Carla Guerrera is a leader in urban infill and redevelopment with a record of leading award- winning brownfield redevelopment and waterfront revitalization projects in Canada’s top markets. Carla has led the planning and development of over $600million in real estate development in her role at Waterfront Toronto, and Wesgroup. In her current role she continues to lead complex urban redevelopment projects, as well as consulting on planning, design, entitlements, regulatory issues, and political and community engagement, and development management.
Carla was recognized as one of the world’s top 40 under 40 land use professionals by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in 2014! She recently went to NYC to be awarded this recognition at a ULI conference with over 7000 global land development industry leaders.
Her backup career choice: Psychologist & Lawyer (tied)
Her drink of choice: French Martini. Strong, delicious, dangerous.
Q: What are some current and prospective projects that you are involved in?
“I’ve been involved with Grosvenor on an iconic redevelopment site in Edgemont Village. The project is transforming an aging grocery store, surface parking lot and old medical office building into a mixed-use development with 65,000 sf commercial space and 89 residential units. The project is key to helping refresh the Edgemont Village area bringing a much needed new grocery store, restaurant, as well as more diverse housing options that the area desperately needs as the population ages. I live in the area and really enjoy being a part of transforming my community into a more livable neighbourhood for years to come.
I’ve also recently led a new a master plan development for Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops. The new plan that we created accomplishes several things: it transforms the campus from a disparate commuter-campus with lots of parking to a vibrant mixed-use pedestrian only campus, it adds key density to help accommodate space and expansion needs for the campus, and it provides a development strategy for the campus to generate over $30m in revenue with market residential and commercial development that can be reinvested back into the university. This model, also used by UBC Properties Trust and SFU, is a key model that we were excited to help TRU adopt and implement. It’s very exciting work to help an organization leverage their land in so many ways to achieve multiple priorities.”
Q: Of all of the successful projects you’ve helped lead, which project(s) did you find most interesting and why?
“All of the projects I have helped lead have been interesting for different reasons. One of the largest and most complex projects in my career was the West Don Lands project, which I led with Waterfront Toronto. My role was to lead the master plan for the redevelopment of an 80-acre brownfield site right outside the Toronto CBD. What made the project interesting was the size, the scope and complexity of the site, and how our team tackled those complexities with creativity and innovation that turned risks into opportunities. The result has been a multi-award winning mixed-use transit and pedestrian oriented neighbourhood composed of 6000 residential units, 1 million sf of employment space, and 23 acres of parks, schools, and community centres. It’s been a huge success and has generated $650 million in revenue to date, and unlocked $10 billion in surrounding development. I learned many key lessons from my role on this project which is now one of the world’s leading models of sustainable urban development . So much of what we learned can be transferred to complex urban redevelopment projects anywhere.
Locally, I managed the redevelopment of the Prescott with Wesgroup Properties, a former gas station site that we redeveloped into a mixed-use development in North Vancouver. Often these gas stations are strategically located on key urban corridors with transit and amenities nearby. We took the site from a derelict condition and transformed it into a mixed-use development which is the head office for Blue Shore Financial and consists of 84 residential units. For me, what was interesting about this project was managing a redevelopment project with a very engaged partner (Blue Shore Financial). I also learned the significant impact on the overall financial return of a project that having a solid development strategy, clearly understanding risks and opportunities, and well-run approvals process have.”
Q: In your work in urban redevelopment, more particularly, with derelict or contaminated sites, what do you find most challenging when working with these sites in comparison to say, a “clean” site?
“One of the major challenges and keys to success of these sites is to make sure that you bring the remediation process together with the redevelopment process so that you look at these as one continuum because that’s the only way that redevelopment can look like a viable option and make sense from a business perspective. Too often at times these are looked at separately or in silos. If you take a comprehensive look at the site, its clean up and redevelopment potential, you can often turn the risks and costs of the site remediation and turn those into opportunities on the site redevelopment. With the West Don Lands, we were able to reuse contaminated soil on the site to actually build a berm to protect the site from flooding. This saved the project significant costs from having to export contaminated soil and import clean fill. Looking at these projects holistically allows you to find ways of turning the risks into opportunities and it is really key to capitalize on those when doing brownfield redevelopment.”
