Column: How To Train Your Ghetto

A checklist for marketing condos in Canada’s most livable city

As condo prices soften in Vancouver, here’s a checklist for marketing developments in Canada’s most livable city

1. Forget about your specific project – it’s another glass-and-concrete luxury tower. What you’re selling is Vancouver. You’re selling yoga, orca tattoos, latte art, the opportunity to walk a Shih Tzu through the rainforest at dawn. If a customer scratches your brochure and can’t smell blueberry kush and Cascade hops, you’ve done it all wrong. You’re selling them life in the most livable city in the world. You want to differentiate your glass tower? Tell people their pre-construction unit includes a fixed-gear bike.

2. Let’s say you run out of places to build near the beach and forest and have to begin developing in more “urban areas”—historic Mount Pleasant, for instance, or God forbid, the Downtown Eastside, whose current brand is: “Poorest Postal Code in Canada.” What do you do?

Take a deep breath. Go back to STEP 1. If you need to change the name of an eastside neighbourhood that’s always been called Hastings-something to “East Village,” just change the name. You can simply build identical downtown glass towers outside downtown to avoid accusations of cookie-cutting. You sell and resell the world’s most livable city.*

3. If you haven’t already done it, write a cheque to anybody who could possibly have a vote on city council at any point in the next quarter century; individual candidates, political parties—don’t cut corners. The notion that you can give money to the same people who review your proposal is too good to be true. These people come cheap. They’ll rezone historic neighbourhoods for you. They’ll spend tens of millions ripping down viaducts to accommodate your new development. Even Rize Alliance, sometimes hailed as a developer trying to do good in a broken system, gave the city’s governing party, Vision, $10,950. Development “donations” add up. Vision hauled in $2.2 million last election.

4. Use social media to spread the word, but don’t be afraid to go old school to get things done. A Christmas Day fire, say, on the corner of Broadway and Kingsway. Rickety artist studios, family businesses, miscellaneous workspace burned to the ground. (Sometimes you have to be lucky to be good!) Since you want to significantly rezone that exact site, don’t forget to emphasize what a terrible coincidence that fire was.

5. When you propose to rezone on the site of the fire, propose something that’s at least four times bigger than the community plan allows. This is an effective way for you and your partners on city council to gauge shock in the community. Make a big show of taking it back to the drawing board. Erase seven stories to show what a magnanimous developer you are. (It’s still three times as high as what the corner is zoned for.) Don’t be afraid to use questionable renderings in your pitch to the media.

6. If the community is still all “WTF?”, use the magic phrase – the most brilliant pseudo-word in the history of private development – “eco-density.” Eco-density is shorthand for living above a Shoppers Drug Mart. If you want to go above and beyond, put a tree and some sod on the roof of your luxury tower. Sheets of glass are cheaper than brick. Plus, it’s easier for the buyer to forget they’re living in 401 square feet when one wall is all glass.

7. Mumble a little. Then a little bit more. Then say “Richard Florida!” Mumble, mumble. “Jane Jacobs!” Mumble. “Livability.” Mumble. “Basic economics.” Mumble. “Eco-density… ummm… Jane Jacobs!” (You can never say Jane Jacobs too much.)

8. Just make sure that Jane Jacobs’ son Ned doesn’t live near the neighbourhood that you want to rezone. If he does and if he has some concerns about your marketing approach, go immediately to STEP 10. Especially if he’s written an open letter noting the “erroneous and deceptive renderings and 3-D models that drastically misrepresent building height and proportions.” Or that the project is “utterly out of scale and character with the neighbourhood, the existing zoning and the design guidelines.”

9. Snicker and dismiss anybody who thinks you can do better.

10. Some residents may even suggest that you can build it higher if you incorporate some social housing aspects and take out the underground parking. You could solve gentrification and redefine green building! Or instead you could brand anyone who opposes the project in its current form a NIMBYist. Pound this word. There are architecture students and hyperlocal buzz blogs who will do most of this pounding for you.

11. Did someone use the phrase “basic economics” earlier? Tweak the meaning of that. It’s one thing when the community’s politicos oppose your project, but when the banks and analysts start to say things like “we fear that the Vancouver market is becoming increasingly disconnected from local demand conditions and vulnerable to a painful correction,” it’s time to commission a special study! Enter Bob Rennie, who is the closest thing Vancouver has to royalty (he is ubiquitously referred to as “The Condo King”). Rennie effectively invented STEP 1. His special study will say why everyone else’s research is wrong, why even the basic economics that get projects like this rezoned suddenly no longer apply. The study will cast a modicum of doubt. So the buzz blogs can keep buzzing. The real estate agents can tell their customers not to worry. The money can keep flowing in from Mainland China.

12. Find some old buildings where some families and artists live further east. See STEP 1.

* Conventional thinking about branding doesn’t really apply here. Branding is supposed to be about a unique identity, not the process of a dozen essentially identical condo brands blurring into one “livable city” identity. This isn’t your problem.

This article appears in the Sept. 10 issue of Marketing

Chris Koentges is a writer based in Vancouver. His work has appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve and Reader’s Digest.

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