So, what if the condo boom isn’t a bubble?
A senior economist at RBC named Robert Hogue suggested as much on Tuesday when he released a seven-page report that said, in short, everything’s fine; we’ve got plenty of people buying, our economy’s fine, prices may slow down a bit, but generally, we’re good, keep on building.
We’ve been assuming it’s all a bubble, and that it’s about to pop, for about as long as it’s been happening, more than 10 years now, and I think it’s been affecting a lot of aspects of how we’ve all been handling it. Some of us haven’t been buying condos, because we’re sure the prices are going to come down hard. This probably includes a significant number of people who remember when condo prices did come down incredibly hard in 1989-90, when they went so low they didn’t poke their heads up above sea level until about 2002.
Others have been buying them like mad, and selling them, too, trying to make all the money we can before the bust.
And then there are the developers. They can’t have believed in the real substance of this boom. If they did, they wouldn’t be building so quickly, courting a bubble of their own design by chipping away at people’s confidence in the quality of the buildings they’re putting up. I haven’t spoken to a single developer who has been able to tell me how long one of his towers will last. And I’ve spoken to a lot of developers over the past five years. I have spoken to designers who tell me when their wealthier clients have hired them to come in to even some of the higher-end condos to customize the interiors, they’ve been shocked at the quality of the work. And we’re not just talking the grade of the countertop granite. One designer told me he couldn’t find a single true line in the King and Portland-area condo he’d been brought in to work on.
And you can tell by the architecture, too. Whatever we end up calling this rectilinear, planar, glassy look we’ve got going on, it’s going to be our city’s look for a good long time, and I’m sure we’ll make the best of it. But look at the new Four Seasons. It’s designed by one of the city’s brightest and most reputable architects, and I’m sure it’s lovely inside. But could it be any less interesting from the street, or anywhere else you can see it jutting out of its relatively low-lying surroundings? No, it could not. It would be more interesting if it were painted entirely beige.
No architect will admit to being rushed. If you ask them, they’ll tell you they do their best work all the time, every time. This does not make it so.
But if developers thought there was an actual market, rather than a bubbly one, then that market would persist, and a persistent market will persistently buy units over an extended period of time. In fact, if you make them wait a bit, they will get eager and impatient and anxious and needy and they will pay more. So, if developers really believed in a solid condo market in this city, wouldn’t they hang back a bit? It may be a bit much to expect them to spend more than they have to on building materials when we’re so uneducated about such things that we don’t even ask, but if we weren’t buying so madly, and they weren’t selling so madly; if, in other words, we weren’t all expecting it all to collapse at our feet at any moment, wouldn’t we all expect a little more than that loading dock of an entrance at the Trump, or all those flat, flat planes of glassy, glassy glass?
I believe we would.
You could say, if you’re a little closer to the business and think about such things, that there are only a certain number of prime lots on which to build these towers, and that the nature of capitalist competition dictates that developers will want to snap them up before their colleagues get them. Except, buying big chunks of downtown is an expansive proposition, even for these high rollers, and not one of them has the capital, or even the financing, to buy all that many of them all at once. Which means the feeding frenzy is self-perpetuating, and there wouldn’t be a frenzy without this sense of a bubble.
If you subscribe to my design theory of bubbling booms, which you’d be forgiven for not, you get the sense that maybe RBC’s Hogue is right, and that maybe the developers caught on a little before he did. Look at the buildings that are coming out now, like One Park West and Picasso and a whole raft of others that are incorporating detail into their facades. We haven’t had detail on our facades for decades, a great many decades in fact, something like seven. Ever since the International Style took hold, any detail we’ve had has been on a grid and repetitive. Artfulness, whimsy, even earnest attempts at beauty have been seen as jejune or naive. But now we have doodles on the fronts of our condos. Could it be the architects were just getting bred with themselves? I doubt it, if for no other reason than I’m sure they were bored with themselves a decade ago. I think it’s the developers’ tolerance, or possibly even appetite that dictates such trends, and I think they’ve just realized they, and we are in it for the long haul.