Ten on the 10th 1 Year Anniversary: Real-estate development Q&A with Mike Miller of Abstract Developments
Ten on the 10th
Published October 10, 2019
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.
October's Ten on the 10th – celebrating one year of question-and-answer segments with Victoria's real-estate industry professionals – features Mike Miller, President of Victoria-based development firm Abstract Developments, itself celebrating a major milestone this year: 20-years in business.
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 love to hear from you.
1) Abstract is celebrating its 20-year anniversary as a builder/developer in Victoria this year. How has the company changed over the last two decades?
Over the last 20 years, the biggest changes have been in scale. Looking back to 1999, most of what we were building and developing was single-family homes, whereas now Abstract is really known for its work developing boutique midrise multi-family residences and townhomes, still bringing the same commitment to quality and innovation that we always have. When you look inside the company, it’s entirely different from the early days; in 20 years we have gone from a single person operation (just me), to more than 75 employees spread across two downtown offices and several active sites. In order to achieve this growth, we have made significant investment in people and process – an investment that I believe is and will continue to pay us dividends moving forward.
2) In past, the company’s developments have been centered around neighbourhoods throughout Oak Bay and Fairfield – but more recently the company seems to be creating housing throughout Greater Victoria. How has this geographic focus changed over the last few years?
Oak Bay and Fairfield are both communities that are very close to my heart; I personally reside in Oak Bay, and many of the homes we have created within these communities exemplify our most recognized accomplishments as a homebuilder. As we have continued to grow over the last few years, we have shifted our sights into the surrounding communities where we see an opportunity to more efficiently created compact and intelligent infill housing that can deliver to the needs of the market on a broader scale. Increasingly we are exploring opportunities in key areas of Victoria and throughout Saanich. We see the growth that is happening across the CRD, and we see an opportunity to support this growth through housing.
3) What are the biggest challenges the development industry is facing currently?
Municipal and federal policies represent the biggest barriers to creating housing. At both levels, we need to be collaborating; regulators and industry, to identify and remove barriers to housing supply. Inclusionary zoning, development cost charges and amenity contribution increases are just a few of the top-of-mind challenges developers are facing these days. The challenges are compounded by the complex layers of engagement that are required in order to justify housing that already meets the Official Community Plan (OCP) and the Local Area Plan (LAP) that governs the use for a given site.
It’s been proven that affordable housing is directly tied to housing supply, yet governments are trying to solve the problem through mechanisms that are further limiting housing supply. I believe an awakening is happening among the general public, evidenced by the numerous housing advocacy groups that are emerging. We are really seeing this wave in larger markets like Vancouver and San Francisco, but I believe Victoria is not far behind.
4) Bellewood Park (1201 Fort Street) was a particularly challenging project to get to the approval stage? What made the project so challenging and what did your team learn?
Bellewood Park was an eye-opener for our team. We are accustomed to community consultation and facing opposition in the development process, and such was the case on projects like Bowker Collection and Village Walk. Bellewood Park was on a different scale entirely, though. After six separate rounds of design changes, including one complete redesign of the site and more than 20 community meetings, public hearings lasted three evenings with more than 100 speakers and council saw more than 2000 pieces of correspondence related to the redevelopment proposal.
Despite the project's merits, there was very high emotion from the public on this redevelopment and I can see the impact it created all around; for the public, for our staff – including myself personally, and for city staff and council. Through this process, we have learned to better evaluate the full opportunity cost of developing challenging sites like this. We believe more housing is needed in all areas throughout the CRD and we want to be better applying our efforts in neighbourhoods where housing is more readily accepted.
5) What is the company’s approach to community consultation and engagement?
Over the last year, we have really tried to shift our focus to proactive and broader community engagement efforts; we want to hear from the public on where they want to see housing, and in what forms. Over the last couple of months we’ve hosted a number of community input sessions in major centres hear from the community. We see huge value in this kind of collaborative process.
6) The company completed its first purpose-built rental building this year. What did the team learn through this process?
Indeed, we completed Verve, a 95-unit rental building by Uptown Shopping Centre in May. While we have renovated rental buildings previously, this was our first completely new purpose-built rental project. We learned a lot through the product development process; what was important to rental customers and how to build rental product more efficiently, while still bringing the expertise from developing market product. Managed by our sister company, NVision Properties, Verve was extremely well received by the public, with a complete lease up in less than 90 days. As a result, a national Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) approached us to invest in the building; the sale closed in August, marking Abstract’s single biggest disposition to-date.
7) You have a number of active development projects underway. Can you tell us a bit about them?
Located at the corner of Cadboro Bay and Bowker Avenue, is Bowker Collection, a 43 home community with ground floor commercial, slated to complete in spring 2020. At 1201 Fort Street, Bellewood Park is a 2-acre parkside community consisting of two condominium buildings: one four-storey woodframe (Cypress) and one six-storey concrete building (Oaks) plus nine customizable townhomes. Half sold, construction began on Bellwood Park in February and we are on track for completion in 2021.
By Hillside Centre in the Cedar Hill neighbourhood, Fifteen88, which launched last fall, offers 62 condo homes that will be completed in 2020. At Richmond and Kings, Avery Lane is a 16-townhome community that will be complete around mid 2020. In addition, we will be starting pre-construction shortly on our second purpose-built rental building consisting of 76 suites at Shelbourne and Mckenzie. In addition to what’s in construction, we have another 600-units in varying stages of development that we hope to bring to Greater Victoria in the next three years.
8) Black and White (Fort and Cook) is nearing completion. Reflecting on the original vision for the project, has this been achieved?
I am really excited about the upcoming completion of Black and White. We took a risk in bringing the building’s challenging gravity-defying design to the Fort and Cook street corner, and I believe it paid off. The response we have been hearing from the public has been overwhelmingly positive. Once complete, I believe we will have been successful in creating a landmark building comprised of a stunning collection of homes that each of our 75 homeowners would be proud to call home. The demonstrated interest and investment from so many new homeowners and three exciting businesses – each providing meaningful products and services to residents and patrons of the neighbourhood – suggets we greatly exceeded our original vision for this property.
9) What do you think sets Abstract apart from other developers in the city?
I believe our commitment to passion and quality sets us apart as a developer. Along with a proven reputation for quality, I believe we have a unique ability to envision new development where others can’t by taking a site and applying our knowledge and expertise to create something that delivers value back to the community through smart and compact infill housing. Our passion is really a key driver that allows us to commit to the more challenging types of projects that others won’t. I believe our team is a big differentiator, as we have managed to attract and cultivate some of the city’s best talent with success in creating a diverse team of subject matter experts.
10) What are you most excited about for the future of Abstract?
I think I am most excited about the unbounded potential the company has in front of it. Over the last 20 years, despite what we have achieved, we have only just set the stage for the future of Abstract. I can’t wait to see what the next 20 years will hold. C
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- Would you like to be featured as part of a future Ten on the 10th Q&A? We'd love to hear from you
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