The Power of CRE Tech in Developing Thriving Communities

Sarah Steiner

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July 23, 2019

Place-making is a term that has become embedded in developer and commercial real estate jargon in recent years. Mixed-use developments are in demand, traditional living and shopping patterns are being reimagined, and consumers are seeking an evolved community experience offering an exciting mix including retail, entertainment, recreation, and natural amenities. 

We had the chance to speak with Marty Pawlina, at Rohit Land Development in Edmonton, to understand how they’re evolving how they market neighbourhoods and developments and adapting to transitions in demographics, and discuss the evolution of how cities grow, consumers shop, and what home looks like in the future for people and businesses. 

Sarah, PiinPoint - How do you define place-making? 

Marty, Rohit Developments - The first thing that comes to mind for me is a good Farmer’s Market in a City. There’s a buzz; you have live music, different types of products and produce being sold, you’ve got all ages, all different sorts of demographics interacting together to experience something beyond just commerce. Storefronts open out to the street, boulevard Elms tower over the sidewalk, everywhere you look are vibrant colours from signage - murals - cafe umbrellas, and patios filled with people. There’s a lot behind that feeling of energy you get from a place like that, it’s a sensory experience with an address. 

Placemaking to me is where various building typologies co-exist with a purpose, working in symmetry with appropriate zoning mix, various uses, transportation networks, architecture, street furniture, landscaping, accessibility, sight lines, lighting, branding, signage, naming, and infrastructure. In some instances this happens naturally over time, in some communities, this is a collaborative intentional effort from planners, developers, builders, engineers, community members, marketers, architects, real estate professionals and government.

Sarah, PiinPoint - Any great examples of place-making that you’ve seen in Canada? 

Marty, Rohit Developments - One of the best examples I've seen is right here in Edmonton, the recently opened Oliver Exchange.  What was once an old 20,000SF telephone exchange building, has been purposely redeveloped into a beautiful mixed-use commercial amenity in Oliver, one of the densest neighborhoods in Edmonton. With office and retail it's become a community hub complete with a coffee shop, bakery, neighbourhood pub, take-home meals for purchase, a home and design shop, wedding boutique, and event space upstairs - and this walkable amenity also interacts with the community with its patios, services and architecture, complete with a neighbourhood branded bike rack. The site is located just off a bike lane, walking distance to transit, and in between several downtown arterial roads. The original building was marketed at my time at Colliers International by brokers Amit Grover and Jandip Deol, and was envisioned and executed by Beljan Development.

Oliver Exchange, in Edmonton, AB has become a thriving retail community.

Woodward’s development in Vancouver is another placemaking gem rooted in history. It’s a significant project where they created office, retail, market housing and non-market housing, grocery on the main floor, a pharmacy, a variety of restaurants and pubs, it all connects together through a main square, it’s inviting, vibrant, and an incredible place to visit. The project helped transform Gastown by its sheer scale with over 1.2 Million SF of developed space of varied density. There is even a penthouse amenity space called Club W for tenants to connect, BBQ, play pool or hot tub. It was advertised as an Intellectual Property because Simon Fraser University was one of their tenants.  

Courtyard for Woodward's Development in Vancouver, BC.
Exterior view of Woodward's Development in Vancouver, BC.

They kept the broader community in mind too. If you know Woodward’s, you know that there’s a history of transition and affordability in that area, Woodward’s Squat was a social movement that focused attention on the housing crisis in Vancouver. 

I toured the site with Westbank in 2016 and learned more about their community impact. During construction they even hired people who lived in that area to work on the project and to do construction on the site. One of those people continued on as a construction manager for other developments of theirs. They took placemaking to the next level, adding community building to the mix too.

Sarah, PiinPoint - Are there incentives for Developers to build these type of spaces? 

Marty, Rohit Developments - There is absolutely a financial case for place-making. There is a value-add to connecting the right businesses, the right demographics, and the right consumers, together the result is greater than the sum of its parts with the possibility of a cultural benefit as well. What are the established businesses or amenities nearby? Who lives here? What infrastructure contributes to how people move? What opportunities does this represent? Are there other developments or investment in the area contributing to a momentum or shift?

