You Only Get One Chance To Develop Land

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You only get one chance to develop land.

Recently, I was talking to a friend in the industry who, thanks to heavy traffic on the QEW, drove along the Oakville section of Dundas Street (Highway 5) for the first time in a year or two. Locals will know that this part of north Oakville is being rapidly developed as the city expands to its northern boundary. My friend said that new housing development along Dundas is dominated by houses and semi-detached houses, with some townhouses and a few low-rise (four-storey wood frame) condo buildings, which matches what I’ve seen too.

This sparked a conversation in which we agreed that much of the new housing my friend saw is too low-density for the area; we agreed that there should have been a few ten- or twelve-storey residential buildings (condos and rentals) clustered around each major stoplight intersection along Dundas, with medium and lower density housing fanning outwards from those nodes. Instead, those most of those intersections appear to have houses and townhouses bumping up next to them, or maybe a low-rise condo building.

We agreed that low-density housing development in this area represents missed opportunities, for two reasons. First, by the time these housing units (whether houses, townhouses, or low-rise condos) are delivered to market and absorbed, they will be far behind the housing demand curve and won’t be much help fixing the general housing shortage problem which afflicts the GTA, including Oakville (in previous posts I’ve looked at demand for rental housing in various large cities in southern Ontario, including several located in the GTA, and it’s clear that most GTA suburbs could absorb thousands of new rental units).

Second, you only get one chance to develop land, which means the land along Dundas is now fully committed and will not be available for higher density uses in the future. Oakville was lucky in the sense that it hadn’t reached its northern boundary—unlike its neighbour Burlington, which was fully built out several years ago—which meant that it had a lot of greenfield land available which could be used to meet future population growth. Now, with most of that land developed with low density housing, the city’s capability to meet future growth is fully committed. Yes, it’s true that houses and townhouses, and sometimes multi-unit buildings, are demolished to make way for higher density housing, that doesn’t usually happen for fifty years since it’s not easy or cheap to tear down existing buildings. Fifty years is a long time for land to be committed to something less than its highest and best use. (Don’t believe me when I say fifty years? Think about the redevelopment projects you know about and think about how old existing housing was when the wrecking ball started knocking it down. Nobody buys and then demolishes ten or twenty year old buildings, even cheap wood-frame houses, no matter how much demand there might be for higher density replacements.)

You only get one chance to develop land, so if you’re a developer or a city planner or councillor you’d better get it right the first time, because you won’t be able to fix your mistakes in your lifetime.