Q: Part of planning a community involves consideration for mixed income levels. How does the planning process work in terms of trying to achieve a balance between affordability and margins for developers?
“Since the federal and provincial government divested themselves from affordable housing and made it the responsibility of the municipalities, both the municipalities and the developers have a role to play in creating affordable housing. For the municipal side, there needs to be realistic targets and funding mechanisms, and land donations for affordable housing to be built. Developers have the expertise to build housing and to build it efficiently. So if cities can be proactive in working with developers as partners and consider land donations and density tradeoffs, there could be incredible strides made in the delivery of affordable housing. This was the model that we used at Waterfront Toronto in partnering with the city and developers - providing land for free so that we could deliver 240 units of affordable seniors’ rental housing in the first phase of development.”
Q: Urban development projects are hardly, if ever, straightforward. What would you say are major challenges in accommodating growth in a sustainable way?
“In our market in particular, affordable housing is one of the major challenges that impacts all levels: social, environmental, and economic aspects of sustainable growth. It’s primarily due to a lack of affordable housing that causes people to live far away from where they work and then, generally, commute with cars to where they work which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and results in less time with their family, less time with their communities, more congestion on the roads, and negative impacts to the economy overall. It’s a huge issue that really does impact all aspects of how we can have a sustainable and livable Metro Vancouver region. From an economic perspective, the lack of affordable housing causes young people to leave – talented people who our job market needs. This impacts our ability to attract and retain top employers and head offices here because they follow the talent pool. Young professionals are leaving the city moving to the suburbs or moving elsewhere in Canada. This is happening now more and more even within my own network. So, the affordable housing issue isn’t just about having affordable housing. It’s a multi-pronged challenge that I think impacts every aspect of sustainable growth in this region.”
Q: What are some key characteristics of a well-planned community?
“In its simplest terms, a well-planned community is a community that has been thoughtfully designed for live, work, play, and study. One of the world’s leading models of a well-planned community is the West Don Lands Project that I spoke about earlier. We designed that neighbourhood so that there was diversity of housing opportunities. We also designed that community so that it had one million square feet of commercial employment space so you could live and work within the same neighbourhood. We included 23 acres of parks and open space and some play opportunities. The “study” portion included community centres, daycares, and schools, all walkable within the same neighbourhood. Communities which have all those ingredients (the live, work, play, and study) that are knitted together with a very desirable, pedestrian-focused environment and transit is what a well-planned community should be.”
Q: How did you get into urban development?
“I grew up in a small town called Belleville in Ontario with a population of 40,000. I was born into a house in the suburbs and it was quite isolating growing up there. By age 9 my family bought a home in the city and it was just a huge impact on my life to live in a walkable neighbourhood, serviced by transit, with schools, community centres, stores and parks all within walking distance. I started to ride a bike for the first time, walk to friends’ houses, play at the park, and walk to the store to buy candy. As a 9 year old, it was a profound experience to see how much your neighbourhood impacts your activity levels, your social engagement, and your level of happiness. That set me off in a direction of wanting to be a key player in the way we plan and develop our communities so that they create a positive impact on the environment, our happiness, our health and our overall quality of life.”
Q: What advice do you have for young professionals trying to enter the field as well as mid- level professionals trying to reach that next level?
“For young professionals, I think the key is to build your network. Getting out to different events and meeting with other professionals about their careers. This does a number of things: first of all, it allows you to build a network that you’re going to have for your entire career. Second of all, it exposes you to potential future employment opportunities because you’re putting yourself in front of someone who could hire you in the future. Finally, you’re learning something completely new about your industry and it allows you to refine your own aspirations.
For mid-career professionals, I think one of the most important things is to be very familiar about your particular expertise or niche in other markets and also be more familiar with your industry on a global basis. Sometimes we get very focus on the local market and keeping the status quo but global knowledge and best practices will help us to constantly raise the bar, set ourselves apart from others, and show true leadership.”
Q: How have you been involved with CREW Vancouver and how has the organization helped with your career growth?
“Over the years, I’ve attended a number of CREW events and learning opportunities. They have been great to learn about what other people are doing and to learn new perspectives on the industry and also really wonderful for networking. The CREW network and conferences are international and having that global connection and exposure to other markets to get global knowledge and bringing it back here is really valuable.”
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