TransLink Podcast: What’s the T as transit meets real estate

TransLink Podcast: What’s the T as transit meets real estate

The T marker in the foreground with a crane and under construction development in the background

Metro Vancouver’s growing by 50,000 new residents each year — we need to help provide people with sustainable ways to move and live. Discover how we’re breaking new ground to support transit expansion and helping to deliver new housing.


HOST JAWN JANG: Hey, welcome to What’s the T, the TransLink podcast. I’m your host, Jawn Jang. And on this episode, we’re going to make Bob proud.

[Bob the Builder theme song plays]

JAWN: So what exactly are we building? Let’s find out and tap in to What’s the T?


VOICEOVER 1: The next station is…

VOICEOVER 2: Welcome to What’s the T, the TransLink Podcast.

JAWN: On our last episode, we talked about some of the new and exciting plans we have at TransLink aimed at making your commuting experience easier and more reliable. Things like the Burnaby Gondola Project, the SkyTrain extension to UBC and pursuing a bus-based approach in our long term regional strategy on transportation. But those aren’t the only things we’re planning and developing.

After all, Metro Vancouver is a beautiful part of the world and we’re growing.

[News broadcast plays]

VOICE 1: Hello, Canada. Your chief statistician here. I’m pleased to report that we are now 40 million Canadians. What an exciting milestone for our country.

[Sound effect plays]

ROBOTIC VOICE: Additional supply depots required.

VOICE 2: A rising population comes with all sorts of opportunities and challenges. More people come here to fill more jobs and that brings more tax revenue. But people also need places to live and services for them and their loved ones.

VOICE 3: Well, more and more people are coming to Vancouver, and some projections show that about a million more people will be calling Metro Vancouver home by 2050. All of those people will need housing and recreation centres and schools and other infrastructure.

VOICE 4:  And with 50,000 newcomers moving into the region every year, further investment in transit is vital to ensure that we can not only maintain but expand critically needed services now and into the future.

JAWN: There are two important things to keep in mind. Number one, as we now know, TransLink’s funding model requires creative adjustments with more fuel efficient or fully electric cars on the road, the fuel tax, which makes up roughly 20 per cent of TransLink funding, is a declining revenue source. And number two, we need more housing, especially as our population in Metro Vancouver continues to grow.

On the outside, it’s easy to look at this and think those are two big problems. But inside TransLink, our experts call this an opportunity.

SABRINA HAMIDULLAH: So it just makes a lot of sense for TransLink to be engaging in real estate development.

JAWN: This is Sabrina Hamidullah, Director of Real Estate Development at TransLink. Sabrina and her team have the important job of transforming this idea and opportunity into reality, building transit-oriented developments and creating a new revenue stream for the company.

What is TransLink doing in trying to get into real estate development here?

SABRINA: [laughs] Well, from my perspective, it’s a long time coming. But yeah, most people, when you say real estate or you say, I say, I’m at TransLink and I’m doing real estate development. Like, “What? What are you talking about?” So really, people say a good transportation plan is a good land use plan. And I think that’s where our real estate development program kind of comes in.

So the idea I’m going to get philosophical here, like the idea that people congregate and settle near major modes of transit has been something that’s kind of happened since the beginning of time. You look at railway stations, that’s where cities and city centres were kind of born. And so the same is with our major transit stations. The idea that we should focus development and people, and jobs and, you know, all kinds of uses right at our transit stations is something that really is kind of the ethos behind the development program.

JAWN: One of the things that of course, we have to focus on is the first development from your team, your baby, if you will. So please announce what is probably one of the most exciting things you’re working on right now.

SABRINA: Yeah, Yeah, absolutely. One, I am so proud of TransLink. Everybody involved, our team. You know, we only just got our mandate in April last year and to be where we are right now with the Broadway Arbutus project in terms of not only having a partnership but having a concept and a plan that we’re already sharing with the public is, is really, really awesome.

So the Broadway Arbutus Project is a property that came into our portfolio was originally acquired for the Broadway Subway, the subway station. It was not required, so it fell into our portfolio and it’s a smallish property, so we were very lucky to find a development partner just next door with PCI. So, the plan there is for us to bring our properties together. Our proposal is for a thirty-storey mixed use development comprising of market rental, amazing. It will have 20 per cent below market units, amazing. It’s just really going to animate that intersection. The 99 bus will start. There’s will be a lot of students there so it’s going to be a really vibrant area. That’s where our station will be. So, we will have retail, at grade. There is a bus nearby, a bus route, the Greenway. So, it’s an incredible site and we’re so excited to have the development concept there, one that brings so many things together, one that realizes the investment the province is making in the Broadway Subway plan by seeing high rise, mixed use development happening right at its doorstep.

