5 Strategies For Small Land Development Success

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It’s no secret that I'm strongly in favour of land development, but not the type that has dominated our cities in the past 70 or so years post WW2. That is, the large scale suburban experiment that is unfortunately coming to a tipping point - from smaller war-time bungalows to the post 1980 McMansions that dominate the R1 zones of our cities.

We’ve finally come to the realization that these developments are not fiscally, nor environmentally sustainable.

So what do we do now?

Well, we have to continue developing – but in an entirely different direction.

The type of development we need more of are the smaller scale, incremental improvements that take the existing housing stock and improves its function, density, and ultimately tie them into walkable, mixed-use, and transit friendly communities. The long term result is highly desirable neighbourhoods that also creates a greater tax base, and is a sustainable asset for the city.

All property (good, bad and ugly) has been the result of a developer, but often people lump them all together, and that’s where the challenge is. That’s where education and communication are key.

Sorry Nickelback - You  do  have catchy tunes though

Sorry Nickelback - You do have catchy tunes though

Although I would love to be the monopoly man and buy up all the land and develop everything, unfortunately I can’t (money always gets in the way)

So I want you to. And I'm hoping to influence you to do it a certain way. Why? Because it means we will have better communities, more environmentally friendly buildings and places people really want to live in.

The great thing is that I’m not even asking you do this for any altruistic reasons – I’m asking you to do this, so that you can profit from it and create wealth for yourself. And as a by-product you will be helping to create better communities.

Now I’m going to go over a few strategies that will maximize your chances for success when doing a small scale development. This is based on some recent experience on a project that I have worked on with a joint venture partner. In particular, the exact type of development I will be discussing involves purchasing a property with an existing building on it, and then severing a portion of that lot in order to create an additional lot or lots, and building on top of that.

Before I begin, I’ll start with some of the difficulties.


Outdated By-laws - Even though most cities are supportive of these developments, there are challenges that need to be overcome. These include outdated and archaic bylaws that were suited to the world of 1960, but don’t make any sense today.

In 1960, the government and individuals were not saddled with the debt that they are today. Oil and resource prices were much lower. Population density concerns weren’t even on the radar, but yet we still have to abide by most of these outdated bylaws (Read my post How To Ensure Adequate Parking For Your Second Suite).

NIMBYs - Not In My Backyard folks have a lot of power in cities across North America. Many of them aren't just grumpy neighbours, but well organized residents associations that have a lot of clout with city Councillors.

The only way to get them on your side is to listen to their concerns, and provide detailed reasoning as to why what you are doing will benefit everyone, including them in the long run. 

High Price To Play -  The costs associated with the land development can be high. These may include consulting fees with private planners and application fees for various major and minor variance. This can add up to tens of thousands.

Assuming you can work past the issues above, here are things that you can focus on to maximize your chances for success:

1.       Buy the ugliest properties in a good neighborhood – Buying an dilapidated property in an otherwise good neighborhood will increase your chances of success. This is because anything you do will likely improve the neighborhood, and take away the eyesore. This means less opposition for what you are trying to do.

2.       Buy a corner lot – Most lots within subdivisions are divided into long narrow rectangles, and if you wish to sever the lot and build on it, it would only work if the new property is facing a street. It would be great if we can sever a backyard and build on it, but that’s not happening anytime soon.

Your other option is to buy a property that is extremely wide that can be severed, with both existing and new property facing the same street, but these are more rare.

An image of our proposed project - corner lots are great because new homes can face the adjacent street

An image of our proposed project - corner lots are great because new homes can face the adjacent street

3.       Hire an experienced planner - An Urban Planner who has been through the process and is familiar with nuances in the by-laws is a real advantage. Additionally, they have typically built a certain amount of rapport with city staff and Committee of Adjustments members that may make their proposals more receptive. In particular, we recommend working with Planners who are members of CNU (Congress for New Urbanism). They understand how it should be done.

4.       Reach out to your neighbors - As the saying goes, kill them with kindness. This is exactly what we did by reaching out to our neighbours with hand-written notes in their mailboxes, introducing ourselves and assuring them that our goal was to improve the neighbourhood, and welcomed their insight and feedback.

5.       Push for variances that are minor - The variances from by-laws have to be somewhat minor in nature. Again, don't go for the home runs, but rather go for the  base hits. The key is to incrementally improve and intensify the urban landscape through subtle methods, and not be overzealous.

There was nothing subtle about these public hearing signs facing the main street. Fortunately there were no neighbours with torches and pitchforks

There was nothing subtle about these public hearing signs facing the main street. Fortunately there were no neighbours with torches and pitchforks

In our recent development project, we did exactly the items outlined above, and were successful in our joint infill land development. We still have a long way to go, but this was a good start.

There are many other strategies that you can employ, and we will share more later on.

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As always, thanks for reading!