Understanding/implementing all those factors correctly can lead to higher lease rates, transaction velocity, higher occupancy and impact surrounding land values and projects. Developers care about place-making for financial return, and community benefit.  Bringing more people to an area also brings vibrancy, safety, commerce and connection. 

The Muttart Urban District, Rohit’s newest Infill project in Edmonton, has similar opportunities. Within our purpose built rental buildings there will be amenity rooms for tenants to study, or for those who work from home, a music room for aspiring musicians to practice without loud neighbours interrupting their creativity, a rooftop covered patio overlooking the River Valley to do yoga, and additional spaces for tenants to connect, meet and get to know each other. 

We are currently planning what the new commercial main street will look like and how it can connect to surrounding amenities such as Commonwealth Stadium, the River Valley, and the Commonwealth Community Recreation Centre. The commercial main street will cross the Capital Line LRT right next to Stadium Station, and connect to Commonwealth Stadium, Canada’s largest open air stadium. People going to events will have a place to grab a bite before a CFL game, and there will be an area for people to linger after as they leave watching the home team win their next Grey Cup.

There is a financial benefit to realizing the potential of undeveloped land, and also a benefit in bringing walkable amenities, and reducing social isolation in an urban environment. Bringing over 720 residential units will also have an impact on the area and how a City approaches transit oriented development as a whole. It also has the potential to encourage additional development, taking placemaking from a main street to a neighbourhood scale. 

Muttart Urban District Site

Sarah, PiinPoint - Tell me more about the decisions that goes into successful development planning and marketing. 

Marty, Rohit Developments - A lot happens behind the scenes beyond acquiring a good site - the first is leadership in your organization with vision, big vision, and a trusted team with planner(s) with a proven track record, and buy in from the community, council and stakeholders. You also need a solid marketing and sales team, that can create the message from the vision, educate the market to understand and support that vision, and ultimately participate in that vision by relocating their business or family. 

Successful development decisions need the best data you can find, Who are the commercially viable tenants, who’s growing? who’s up and coming? Who has social licence? Who would complement the existing/future market, and what kind of demand can support it? What does the market and community want and what housing type or commercial product/service will benefit them most? What are the spaces, finishes and features that can meet their current or future needs? What are currently market rates, is there an opportunity to introduce a more current offering?

To understand demand, the market and where consumers are, one of the tools we use is PiinPoint. We are looking to find if our development and residential builders will be supported by existing demographics, and if not, how can we pivot who we are marketing to, or develop something complimentary such as amenities, a church site, a commercial district, or a park. 

Whenever possible, it’s important to plan developments so that they’ll complement the existing amenities, architecture, land use, and residents that are there. It takes a bit more work in bare sub-urban land development outside of a City. 

Sarah, PiinPoint - Any great examples of that?

Marty, Rohit Developments - One of our new neighbourhoods we are currently developing and marketing is Arbours of Keswick in Southwest Edmonton. It’s an important, 160 acre growing neighbourhood that is expanding in gaining momentum, but only a few years ago it was in the middle of nowhere. When the project was started we were still a few years out from a new K-9 school being built on an adjacent site. Our planning team designed the community with various housing typologies, a 7-acre pond with multi-use trails named for a community hero Gordon King, an estates area, streetscape area, single family homes, duplexes, and multifamily. We added a commercial centre and a church site. To help launch the new neighbourhood, at first we put in a giant, 80-foot tall flag pole with the Canadian Flag. Why? We need to make it a place.

We want to attract people who will care about their property, care about the area, starting with a symbol of community pride. Having a flagpole where people can host events and feel connected to Arbours of Keswick is very much a part of that. It goes into all the details of how we communicate our vision to the customer.

Sarah, PiinPoint - Can you speak to technology that you’re using today and how it’s able to influence development? 

