properties, industry insiders elaborated on the various benefits, as well as the challenges of these inherently complex designs.

Rob Spanier, partner and principal at LiveWorkLearnPlay, posed one of the first questions, on what actually makes mixed-use sustainable.

“You’re putting all the elements together in one place, he said, “thereby increasing usage, decreasing cost and hopefully increasing the overall wellness factor.”

Sustainable benefits of mixed-use

Derek Goring, vice-president of development at First Gulf, also added his voice to the topic, emphasizing two overarching themes.

The first is the optimization and better practice of resources, where multiple uses consume resources differently. Secondly, developers and planners should be able to think about sustainability on a neighbourhood level, where, ultimately, people rely less on cars.

He pointed to a couple of mixed-use projects that highlight prospective green benefits. For example, the former Toronto Sun block on King Street East, which will house the head office of Coca Cola Canada and the new Globe and Mail office next year.

“The project is sustainable because it’s an adoptive reuse of a heritage building and also a mixed-use office with a substantial retail component,” he said. “Because of the mix of uses, the project has the opportunity to leverage resources more efficiently.”

For instance, reducing the amount of parking. Parking is an amenity people don’t use at the same time, as opposed to separate uses, which create more overall parking. Another example is the capacity for HVAC since resources can be used at different times of the day or week.

The First Gulf development will also create jobs in the neighbourhood, while providing needed services and amenities for office tenants and those living in the area, such as a grocery store and an LCBO.

“It means the overall neighbourhood is more sustainable because there are more things people can go to on their feet, rather than in their car,” he added, elaborating on the company’s big plans for a 60-acre site at 21 Don Roadway in Toronto.

The company, which is one of the land owners and the master planner, is currently attempting to find ways to leverage existing infrastructure of the site which will one day transform into a 12-million-square-foot development consisting of 80 per cent office and 20 per cent retail space.

Despite no roads running through the former Unilever property, barriers such as the Gardiner and DVP could also be highways connecting the development to the broader city network.

“The idea of making minor reconfigurations of existing infrastructure so that more uses can take advantage of the infrastructure is inherently more sustainable,” noted Goring, adding that a large-scale project offers more sustainable opportunities over site-specific spots.

Potential realities include district energy, orienting buildings to benefit from passive solar, and heating and cooling to integrate uses to make better use of building systems. And even though the land is designated for employment, it is surrounded by residential properties, which will create a more sustainable neighbourhood as people can use the site to work, shop and play. It’s about thinking long-term, from a city-building perspective.

Other mixed-use sites are grasping onto this idea of city-building – Zibi in Ottawa and Toronto’s Well and Canary District, for example. Spanier likens the development process of the Canary District to “curating a village,” which includes the recent announcement of seven, handpicked non-national retailers who are also stable operators. ”

You don’t have to turnover and change, you can actually create a very vibrant place, said Spanier. “The park, streetscape and promenade, all these things coming to life, are real sustainable legacies.”

Sustainable challenges of mixed-use

One of the biggest challenges in creating sustainable mixed-use developments is how the process is communicated to stakeholders. Hugh Clark, vice-president of development at Allied Properties REIT, said although benchmarks like LEED have transformed the market in meaningful ways, they are still difficult to grasp among the general public, and their complexity and benefits must be communicated properly to stakeholder groups to truly be understood and appreciated.

Another point that resonated throughout the discussion is how the cost of implementing sustainable features may outweigh the benefits. Spanier said it’s about getting the fundamentals right. “You need to understand what it is you’re trying to achieve and then dial in those elements that are fundamentally green,” he said, adding that projects in development now, need to target what end-users are looking for.

“Developers need to think about the return they can get by getting a greater tenant to spend more time and money and derive more happiness for the overall project,” he said.

For Alex Speigel, partner at Windmill Development Group, challenges to mixed-use in single buildings result from issues such as stacking things vertically to value proposition, as the current market values residential more than office and retail.

Sometimes, said Goring, uses that would benefit the neighbourhood from a city-building perspective don’t always translate to the market conditions at the particular time of a development.

Speigel agreed. “It becomes a challenge if, when developing a site, a component of the site doesn’t generate the same returns,” he said. “The proforma has to be replenished.” In the leasing process, although residential projects are presold, it’s difficult to prelease non-residential space, as building times vary and businesses need certainty.

Getting back to the idea of neighbourhood as a whole, Goring says it’s important to see what a community needs on a broader scale, which could create a challenge.

“If the city is thinking about how to be sustainable they really have to do an analysis at a neighbourhood level, of what things are required in order to be successful in the long-term.”

“Something municipalities need a lot of help with is their policy work in figuring out what they need to provide policy direction to the developers but also to the community at large.”

 Rebecca Melnyk is online editor of Canadian Property Management and Building Strategies & Sustainability.

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