JAWN: I suppose then the next follow up question would be like, Why is TransLink doing this? Is it a matter of just doing it now because the opportunity strikes? Or was there maybe a bigger reason for that?

SABRINA: There are so many reasons. You know, this program all that is said, is a long time coming. It became, the mandate was officially, you know, ushered in, approved by Mayors’ Council, TransLink Board, it became official last year, early last year. So many things leading up to that. One of them is revenue generation for TransLink. So as you know, and I know TransLink, as the regional authority for, for Vancouver is, is responsible for funding its own expansion. And TransLink is very innovative in looking for new ways to do that, that don’t burden our taxpayers and real estate development was one of those ideas. We do own real estate and the system and the idea was, you know, this is prime property for, for creating these spaces that people want to live and that this is something that we can, we can unlock for revenue generation for TransLink. The idea being that that all the benefits would be rolled right back into the transit system to help us grow, to help us, again meet the demands of our growing base that we have here in terms of commuters.

So revenue generation, certainly a driving factor. I really believe our being fiscally responsible when we do that, we take our existing assets and, you know, leverage them to be able to create value, not just monetary, but lots of other value, you know, lots of other benefits that we’ll talk about. And then also, just when you do development, your, we hope through our program to, to really enhance our transit service, our transit offerings. And it really also brings for the Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth Strategy.

JAWN: When we look at TransLink getting into real estate, I think it’s exciting to your point, a lot of great benefits to come through once all of that is realized. And you know, we are getting those homes constructed and everything, that’s great. How does TransLink and maybe this is more of a narrative on Metro Vancouver, how do we compare with other cities around North America? Are other cities and agencies in Canada doing the same thing? Maybe we look at places and maybe California, Washington State, like is this sort of groundbreaking or are we following a precedent?

SABRINA: I have been hearing and learning about? Like transit-oriented development is a term terminology that goes way back, like way back. But as of now, it is you can pick up like an urban planning, or a transport, transit kind of magazine without reading about transit-oriented development. So it is happening at a pace and a scale that we haven’t seen before. And when I say transport, that could be delivered by the private sector, mostly that’s where we’ve seen a come from. It is a, it is something that now public agencies around the world are getting into, like TFL in London, Transport for London, they have a huge real estate developer workforce. Everybody knows about Hong Kong and the MTR and how they’ve really leveraged real estate to, to really fund like it is. It is how they fund their system. So, it’s very different around the world. It’s happening in Toronto, it’s happening in Montreal, it’s happening now in Vancouver as well.

JAWN: Let’s take this opportunity to once again just put things into perspective. What are the operational benefits for TransLink getting into real estate development and how does it impact you, the customer? For that, we go to another Scoop with Coop. Here’s our friend David Cooper, the principal at Leading Mobility Consulting.

DAVID COOPER: So I’m quite excited about TransLink’s announcement on this, partially because, one, we do have a housing affordability crisis in several cities across Canada, and it really shows the leadership of a transit agency to relieve all of its mandate beyond of the transport of people, but also its ability to leverage housing outcomes on transit sites. I’ll walk a little bit through a project that we’re doing right now.

The Canada Urban Transit Association is doing a project that I’m leading where we’re looking at how do you maximize these housing outcomes and, and development outcomes at transit stations? Because train stations usually have a lot of infrastructure components and a lot of land. One of the complex pieces that we have when we look at our stations is that sometimes you’ll have large park-and-ride sites where you typically have them, where, where people will drive to a transit station, usually a rapid transit station to connect to the system, to go on to other modes and other destinations.

If you look at places like Toronto, the largest parking provider in Ontario is actually GO Transit and it’s a big parking lots around the transit stations and there’s these huge opportunities to help lift up ridership for those who rely on transit by building housing in these developments on transit sites. So that one, we, we capture the riders to increase revenue and, two, lessen the burden on the rest of the transit system to bury people in.

JAWN: And what makes these projects generally successful, though, David? You mentioned the increased revenue, that makes a lot of sense when you’re also trying to take a big picture look at funding revenues and funding models for transportation agencies all across North America and maybe even the world for that matter.

DAVID: So, these projects are successful when you have, you know, the right densities and the right mixes of uses, the attractiveness when it comes to real estate market for, for people to purchase these units. What’s very favorable for TransLink is the real estate market has shown that there is a high rate that people will, will pay and want to have to be close to transit.

If you go down the Millennium Line, you’ll, you’ll see things like Brentwood Town Centre, you’ll see on the Expo Line, Metrotown, you’ll see a lot of growth we’re seeing around Lougheed. Think we’ll have a lot of success because it’s actually a highly integrated, connected part of our region with the transit system. But also, there’s a lot of other components and uses around that particular area. So TransLink can now build out and complete that community by providing also that increased access to housing that many are looking for. And many, many see the value and the amenity of that.

