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Q&A on parking-free 'missing middle' housing development in Victoria with Julian West of Urban Thrive

Julian West, the Principal and owner of Victoria-based real-estate development firm Urban Thrive, discusses his company's parking-free 'missing middle' housing projects in Greater Victoria, and the shift in thinking that comes with "building homes for people, not cars," which serves as the company's motto.  Citified.ca

Q&A on parking-free 'missing middle' housing development in Victoria with Julian West of Urban Thrive
Ten on the 10th
Citified's Ten on the 10th is a monthly question-and-answer segment connecting our readers with the insight and knowledge of Victoria's top real-estate and business professionals.
 
Ten on the Tenth's January, 2023 segment features Julian West, Principal and owner of Urban Thrive, a Victoria-based real-estate development firm specializing in parking-free 'missing middle' housing.
 
Asking the questions is Ross Marshall, Senior Vice President of the Victoria offices of commercial real-estate brokerage CBRE. As a leader in facilitating large-scale commercial real-estate transactions throughout the Capital Region – which include apartment complexes, industrial retail and office properties, and land/development opportunities – Ross and his team are at the forefront of market-leading real-estate transactions on Vancouver Island.
 
Would you like to be featured as part of a future Ten on the 10th Q&A? We'd like to hear from you.
 
 
Tell us a bit about yourself and Urban Thrive.
Urban Thrive is a social enterprise housing development company. We launched in 2021 and specialize in car-free housing. In a nutshell, we translate the high opportunity cost of vehicle parking into more livable, sustainable, attainably priced homes. Not only is car-free housing important for lowering emissions, creating safer streets, etc., it’s good business and makes much more efficient use of land.
 
I’m relatively new to the development industry but come from a project management and stakeholder engagement background which has translated really work to the world of development. I’ve also teamed up with Ryan Jabs, the owner of Lapis Homes and Lapis Construction, to launch our flagship projects. Ryan has been an incredible business partner to work with and help get Urban Thrive off the ground.
 
‘Missing middle’ is a term many of us in the industry are already familiar with, but from the perspective of a developer involved in supplying this form of housing, what would you describe it as, and is there a local adaptation of this term?
The broadest definition would be anything between a single detached house and a mid-rise apartment/condo building, however I see a huge variation in how people interpret this term. Municipalities also seem to be looking at a relatively narrow slice of what would constitute middle housing.
 
For me, how the term is interpreted is less important than defining what level of density will achieve our community planning objectives. A duplex might be considered missing middle housing but that level of density isn’t meaningful for providing attainably priced homes, nor helping to create sustainable compact communities. If we want neighbourhoods that can support vibrant urban villages, provide high quality public spaces, be served by reliable transit, etc., we need to be looking at a minimum of 6 units on a standard lot up to mid-rise buildings in residential neighbourhoods. This kind of housing is the foundation of building great neighbourhoods.
 
Please tell us about your Richmond Road proposal recently approved in Saanich.
2859 Richmond Road is a nine-unit, car-free, stacked-townhouse project located between Camosun College and Royal Jubilee. This project has been designed from the ground-up on the car-free lifestyle. The site is located within an eight minute walk of four frequent transit routes (including the #14 right on Richmond Road), on the All-Ages-and-Abilities cycling network, and near numerous Modo and Evo car-share vehicles - all in a walkable neighbourhood rich with services and amenities. Downtown is only eight minutes away by bus, 12-minutes by bike. This project wouldn’t work in most of Saanich but this location is absolutely ideal for this kind of housing.
 
We’ve also invested more in sustainable transportation alternatives per home than any project in the region. We’re providing an on-street electric car-share vehicle (a first for Saanich); a high-capacity bike garage (equivalent to requirements for a 34-unit condo building); and a new bus shelter adjacent to our property on Richmond. We make it easy to live a car-free lifestyle by assembling high-quality alternatives all in the same space. This project isn’t a one-off for us – it reflects our core business model, and we hope it will be the first of many.
 
The notion of zero on-site parking was perhaps one of the most, if not the most, contentious issues about your Richmond Road proposal as far as media coverage was concerned. We heard in news stories that there were stipulations requested by Saanich with respect to future residents and parking. Can you clarify what they are?
There has been a bit of a misunderstanding regarding our car-free contracts with buyers. Saanich staff supported and Saanich Council unanimously approved our project based solely on its merits. On our own initiative, we’ve decided to include a car-free contract as part of our purchase agreement which, in a nutshell, says “don’t park on the street”. We are committed to providing truly car-free housing and have provided all the alternatives to make that easy. The contract is intended to set crystal clear expectations with our buyers. As a general rule of development, every home is designed to the unique needs of its target audience. Our homes are no different. Living car-free isn’t for everyone, but tens of thousands of people already choose to live that way (myself included) and these homes are tailored to their needs.
 
We know that vehicle ownership in Saanich is increasing faster than in Langford, on a per-capita basis, via data from ICBC and Statistics Canada. But what are you seeing, in terms of market demand for new-build housing without on-site parking?
That’s a great question and there’s a lot to unpack there.
 
First, we recognize we’re appealing to a niche audience – most households still own a vehicle – but it’s a very real and passionate audience. Today, one-in-five households in the City of Victoria don’t own a vehicle. It’s a minority but not insignificant. We now have more than 100 families waitlisted to live in one of our homes which is incredible considering we just secured zoning. Every market has different niches, from shoes to restaurants to real estate. Our niche is car-free families.
 
