Opinion: Jonathan Westeinde, green giant

You don’t often see the words developer and environmentalist in the same sentence. But when it comes to Jonathan Westeinde, there is no dichotomy.

The CEO and co-founder of Ottawa-based Windmill Development Group as well as a former recipient of OBJ’s Forty Under 40 award, Mr. Westeinde brings not only a passion for LEED Platinum buildings to his work, but a financial acumen to match. He pioneered the idea that condominiums in his LEED-certified developments might cost more to build but don’t have to be priced that way.

So how does he do it?

Mr. Westeinde arranges loans to his future condominium corporations from a French lender. The loans are repaid over seven years and cover the additional capital costs attributable to LEED certification. Higher construction costs are paid for in monthly condo fees, but some or all of those additional expenses are offset by the savings from operating more energy-efficient buildings.

Consumers obviously like what they see. Windmill now has projects in Toronto (Union Lofts), Whitewater Village (in Foresters Falls, where Wilderness Tours is based), Ottawa (Cathedral Hill and The Eddy).

Most important to the capital region is Zibi, a 37-acre, $1.5-billion brownfield development Windmill has launched in partnership with Toronto real estate company Dream. The project is situated at the old Domtar lands on the Ottawa River, partly in Ontario and partly in Quebec.

“Zibi” means river in Algonquin, and since the site is along the Algonquin Trail and was part of the tribe’s traditional lands, the new community will have signage in three languages, English, French and Algonquin – another first.

The development is Ottawa’s answer to Vancouver’s Granville Island, a shopping and entertainment destination and one of B.C.’s top tourist attractions. The difference is that Zibi will also have extensive housing options, from lowrise townhouses to highrise condo towers.

When I walked the site with Mr. Westeinde in April, his enthusiasm for the project was palpable.

The site is spectacular and the spring roaring of Chaudière Falls reminded me of how powerful and magical the Ottawa River is. How did he secure this unique site in the heart of a G8 capital?

“We never get involved in a situation where highest price wins,” Mr. Westeinde, 46, said. “We are interested in talking to landowners who are looking out for a triple bottom line: profitability, environmental sustainability and societal gains. In other words, they are receptive to our approach, which brings higher total value.

“One of our team members (Rodney Wilts) lives in Chelsea and has to take the Chaudière crossing to get to our office (in Wellington West). After riding his bike in to work one day, he told me to take a look at the Domtar lands, and we did.”

To take on a project this size, Mr. Westeinde knew he would need a partner – one with patient capital, an oxymoron if ever there was one. But he found it in Toronto-based Dundee Real Estate Asset Management, more commonly known as Dream.

Dream manages more than $14 billion worth of property in North America and Europe. It was one of the original partners in the development of Toronto’s Distillery Historic District, which opened in 2003 and is now a major arts, culture and entertainment destination.

“They were my first choice,” Mr. Westeinde said. “Not just because they could bring patient money, but because there was a cultural fit. From our first meeting with (Dream CEO) Michael Cooper to agreement was an unheard-of (for Canada) 30 days. They are a large entity, it’s true, but still very entrepreneurial, and somehow they match up well with our 40-person shop.

“You know you have a good partner when it’s minus-25 (Celsius) on Michael’s first three visits, and yet he still wants to proceed,” he added with a smile.

The partnership is 50-50, but there are incentives for Windmill that might allow it to do better than that.

Mr. Westeinde is a family man with three daughters, ages 14, 13 and 9. In his spare time, he enjoys running marathons. He met his wife when he was studying in Dublin at Trinity College, where he received his MBA.

She wasn’t a student, though – she was there on assignment with Corel.

“Her Corel expense account was a lot higher than a starving student’s,” he said with a laugh. “When she took me out to see a play at a local theatre, that was it. I knew I wanted to marry her.”

Construction and real estate development is in Mr. Westeinde’s blood. His father John put him to work in construction at the family-owned firm – now part of Aecon Construction – when he was 12. He didn’t like it; he thought the business was too slow to adopt new technology.

For a while, he wanted to be a marine biologist. But after reading a book called Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, he realized he could team up with his brother Jeff and create more value by bringing green tech to the real estate development industry. As he discovered, there’s green in being green.

Windmill’s goal is to be the most environmentally friendly and sustainable urban developer in Canada, which is like saying you want to be the fastest tortoise. There isn’t a lot of competition.

I asked Mr. Westeinde about the NCC’s LeBreton Flats development. His answer was careful and circumspect.

“Zibi will be well underway by the time the next phase of LeBreton proceeds, but we are big supporters of the balance of their lands being developed to basically fill in the hole in the doughnut,” he said. “If the Sens relocate there, that would be fantastic and would allow Ottawa to catch up to the demonstrated success of urban arenas in many other downtowns. LeBreton and Zibi were once the centre of industry and activity when Ottawa was a young city, and it’s vital that we both succeed in restoring the area.”

Bruce M. Firestone, PhD, Ottawa Senators founder, Century 21 Explorer Realty broker. Follow him on Twitter @ProfBruce