How a $1.4 billion real estate project plans to track lofty goals

The plan for a major new $1.4 billion development on the waterfront in downtown Ottawa started like many big real estate projects, with the simple balancing of risk and return. Dream, the developer behind the project and one of Canada’s biggest real estate companies, envisioned a vast new walkable district, with dozens of office buildings and residential towers adding up to 4 million square feet. It would be an inclusive, environmentally friendly, and socioeconomically diverse mixed-use neighborhood—a grocery list of aspirations that most large-scale 21st-century projects tout.

[Image: courtesy Dream]

Recognizing that these kinds of goals can often sound like (and often are) empty promises, Dream decided to think more broadly about how the project could prove that the goals it laid out are actually being achieved. Instead of just setting goals, the company set out to prove that the project was actually achieving them.

“The real estate industry and the professional organizations that support it are very good at articulating what makes a good development. There’s less ongoing data available on the achievement of those things. That’s something we’re trying to close the gap on,” says Pino Di Mascio, head of impact strategy and delivery at Dream.

[Image: courtesy Dream]

For this project, called Zibi, Dream established an “impact scorecard” that the company will use to track and measure the development’s performance on a variety of metrics, ranging from commute times to the amount of street lighting being used to the amount of minority-owned businesses in operation. The goal is to use these measurements as a gauge on the overall operation of the neighborhood as it continues to build out to house 5,000 residents and 6,000 offices, and to adjust policies, operations, and even the built environment as needed.

[Image: courtesy Dream]

“We set out very specific targets and then sets of actions that we’re going to monitor over time,” Di Mascio says.

Environmental sustainability is a primary concern. Spread across 34 acres and spilling into Gatineau, a neighboring city directly across the Ottawa River, the project is heated and cooled by a district energy system that uses waste heat from a nearby paper plant and the cool water of the river. Through this system, the project has achieved carbon neutrality. Other goals target waste diversion, water savings, and reducing energy demand. The project is the first in Canada to qualify for accreditation through One Planet Living, an independent sustainability framework that focuses on the challenge of reducing neighborhood-scale carbon and ecological footprints.

[Image: courtesy Dream]

Dream is also hoping to ensure that the occupants and users of the new buildings in Zibi are reflective of the diversity of this part of Canada, and its scorecard approach is being used to help achieve goals for residents’ economic diversity as well as female and Indigenous business ownership. Zibi is the Algonquin Anishinabe word for “river,” and Dream wants to make sure the reference is reflected in goals set out by the impact scorecard. One of its goals is to create 20 jobs for members of the Algonquin Anishinabe nation throughout the life of the project.

“It’s really helping us to think through in a very defined way who are we specifically targeting, the socioeconomics, the Indigenous communities, minority-owned businesses, women-owned businesses,” says Tsering Yangki, head of real estate finance and development at Dream. She says that the project has already surpassed its goal of making 7% of the housing in the project affordable, and is likely to set affordable pricing on more housing as it comes online.

[Image: courtesy Dream]

These are uncommon goals for a real estate development. “Typically, you talk about financial metrics. No one talks about this is the population we want to target, this is how it’s going to work. It’s not just the risk-and-return metrics, it’s the risk, return, and impact that we presented to our investment committee,” Yangki says. An annual report will be used to track the progress on these and other goals. She says the process has led the company to really explore “who are the beneficiaries of what we are trying to do.”

In addition to more straightforward tracking, such as energy use and the function of building mechanical systems, Dream’s impact scorecard also focuses on metrics that are more difficult, and maybe impossible, to actually quantify, including the health and wellness of Zibi residents and occupants. Di Mascio says that this all is admittedly more art than science, but Dream has an internal database of studies showing the health and social benefits of things like biophilic design. He says the company will be producing a white paper later this year exploring how well elements such as health and well-being can be measured in a project like this, and says the metrics included in its impact scorecard will be tracked in annual reports on an ongoing basis into the future. That means tracking success, as verified by outside groups like One Planet Living, but perhaps also noting where the reality hasn’t lived up to its lofty goals. As many other real estate developments have proven, big goals are much easier to set than achieve.

Dream intends for this to be just the start of a new way of thinking about real estate development. The impact scorecard is being integrated into Dream projects going forward, and setting clear goals will now focus on much more than just the financial side of development. “It’s something we think all companies are going to have to start getting very good at,” says Di Mascio. “Once you make the commitment, it’s not that hard to do.”