I write this newsletter to share things that I’m working on and thinking about. A little about me:
I own and manage an agency in Toronto called August. We design and build digital products. We spend about 80% of our time on client work and the balance on internal projects. I also invest in real estate with my two brothers.
There’s a chapter in the book on cities—Metropolis—that I especially enjoyed. Some excerpts:
“The value of a city is that living there allows you to reduce the time, the opportunity cost, to get from one place—a home, business, institution, restaurant, recreation—to another. It’s pure travel theory.”
'“If you walk everywhere, you are limited to a literally medieval radius of a mile or so for day-to-day travels. With a car, your radius is 20 times as large, and the area of your community is 400 times bigger.”
“Knowing all this then, how would you design a city? Clearly the first, not the last item of concern is the transportation infrastructure, because the only reason for a city is to reduce the time to get from place to place.”
“You have to compare the progress in manufacturing or electronics or software over the past half-century with the state of the art in city design and operation to get a sense of just how stagnant the latter has been. Even the recent flurry of utopia-building projects are still basically rows of boxes sitting on the dirt, plus built-in Wi-Fi so that the self-driving cars can talk to each other as they sit in automated traffic jams. Look at a brain, where most of the space is taken up by wiring. Look at a human body, where most of the space is taken up by tubes of one kind or or another to move various stuff from one organ to another. Look at a processor chip, a circuit board, a chemical plant, the engine compartment of your car. Designing a city whose transportation infrastructure consists of the flat ground between the boxes is insane.”
“Build more roads and you will get more traffic. The new traffic represents more people now able to do more of the things that they wanted to do but could not before you built the roads. Of course, roads are not free, so you need to balance road cost with value. But no one in their right mind who has any experience with electronic systems design (or who is familiar with nerve pathways in the brain) could imagine that one, flat, highly contentious level is optimal for a large, dense, high-traffic system. One might say that 10 levels would be optimal, a wild guess in analogy to processor boards, but even two levels would be a quantum improvement.”
As far as I can tell, most people who think and speak and write about cities have a strong anti-car bias. They understand, as J. Storrs Hall does, that “with today’s technology, cities and cars are enemies. Every increase in density makes congestion worse and slows cars down.”
They would rather see decreased mobility generally, as a function of network capacity limits or, in a scenario with congestion pricing, individual budget constraints, as well increased reliance on mass transit. Put simply: fewer cars, more trains.
The nightmare scenario, as far as they’re concerned, is ever-expanding highways, whether through additional lanes or elevation above grade. And I can’t say that I disagree on this point.
I do think however that there’s another option, and that’s tunneling below grade. This is what Elon Musk’s The Boring Company is working on.
Ironically, many of those same people who think and speak and write about cities also have a strong anti-The Boring Company bias.
Cars are better than trains in many ways. They’re generally safer, cleaner (in the no-pee-on-the-ground sense of the word), and most importantly, take you door to door relatively quickly. Even in Toronto, our big, congested city, a car will almost always beat a subway, LRT, or streetcar from point A to point B.
We just need better technology to ameliorate the traffic congestion problem. I do think we should charge for roadspace via dynamic congestion pricing, but we should also increase it—underground.
At our current level of technology and, frankly, bureaucracy, this isn’t a viable option. But it could be. The technology and bureaucracy could both improve.
We could get to a point where city surfaces are reserved for pedestrians and cyclists, and all trains and cars move underground. That would be cool.
The agency business is going well. We’re working hard, growing our team a little bit, and (most exciting to me) moving to a place where we can be a bit more selective with the clients and projects we take on. Everyone wants to work on cool things with cool people. But that’s a bit of a luxury. You can’t always say “no” to shitty projects or shitty people.
Well, we can say “no” a bit more today than we could a year ago. Progress!
I caution myself that I might be over-focusing on the wrong metric here, but I don’t think I am. If you work in client services, you probably know what I’m saying.
In any case, I mentioned in last month’s email that I was interested in getting an idea from 0 to having $1+ in real (non-friend) revenue as cheaply and quickly as possible. Here’s how that’s going.
First, a bit of background. Prior to doing what I’m doing now, I worked as a development manager for a mid-sized real estate development firm in Toronto. I lead the entitlements process for a number of condo and rental projects.
