The president of Rize Alliance Properties on meeting opposition in Mount Pleasant, getting lost and finding affordability
As a child in his native Taiwan, Will Lin would often listen to his physician father discuss real estate investments at the dinner table. In 1979, at the age of 13, Lin left Taiwan with his parents, twin brother and four older siblings. He arrived in Brandon, Man., via Costa Rica and South Dakota, three years later. (His father had purchased a sausage factory in the prairie town, where Lin helped out after school.) After completing a commerce degree at the University of Manitoba, Lin followed his older brother to Vancouver, where he started doing sales for a small importer/distributor of hardware products. He launched his first real estate venture a few years later, at the age of 28: 11 live-work lofts in Yaletown on land purchased for $700,000 (half financed through a loan from his father). Lin has since completed 10 more projects across the South Coast worth just over $1 billion—everything from residential to heritage conversions, mixed-use to commercial developments—and learned a few lessons about the challenges of developing communities along the way.
Your latest project, the Independent, was plagued with controversy—over density, building heights and affordability. What was that experience like—managing a project that nobody seemed to want?
We thought we were doing the right thing, complying with the city’s recommendation to increase density for Mount Pleasant. If you had asked me at the time, I would have said, Oh my god, but now we’re through, I think we really enjoyed it. I think as a team we grew from it. We learned how to deal with adversity, how to deal with building up better connections with the local groups, local community, consultants, the city, the planning department and the politicians. We have to understand their wants and needs and mandates. Without adversity, we would never grow. We’d just lie on the couch and watch TV all day—which I’m not against either once in a while.
Most of your other projects have featured more harmonious relations with the community, as well as a sensitivity about protecting local heritage.
When we bought the Canadian Linen building in Yaletown in 1995, where our Metropolis project is, I didn’t know too much about heritage or what could be done. We talked to the city, and they said, “Hey, by the way, it’s a heritage building—if you save it, we could help you with it, to subsidize the cost of saving the heritage building.” More recently, with the Rolston project, we preserved the Yale Pub, and I think architecturally it plays off the new modern architecture quite well. The other part with the Rolston that we’re quite happy about is the renovation of the single- room accommodation on top of the pub. The deal we made with the city was we renovate it and give it back to the city to run.
In general, what do you look for when deciding what and where to build?
It might sound funny, but we like to look at stuff that other people pass up because right away we know something’s wrong with it. It means there’s challenges in there that if we can find a solution, we can do a project that no one else either could do or is willing to do. I like to see what’s possible for a certain project and putting the pieces together. We have this little module called Rizelab, which is experimenting with things like movable walls or containers as livable units. Different explorations of different ways of doing things—that’s what keeps us going.
What is it about unusual projects that appeals to you?
I love getting lost because you never know what you could find. If you know exactly where you’re going, you’re not going to find anything interesting. You’re going to go on the same old route. You’re going to get to the same old place at the same old time. Nothing happens.
Affordability—and the lack thereof—is a perennial issue in Vancouver. What’s your take on that?
Unfortunately it’s only going to get more expensive. A lot of people have a misconception that developers love to drive up the price of real estate because we make more money from it. It’s the opposite. As we sell our project we have to buy more raw land to work on, and the cost of production has just gone up because everything is so expensive for us to buy. It’s a vicious cycle.
Five years ago, you downsized yourself—moving from a house to a downtown condo. Has that changed your perspective at all?
I figured if I’m providing condo living, I’d better experience it myself. It made me realize that we could always use more open space, so parks and amenities are important.