JAWN:  Convenient access to public transportation, a network of amenities and infrastructure created for the purpose of building communities and encouraging growth in a population that would theoretically be relying less on driving to get from point A to point B. That is the long-term payoff when talking about transit-oriented developments. Alright, let’s go finish our chat with Sabrina.

SABRINA: I always remind everybody around me that we are building the future, so we have to think about now, we have to think about, you know, near future, and we have to think about the long term future. So, we need to come up with, if we’re planning a neighborhood, like a small community, we need to think about developing something that is robust and resilient in terms of being able to grow with the population.

So, we consider the long term needs of the growing population demand in the long term transit needs. And we really bake that into our thinking in terms of master planning a site or, you know, if it’s a smaller site, how can we make that very transit friendly? So that is a constant consideration, and we will be working to develop our visions and our plans.

JAWN: So given that this is a new program, really groundbreaking stuff that you and your team are doing currently to again, advance what people want to see out of not just TransLink, but I would agree with you, Metro Vancouver just as a whole. How is TransLink like getting into that and what is the process like maybe working with partners? Because I imagine like this is something you need to have lots of conversations with so many people from maybe government, from other sectors trying to make sure TransLink is able to do this.

SABRINA: Yeah, yeah. How are we going to get into that? Well, I would say that we’re well positioned. First of all, everybody wants this. So, every municipality that we have spoken to, everybody’s like, “about time.” Like, “please, like start.” Like, “what can we do?” Like, “we’ll give you shovels, get started already!” So there’s, there’s a huge amount of support for this.

I would say, you know, from the public, from, from the cities, from the private industries as well. So that’s fantastic. And then internally within our organization, we have so much expertise like we are. We’re writing the book on traffic demand management. The expertise is in-house, the inspiration in terms of, of developing transit-oriented communities. A lot of that, the excellence, is within our own organization. And in terms of partnerships, it happens in various stages. Earlier on in our planning, we’re engaging the, the best, brightest, most innovative, innovative minds to help us with this planning work. You know, world class. We’re really looking for global expertise in terms of the consultant support that we’ll be getting. So that’s, you know, early stages. But when it comes to delivering these projects, we do envision that we’re going to be partnering with the private sector again. You know, it’s, it’s, it’s a beautiful way of, of leveraging what everybody does best. You know, we’re bringing what we bring. But what we do best to the table, we’re inviting private sector to partner up with us and do what they do best. You know, they are developers who have been in this game for so long, know how to manage risk and, you know, financing and funding. So we’re you know, we’re bringing it all together and everybody’s bringing something of value to the table. And that’s how our partnerships will be coming forward. A question that would be, be asked is how will we be selecting partners? So, it will be on a project-by-project basis and it will be it’ll be a transparent process, probably a competitive process in terms of how we select those partners when the time is right to do so. So, we’re bringing opportunities up to a point where they are ready, so that we can then do partnerships.

JAWN: And how does this all sort of weave into like the big long term company strategies, things like Transport 2050 and all of that, I suppose like all of it kind of works hand in hand to, as you say, accelerate things like transit-oriented communities.

SABRINA: Yeah, it’s actually very well aligned so that Transport 2050, the Metro Regional Growth Strategy, they’re so aligned in terms of visionary and in terms of bringing mass transit and population growth and density together in terms of how we are delivering, like how the development program will actually realize those goals and aspirations. I, you know, we believe that with it, we’re providing people options in terms of being able to make a choice, to be able to live close to a transit station, to be able to walk, to cycle, to take transit and, you know, to rideshare. And, you know, we’re also, TransLink is also responsible for the major road network. So, you know, we have we are also thinking about our, our commuters and drivers as well. So, we, we are considering everybody and, and just trying to create better choices. I think by creating those choices, people can opt to live closer to transit. So that it helps with our sustainability goals, it helps with carbon emissions, it helps with our ridership and the revenue generation helps as well. As I said, that will help their front, growing more transit as well and more services and expansions.

JAWN: TransLink is breaking ground with its real estate development program to generate new long term revenue which will be reinvested into the region’s transportation system, as the region continues to grow. Welcoming up to 50,000 new residents annually, we need to provide people with sustainable ways to move and live. It’s a lot like I said, blending the need for new revenue streams with the need for more housing doesn’t have to be a problem, but rather an opportunity.

My thanks to Sabrina Hamidullah for a wonderful conversation on real estate development and David Cooper for another Scoop with Coop, always painting that big picture on these issues. My thanks to producer Allen, who’s the brains of this operation, and also to you for listening and subscribing. I’ve been your host, Jawn Jang. Until next time. Have a safe trip.