Marty, Rohit Developments - Data (mobile analytics data, sales/lease transactions, occupancy, velocity, demographics, zoning, uses etc.) helps us understand where a City is growing, what opportunities are out there, and where the target market could be. Developers no longer solely make decisions based on an anecdotal understanding of who is living in an area. For example, in Southwest Edmonton, the population is growing, and if you’re looking at the median household incomes, they are significantly higher when compared to other neighbourhoods, it may look like the area is saturated with shopping centers, but there could still be opportunity and demand for more services. Research with this kind of data informs where our new commercial developments could happen, or what our future land uses might be. 

We use data to determine if the residential market can support specific commercial amenities. Or the inverse- where there is lots of commercial uses, is there an equivalent amount of residential growth to support it? There could be an opportunity there for additional density. 

One of the newest tools is Mobile Location Data. This amalgamated data offers insight into consumer movement using the GPS signal from available mobile devices, but without the individuals personal identifiable information. This data can be used to detect how many people visit a given location, travel a certain route, and from which neighbourhood/commercial centre they originated from. In compliance with privacy laws this data is anonymized and aggregated so it cannot be traced backed to any one person. It can be filtered by time and geo-fenced.

Zoning and land use data - especially in changes/rezoning- indicate future opportunities for Development. If you combine your knowledge of upcoming development with mobile location data (that can show how many people visit a given area, when and where they come from).

You might determine a parcel by a transit station could be purpose built multifamily for young professionals, or seniors, or families, or a mix, based on movement behaviour and demographics. This could help build a case for transit oriented development and what specific supportive amenities are missing. 

Sarah, PiinPoint - Can you describe some of the applications of mobile data?

Marty, Rohit Developments - Imagine you have an industrial corridor that’s surrounded by older residential homes with large yards and is about to be rezoned. If we were to consider developing there, we would need to determine if we’re looking to attract the same demographics from the area with similar density but updated housing construction creating a flight to quality, or introduce a new denser housing typology to blend with the existing neighbourhoods targeting a new demographic with different requirements. Mobile location data can help with these choices and how to target our market which could be scattered across other neighborhoods.

Our target audience could be a renter who does not want old multifamily product who is likely unable to afford or not a culturally fit to pursue higher priced units in concrete and steel in high rises downtown. Their current units could be smaller than our potential new product, deficient in parking, are overpriced, have a dysfunctional floor plan, are not pet friendly, no bike storage, are lacking new appliances or in-suite laundry, have limited amenities and no room or programming to grow a more aspirational tenant. Their current home could be a B or C class multifamily building in an established neighbourhood that has insecure outdoor parking, lacks air conditioning, or has an awkward tenant mix eg. downsizing seniors and partying students in the same building causing clashing culture. Mobile location data is one tool that can help us understand the opportunity, and then where to focus our marketing efforts to find our potential tenants.

Sarah, PiinPoint - What are the biggest challenges that developers face? 

Marty, Rohit Developments - The demographics are constantly changing, as are consumer behaviours, staying on top of what people need and want are essential in any business. The market often changes faster than a typical development cycle or municipal policy change. Predicting what the market is going to be like in 5-7-10 years out is a challenge because it will change dramatically and is influenced by many factors. How will the population change in the way they live? How they work? How they commute? We’re designing, planning and marketing to be relevant over a multi-year period, within an ever changing market. 

Mobile location data represents a huge opportunity here because we can understand an area going through transition, every month instead of every census and what new amenities make the most sense for it.

Let’s say there are existing commercial tenants with clients. Finding out who they’re targeting and what kind of demographic they attract lets us better understand how to complement existing services and pick commercial tenants who will also succeed with that same demographic. It’s one of the ways to build a well-connected community with services that compliment each other. 

I’m always on the lookout for the best technology to make better (and sometimes faster) decisions. With more access to better data, there is the opportunity for smarter cities, more efficient infrastructure, and better designed and developed places for people to thrive despite the challenges of a development cycle.

To learn more about Rohit Group of Companies, visit the website at www.rohitgroup.com.

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