Adam Cooper, Director of Development at Abstract Developments

For our June 2020 Newsletter, we asked Adam about Abstract, his work there, how his planning background informs his views, and a bit about his life outside of work.

Browse all our Member Spotlights here.

Can you briefly introduce yourself and Abstract Developments?
My name is Adam Cooper and I am the Director of Development for Abstract Developments. I have been with the company for over three years and started with the team as a Development Manager in 2017. Abstract is a Victoria-based development company that focusses in residential and mixed use multi-family developments. Founded in 1999 by Mike Miller, Abstract has completed more then 480 homes to date, with projects in located primarily throughout Victoria, Saanich and Oak Bay.

Abstract Developments is incredibly active in Victoria and the surrounding municipalities – what has led to the company’s success?
Abstract’s success comes from an unrelenting vision to transform challenging sites into new homes that benefit future residents and the greater community as a whole. I feel our willingness to develop challenging infill sites that others may not be willing to – helps us create diamonds in the rough. Our attention to detail and commitment to creating highly-livable places is a major part of our success to date. Our investment in our team and our ability to attract and retain top talent from the City and beyond plays a major role in helping us deliver on our brand commitment.

Abstract maintains an in house construction team – what have you found to be the benefits and challenges of doing so?
One of the key benefits of having a construction team in house includes greater control around construction outcomes, such budget, timeframes and quality – as well as the ability to more efficiently shift resources between projects when needed.

One of the key challenges is related to internal culture and identity. Construction companies, while on the surface may seem similar to development companies, typically have different operational and cultural challenges. The attributes and motivators are different for development and construction companies; in some regards there is value in having a more focused purpose by just being a developer or a builder, but on balance we find there is value in maintaining our current structure.

How has the COVID-19 outbreak changed the conversation about future projects?
Abstract’s product development is quickly adapting to a changing trend to remote work, such as in floor plan design, as well as through the integration of indoor/outdoor co-working spaces in residential developments; this was already something the company was looking at, but covid-19 and the significant shift to remote work has further enhanced this need.

Other design elements we are focusing on more are cycling-oriented amenities in all developments; comfortable and well-lit, at grade bike rooms with generous secure storage, bike maintenance areas, shared cargo bikes, shared e-bikes and more. As a result of covid-19 cycling is on the rise; in Victoria alone, bike sales and services are booming in Victoria as cycling provides a new form of fitness, and a healthier way to get around (backgrounder: https://www.timescolonist.com/life/bicycle-sales-service-booming-in-greater-victoria-1.24123102 ) – combined with the ongoing investment in cycling infrastructure from municipalities like the City of Victoria and District of Saanich, we as developers have an opportunity to support the creation of a healthy cycling network in Victoria that will have lasting benefits well beyond Covid-19.

Looking into the future, are there any positive changes you hope to see in the development industry as a result of the current crisis?
I hope that the crisis will result in healthier work environments over the long term. Covid-19 has impacted construction and office operations, including mandatory social distancing, increased sanitation facilities and cleaning routines, and strict stay-at-home requirements for those showing symptoms, etc. We believe some of these practices will be lasting and will help create a healthier work environment beyond the duration of covid-19. I do believe after having our team shelter in place for roughly 10 weeks, that we have proven it is possible for us to remain highly prodcuctive while working from home and I anticipate we will work this practice into our culture more and provide more flexible work arrangements for our team. From the purchaser perspective, we have had to learn to be more progressive and adaptable with regard to the experience of prospective homeowners. Covid-19 has given us the opportunity to find new and exciting ways for customers to experience Abstract homes from their own home by way of virtual and video tours.

Before entering the world of real estate development, you started out as Registered Professional Planner. How do you believe this has shaped your approach to development, and what advice would you give developers without the same background education?
I feel that coming into development as a professional planner helps me communicate to planning staff using their own language which can help relieve any tension and pre conceived notions that planners may have about developers. Planning has been valuable as it has taught me to tie together some of the big picture concepts that can sometimes be lost when you are discussing the specifics of any particular development applications. I feel it is very important to consider this larger context when speaking about housing development, and planning gives me the lens to be able to do that. The structure of our local government in the CRD is set up to make us only think about our own backyard, but if we wish to be a truly sustainable region, we need to consider the big picture in every land use decision that we make. For developers who don’t have a background in planning my advice is always to listen first. Planners are aspirational people who have taken the role because they believe in good cities and they want to make a positive difference in the lives of people. While there can sometimes be a disconnect between the aspirations of the planning profession and the realties of designing, building and selling homes, developers would be wise to listen carefully to the advice of great planning staff because they see the big picture they can offer creative solutions to challenging problems that can actually improve your end product.

What is the most difficult part of your job, and what do you love most about it?
Ask anyone working in development and they will tell you about how challenging it can be, particularly working in a place like Victoria where we have a highly engaged public who care deeply for their city and do not want to see the things they like about it eroded over time. I think the hardest part of the job is the combination of several factors; the pressure to be successful, the time constraints and the challenging conversations with the public – they all can weigh on you (I do on occaision have sleepless nights!). Developers need to be able find a narrative about a project that resonates with many voices in our society provide input on proposals. A good Developer can listen to all of the voices, take the input and and find a narrative that responds to aspirations of the public and the constraints of the site. It is a delicate balance and an area I feel my background in planning is helpful in.

What do you love most about living in Victoria?
The thing I love most about living in Victoria is the balance of great weather, access to the outdoors and the great amenities we have in our downtown. Coming from Windsor Ontario, Victoria feels like a literal paradise. We are very spoiled here to have an economy that insulated from some of the boom and busts of manufacturing cities like Calgary or Windsor.. I grew up across from Detroit and watched it crumble over the years – whole neighbourhoods were bulldozed and the city couldn’t afford its own police force at one point in time. In Victoria we have it so good that sometimes I think people forget just how lucky we are. It is easy to forget that some cities struggle and in the case of my own hometown, I feel they would bend over backwards to get even one of the many applications the CRD has for high quality, well designed and sustainable forms of housing.

When you’re not working, what are your favourite activities? What has been bringing you joy during this strange time?
When I am not working on Abstract projects, I can be found taking care of my young daughters, Adelle who is five and Amelia who is three. They’re very buys young girls who like to dance, sing and pretend to put makeup on their dad. When I can find time between working, being a dad and a husband, I love to ride bikes. Bikes have been a passion of mine since I was very young and any chance to get out into the woods on a mountain cannot be missed. During the Covid-19 pandemic, my wife and I purchased our first home and we have been renovating and building a basement suite which has kept us very busy. When time and weather permits we try to get the kids to the beach as regularly as possible to enjoy the natural beauty of the place we feel so luck to call home.

Tell us something that might surprise us about you.
You’ll have to pull me aside at a future UDI event to hear the truly surprising stories, but one thing some folks find surprising is that I did not own a car until I was 28 years old. In my past life I was a Transportation Planner with TransLink, BC Transit and UBC and I was a dedicated bike commuter year round. This experience certainly comes in handy when speaking to Planners and Council about reducing car parking in projects and advocating for a low car lifestyle.