For those of us who pay attention to real estate development, it’s no secret that the industry is overwhelmingly male ― not only in its gender balance, but often in its ethos, as well.
The risk-taking, political maneuvering and investor-wooing involved in getting a large project off the ground sometimes engenders a kind of bravado linked to traditional ideas of manhood, a crude expression of which might be the real estate career of Donald Trump.
So it’s neither trite, nor insignificant, that Canada’s first all-women developer team is now active, and planning an eight-story condo project in the Toronto borough of Etobicoke.
According to its publicity materials, the eight-storey, 200-unit building ― whose design is yet to be finalized ― is meant “to break the cycle of gender inequity within the sector and deliver buildings designed for women by women.”
But the two developer partners behind the project ― Taya Cook and Sherry Larjani ― are quick to stress that “designed for women” doesn’t mean a building that excludes men; rather, it means finally taking the needs of women into account when designing a building.
“In the end, the design will appeal to both men and women,” said Cook, who serves as director of development at real estate firm Urban Capital. “But when women are making the decisions, maybe we’ll focus on different priorities.”
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The Vienna example
So, how would a building differ if it were built by a team of women?
For an idea, the team is looking to the example of Vienna, which for the past few decades has been engaged in “gender mainstreaming” its public places. Essentially, it means looking at spaces from the perspective of both men and women, and making sure those spaces address the needs and wants of both.
Among other things, for Austria’s capital that has meant such things as wider sidewalks to accommodate strollers, and a redesign of park spaces. Planners had found that in open-spaced parks, groups of young boys would dominate to the exclusion of girls. But when planners physically sub-divided parks into separate areas, both girls and boys found spaces where they could be comfortable.
To apply those principles to Reina Condos, the developer team has taken to crowdsourcing, holding a special meeting earlier this month in the community to hear ideas for how to design a more-inclusive building.
Among the issues they heard about: Poorly lit areas outside condo buildings, such as parking lots, that can pose a threat to safety. Another issue is the problem of stroller storage.
“There was a lady talking about not being able to find a place to put her stroller. She had to keep it in the bathtub when guests came over,” said Sherry Larjani, a managing partner in Spotlight Developments and co-partner on Reina.
The team is looking at having allocated stroller space on every floor, she added. It’s also looking at innovating some in-condo storage solutions, so that residents spend less time going to and from basement storage facilities.
And there are also some specific problems with urban living in Toronto today that the building’s design will take into account, said Emily Reisman, a partner with the planning firm Urban Strategies and a consultant on the project.
There’s “a tension” between the trend towards urbanization and young families’ desire to maintain their urban lifestyle as they have children, she said.
“How do you create larger units that can support families, while keeping them within the range of affordability?”
Small spaces could be better used, she notes. Developers these days like to advertise nine-foot ceilings, but closet doors are often only six feet tall, limiting the use of that space. So taller doors could be a simple way to make it easier to use overhead space.
If that doesn’t sound particularly “woman-focused,” it’s because it isn’t.
“It comes back to not being exclusive about design, (not) focusing on one gender, one group’s needs,” Reisman said.
She suggests that it’s really within the industry where the impact of this will be most felt.
“It’s wonderful to be in those meetings and see (people like) myself at the table,” she said. “It creates a different energy in the room.”
A message to the industry
The idea for an all-women team came to Cook last year when she came across a magazine article about Toronto’s “condo kings” ― a dozen business leaders, all male.
Cook took the issue to her boss, David Wex (himself one of those condo kings), where she found a sympathetic ear. She reached out to colleague Larjani, a managing partner at Spotlight Developments, and together they began putting together an all-female development team to build what would become Reina Condos. (“Reina” is the Spanish word for “queen,” which, aside from the allusion to femininity, also refers to The Queensway, a nearby roadway.)
Cook says it was surprisingly difficult to put together an all-women team, which means filling roles for architects, engineers, permitting and construction consultants, land-use planners and others.
“It’s really the developer who makes the decisions on who hires the consultants,” Cook said, “so it’s really up to the developer to change this dynamic. You kind of work with the same people over and over and over.”
Cook and Larjani say they’ve seen an overwhelmingly positive public response to their project, but to hear them talk about it, this isn’t so much a marketing strategy as it is a message to their colleagues within the industry.
The “No. 1” message is “hey guys, let’s look at the industry, it’s crazy what’s going on. A lot of women don’t see a place for themselves,” Cook said.
The public response has been “beyond my expectations,” Larjani says. “We didn’t think this idea would resonate with people as much as it did.”
The team is now focused on getting a zoning amendment for the site, and plans to have a sales centre on the Etobicoke lot by early next year.
Larjani has little doubt about the project’s strategy.
“We found the right issue,” she says.