More broadly speaking, there’s a divergence lifestyles and community development happening in our region. Saanich is primarily a suburban and rural municipality, and most housing development in our region is still in suburban areas, where sustainable transportation alternatives are weak and people are largely dependent on owning a car. As a region, we still haven’t been able to manage urban sprawl.
 
On the other hand, access to sustainable transportation alternatives has never been better and we’re trending in the right direction. Modo car-share membership is growing roughly 15% per year across BC and Greater Victoria is one of their fastest growing regions. Of their Victoria membership, 80% are car-free. In August 2021, Evo car-share also entered the Victoria market with 80 vehicles. One year later, they expanded fleet to 125 vehicles and widened their operating area.
 
We now have one of the largest cargo bike retailers in Canada (Bishop’s Family Cycles) and numerous new ebike-specific retailers opened in just the last 2 years. The All-Ages-and-Abilities cycling network is rapidly expanding and most municipalities are now developing or implementing an Active Transportation Plan. Victoria is already the cycling capital of Canada and cycling culture it’s only getting stronger. BC Transit is implementing an ambitious Rapid Bus strategy and investing in a new electric fleet. I could go on and on. We’re in the middle of a systemic shift right now and it’s changing the way people live and go about their lives.
 
If on-site parking had been required for your Richmond Road project, how would that have changed your concept? Would it have resulted in a different design, such as a bigger concentration of separate units on first and second floors, with smaller footprints each? Would each unit have been more expensive, if you had been required to provide on-site parking?
From a design perspective, car-free housing is fundamentally different. Car parking eats an enormous amount of space and dominates the design process. Without parking, we’re freed from those constraints to provide a purely people-centric design. If we had to provide parking on our Richmond project, the lot would fit a max of 5 units which would have to be a much more luxury-orientated and expensive. Likely, it’s not a viable project at all with 5 units and parking.
 
In contrast, we conservatively estimate one of our 3-bedroom homes will be $50,000-$100,000 less than a comparable home with parking, while providing more green space, more trees (17!), a community-orientated design, and robust sustainable transportation alternatives. Overall, we can provide our buyers with more value, for less.
 
Victoria’s Missing Middle Housing Initiative (MMHI) became one of the most talked-about development concepts in 2022. Is what Victoria is proposing – with a maximum of six-units by-right on a large single-family-dwelling site permitting over 90% site coverage – a better way forward for developers, or is what the province is proposing, with three-units on a single- family-dwelling site by-right, a more practical solution in terms of balancing the need for larger, family-sized townhomes in urban areas?
By far, what’s proposed in Victoria’s Missing Middle Housing Initiative is more meaningful than what the Province has indicated so far. Three units within the footprint and density of a single detached house isn’t a meaningful difference and would be really challenging to pencil. That change would have been great 20-30 years ago but it’s not meaningful today. Based on our estimates, a minimum of 6 homes on a standard lot (as proposed in the MMHI) is required to provide something that’s reasonably attainable for a middle-income family. When it comes to missing middle housing, I believe municipalities are going to have to take the lead.
 
We’ve heard some developers say that Victoria’s MMHI, if approved, will be slowly adopted,
due namely to the costs involved of buying single-family-home real-estate in Victoria, and the
lack of suitable sites on the market at any one time. Do you agree with that sentiment?
I expect the uptake will be fairly slow with this policy but for slightly different reasons. From a numbers perspective, the margins are tight but small builders and developers with lean overhead costs should be able to make it work as currently envisioned (assuming they can secure a bank loan!). We’re rezoning for a sixplex project in Victoria which almost perfectly fits the parameters of the Missing Middle Housing Initiative. This policy removes the risk of a well- designed and OCP-aligned project being shot down by a Council, which lowers the total risk profile of a project. Risk demands higher margins. Lower risk means a project with lower margins might still make sense.
 
I think the bigger barriers are (1) it’s complicated and difficult to meet all of the design requirements, and (2) it allows very little parking (max 2 on a sixplex). Selling homes without parking is something I’m very happy to do but few builders or developers are comfortable with that yet – most want to sell parking spots with their units. Car-free housing outside of downtown areas is not a well-understood market and I think it’ll take a few successful projects, like our Richmond one, before industry warms up.
 
You have a ‘missing middle’ project in Victoria going before council in early February. Can you tell us about that?
We are proposing a car-free sixplex project at 633 Belton Avenue. It’s the exact same concept as our Richmond project, adapted to the unique characteristics of the site which is a smaller mid-block lot, and features a huge bike garage, an on-street EV car-share vehicle, is near transit, and in a walkable/bikeable amenity-rich neighbourhood.
 
On a typical six-plex, the rear yard would be used for surface parking. Instead, we’re providing an exceptional community green space with a kids play area, built-in BBQ, seating areas, and great landscaping. Our Richmond public hearing created a lot of buzz and helped people think a little differently on housing and parking policy in Saanich. We hope to have a similar impact and stimulate a similar conversation in Victoria.
 
If you were to compare working with Saanich and Victoria on a missing middle project without parking, what would you like our readers to know?
Our experience working with each municipality has been similar – it’s tough. They really want middle housing and have a lot of policy to support this kind of housing but the lengthy and unclear process makes it really challenging, especially on smaller projects. It’s not for the faint of heart.
 
That said, I’m hopeful this will change soon. I’m seeing a stronger level of commitment and understanding of what it takes to get middle housing built in these municipalities. Saanich Council unanimously supported our project and has taken ownership of that decision which is really encouraging. I would urge anyone who’s considering a missing middle project in Victoria or Saanich to research and intimately understand the emerging policy context. It’s moving in the right direction but it’s still fluid. C

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