Meet the land developer trying to stop a highway through Ontario’s greenbelt

Jonathan Westeinde could make much more money if he compromised his principles. He won’t.

highway 413 Ontario's greenbelt

Gideon Forman is a climate change policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation.

Earlier this year, the David Suzuki Foundation circulated an open letter calling for the protection of southern Ontario’s greenbelt, citing the proposed Highway 413 north of Toronto as a major threat. It would run 52 kilometres from Vaughan to Milton and pave over more than 400 acres of the  greenbelt’s invaluable forest and wetlands, as well as more than 2,000 acres of Ontario’s most productive farmland.

The fact that the David Suzuki Foundation is urging the preservation of nature may hardly be news. But what distinguished the open letter — along with the signatures of author Margaret Atwood and former Toronto mayors — was its inclusion of a number of business leaders, among them Jonathan Westeinde, the Ottawa-based CEO of Windmill Developments.

I was intrigued at the idea of a land developer coming out publicly against the highway. Everyone knows the expressway’s construction would cause a staggering increase in the value of properties along the route.

But Westeinde, as I discovered during an exhilarating discussion this summer, is not like other developers. In fact, he’s better understood as an environmentalist or social activist than the builder of a billion dollars’ worth of real estate projects.

He got his start in the sector early. His parents ran one of Ottawa’s largest construction firms. “I’ve been on construction sites since I was 11,” he says. “But by the time I was 18, I didn’t want to have anything to do with construction as a career path…I saw the friction, lack of innovation…”

He hails from a family of engineers, but he “felt the need to be a contrarian,” so he completed his undergrad degree at Western University in economics. He considered doing graduate work in marine biology — “I’d always had an interest in the environment, particularly the oceans” — but he eventually did an MBA and worked briefly as a venture capitalist.

The year 2003 was a turning point. Westeinde began to see the business case for renewable energy after reading Natural Capitalism and started planning Windmill. “It was a real influencer,” he says of the classic volume on environmental economics. “There was a real focus [in the book] on real estate and how it’s one of the few industries that, if worked on properly, can be a net positive…And I also saw if we really focus on sustainability, it can be the core driver of innovation in the industry.” Here, ecological thinking is not an afterthought but a central organizing principle that feeds land developers’ creativity and success.

Westeinde’s original plan was to create an “ecosystem” of partnering businesses. He brought together some of Canada’s greenest architects and engineers as seed investors, but he wasn’t wholly satisfied with the results. “It worked in theory for a bit and then they all got bought by larger firms and lost their souls.”

He persevered and soon Windmill bid on its first major request for proposals, Dockside Green, a massive housing development in Victoria, B.C., which was one of North America’s first LEED platinum communities. Westeinde still seems astonished that he was successful. “You can imagine as an early start-up with not much capital base behind us bidding on a $750-million project; it was a big leap.”

Central to Westeinde’s philosophy is a commitment to regeneration. The goal isn’t merely to minimize damage but to improve things.

There was a real focus [in Natural Capitalism] on real estate and how it’s one of the few industries that, if worked on properly, can be a net positive…And I also saw if we really focus on sustainability, it can be the core driver of innovation in the industry.

-Jonathan Westeinde, CEO of Windmill Developments

Regeneration can also have a social dimension. Westeinde proudly tells me about a community called Parkway House he’s planning along Ottawa’s national capital bike path. The site is currently occupied by a disabled adults’ housing facility that, unfortunately, faces bankruptcy.

“We have structured a deal with them where we’re able to monetize their land to get them a brand new facility, get them an annuity that will not have them worry about funding again and give them a very healthy place in the community while creating an intensified development there.” This sounds like urbanization at its best: sensible density married to active transportation and social justice. “Instead of the value of that land going into someone’s pocket to buy themselves a bigger house, it’s going to create a brand new facility for these [disabled adults] and long-term safety net.”

Our conversation turns to the greenbelt. I ask Westeinde, naively, if there could ever be an organization called Developers for Greenbelt Protection. I say part of what makes southern Ontario attractive to new homebuyers is its wild spaces. He’s skeptical. “You’re looking at a situation where you’ve got a field that’s either worth nothing or it’s worth tonnes of money, based on it being in the greenbelt or not…. Unless someone is told they can’t [develop it], unfortunately, the thinking is just short-term.”

Nature will be protected, he suggests, not by corporate good will but regulation. “When I started in the industry, I was always in favour of carrot versus stick, in the sense that developers would do the right thing if incented accordingly. Increasingly, unfortunately, I’m falling on the side that it’s just got to be a stick.”

Yet Westeinde remains optimistic. Recently, he’s seen signs that the real estate industry is embracing sustainability. The driver, surprisingly, has been funders. “In the first 15 years of Windmill… the conversations in the room were [with] the architects, the engineers. Capital was not there. Capital just saw [sustainability] as friction… [But] in the last two years, capital is now driving a lot of the agenda.”

He gives the example of Quebec’s titanic pension-plan manager, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which funds a number of real estate operations and aims to be net-zero by 2030.   “They said to all their operators, ‘Because we’ve got to meet these goals, unless you can come back to us with a plan to show us how you’re also going to meet those goals, we’re not going to fund you anymore.’ So, now, these operators are going, ‘Shit, we gotta figure this out.’”

That, says Westeinde, is “changing the conversation. That part I’m extremely encouraged by.”

I come away with admiration. Here’s a developer who could make much more money if he compromised his principles. He won’t.

“We’re turning down projects that have a fantastic financial return, but we just can’t see the way [to make them sustainable].”

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