In that time, I learned about the construction tender process, which generally sees the project owner and construction manager thinking of various trades across different construction categories, off the top of their heads, and reaching out to them to solicit bids.
It felt like whatever the opposite of systematic is.
For one of our projects, a midrise building, we couldn’t get any reasonable bids from the big formwork companies that came to mind. We also didn’t have a great way to discover and reach out to smaller formwork companies, as some of these don’t even have websites, let alone any marketing that might bring them to our attention.
At one point, for lack of better options, I was driving from midrise site to midrise site to see if I could see any signage on the hoarding that might point me in the right direction. (The logic being that, if those projects were viable—and if they’re under construction, they generally are—with whatever trades they selected, we might want to select the same.) I remember thinking: there’s gotta be a better way!
In any case, I’m working on the simplest version of what I think might be a better way.
It’s a directory of vendors you might rely on through the lifecycle of a real estate development project that are sorted and discoverable by the projects they’ve contributed to.
I’m calling it Buildstack—it lets you dig into the design and construction stack of any building.
This is like a version 0.01, so please bare with me, but I thought I’d share and continue to build in public.
Over the next month, I want to flesh out the list of vendors for all design and construction categories and attribute them to projects they’ve contributed to. I think that’s a good way to establish credibility—proof of work, or a portfolio-first approach.
Please follow along. And please send me your feedback!
We (finally) got our zoning certificate for FH1. It flagged 14 items as requiring minor variances. We addressed 10 of those in design and have submitted an application for a Committee of Adjustments (COA) hearing date in order to get variances approved on the remaining four.
A minor variance is approved at the COAs discretion and we think that ours are pretty inoffensive. They include the standard stuff—a little over on FSI, a little over on height—and a couple more that I’ll share in a future email.
It feels good to be moving the ball forward, if still a bit slowly.
I’m going to call the midrise project I introduced in last month’s email Midrise 1, or MR1. We don’t yet know what its tenure will be so we’ll stick to its built form.
As mentioned last month, we’ve tied this site up with a conditional offer and are now working our way through due diligence before the offer firms up. To date, we’ve completed a revenue analysis, appraisal (at current and rezoned value), and high level architectural drawings. Everything’s looking good. We’re now working through a Phase 1 and 2 Environmental Site Assessment (ESA), as well as a geotechnical and hydrological investigation.
If those aren’t disastrous, we’ll likely close on the site and start working through a Zoning Bylaw Amendment (rezoning) process. I’m excited to get that started.
I’ll end this section by saying this: I’d love to use this newsletter to dive deeper into the development process, but only if you’re interested. Let me know if you’d like to see deeper dives into, eg, the due diligence process. I’d be happy to get into it.
stuff I’ve enjoyed
This is some of the content I’ve come across over the past month that I’ve really enjoyed.
Article: I’ve been waiting a month to share this with you. Dan Wang’s annual letter is consistently one of the best things to read every new year, and this latest edition does not disappoint. There’s too much substance packed in there for me to summarize so just read it.
Book: Biographies are my favourite book genre, and this past month I started reading Clash of the Titans, which delivers two biographies for the price of one. It covers both Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch’s lives, as well as their frequent fiery clashes. I’m about halfway through and recommend it.
Podcast: Have you heard about Palladium Magazine? It’s pretty cool, though I don’t know quite how to describe it. It’s a quarterly magazine that covers topics related to… civilizational change? Social upheaval? Something like that? In any case, the Palladium team also has a podcast, and this episode featuring Samo Burja on how rising classes become new elites was very interesting.
Video: I’m going with another commercial this month. This time, it’s an ad out of El Salvador reminding people to eat well and exercise regularly to help prevent Covid 19 hospitalizations and deaths. We all know by now that Covid 19 is exacerbated by comorbidities that arise from unhealthy lifestyles, but, as far as I can tell, nobody official (ie, politician, institution) in Canada or the US wants to emphasize that point. I think that saying obvious truths in a compelling manner is an underrated political tactic.
That’s it for now. I hope you have a productive and fulfilling February.
Feel free to reply to this email with any comments or questions. I love chatting about everything mentioned above.