The iconic symbol of Vancouver's future: Locals priced out of the market in a resort city?

BIG Architecture / Westbank : Vancouver House rendering

The notion that at least some of Vancouver's development is being targeted to wealthy investors and thus skewing our own housing market – making it more expensive for local residents – shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone who lives here.

What's perhaps more surprising, as reported in the Province yesterday, is the brazen means by which a new 52-storey Westbank project, the Vancouver House at the north end of the Granville Bridge (billed as an iconic symbol of Vancouver's future) has so far been marketed exclusively to wealthy overseas buyers - replete with special absentee
owner concierge services and a fleet of luxury BMWs on reserve.

EDIT: The original Province article has since been removed and a correction published in its stead, please see postscript below.

The developer, Westbank, under the leadership of founder Ian Gillespie is responsible for everything from Woodwards, Shangri-La, the Safeway Tower in Marpole, and the Telus Gardens downtown; to big future projects in Chinatown, at Victoria and Kingsway, and the city-sized Oakridge redevelopment. Gillespie is also set to corner the market on district energy in the Downtown peninsula with his recent purchase of Central Heating, which dovetails nicely with Vancouver's Greenest City 2020 Action Plan. Perhaps not coincidentally, Gillespie is also a long time supporter of Vision Vancouver.

Like a lot of issues surrounding development and affordability in Vancouver, as reported yesterday in the Province, there is a growing sense of frustration, with locals questioning exactly who we are building for.

As the Province's Sam Cooper reports in his article:
“It’s shocking that this building, which has been marketed to us as the iconic Vancouver House, gets sold two months in advance to Asia,” a reader told The Province, in reaction to reports from Singapore. “I wouldn’t call that iconic, I’d call it insulting.”

Admittedly the building IS iconic, designed by Danish "starchitect" Bjarke Ingels, with sweeping 360˚ views and posh amenities; the Gesamtkunstwerk Vancouver House is a "living sculpture" infused with "urban-scaled artwork informed by green living and the integration of visual splendor into daily living" (or more accurately, occasional living — as the project's overseas marketing would suggest).

Of course, equally (if not more) iconic, is the notion that with our literally and figuratively sky-high housing market, a building symbolizing ostentatious wealth as a place to park global capital is quickly becoming a veritable symbol of Vancouver's real estate market and the growing affordability divide.

No doubt, Vancouver is a desirable city: blessed with a beautiful natural scenery, mild climate, abundant clean energy, fresh water, and a buoyant real estate market - the city has seen a steady increase in high end luxury tower construction in recent years. Even the ever flamboyant Donald Trump is cashing in on Vancouver's reputation as a safe place to park global capital the occasion of which led Vision City Councilor Geoff Meggs to famously quip "What took you so long?"

The question is, how do we leverage that luxury investment housing demand — into something for the rest of us who live and work here.

Much has been written about our ghost neighbourhoods and Vancouver becoming a "zombie city" as a symptom of Vancouver's world class city aspirations and resultant growth in luxury class housing markets. Various real estate pundits and lobbiests have suggested the claims of global capital skewing our local market lacks the research to back it up (indeed, I would agree that thus far, the City of Vancouver has failed in this analytic capacity).

In a rather uncharacteristic about-face however, UBC real estate expert Tsur Somerville conceded that Vancouver may indeed be becoming more and more like a resort city.

I’m not ready to say we are becoming like some ghost city in Outer Mongolia,” he said. “The question is, do you become like the Aspens or Whistlers of the world, where the people that work there don’t live there?”
— UBC real estate expert Tsur Somerville
The Province, July 28, 2014

Somerville's notion of Whistler as a resort where the people who work there cannot afford to live belies a fundamental fact: Whistler's Housing Authority has provided and built affordable housing for 82% of it's workforce. From their website: "the WHA continues to maintain and augment its inventory of resident restricted housing so that both rental and ownership accommodation are available and affordable for local income earners and retirees in perpetuity". Operating with the municipality as an incorporated housing authority, Whistler has successfully leveraged resort development by requiring builders to either supply at cost housing or cash in-lieu to subsidize resident restricted and workforce housing. Read more about Whistler's Housing Authority here.

Can a housing model like the resort city of Whistler's work in an aspirant resort city like Vancouver? Notwithstanding issues of population scale, it would be a step in the right direction - but will require transparency, and collaboration, and a relationship that sees the development industry not as campaign financiers but as partners in providing a full spectrum of housing in our city.

So the question for Vancouverites on the eve of a civic election, is what kind of iconic symbolism do we seek for our city? Are we to be a city of luxury high rises for the global elite, with many locals struggling under abysmally low wages and staggeringly high real estate prices? Or will we be a fair and just city where everyone can thrive?


Read the original Province article: "Vancouver House tower makes enemies before it's built by targeting Asian buyers"
- Sam Cooper, The Province, July 28, 2014



I've since received a note from staff at The Province that they have published a correction to this story. Specifically — that claims of the project being sold a full two months in advance to overseas buyers instead of locals — is inaccurate.