Vancouver developer Jon Stovell thinks he has the answer to affordability: upzone every square inch of the city
When developer Jon Stovell launches into a gentle tirade about housing in Vancouver, he’s not afraid to take a broader swipe at society, to boot.
“Our egocentric world,” declares the president of Gastown-based Reliance Properties Ltd. (and 2016-18 chair of the Urban Development Institute), “results in a myopic pursuit of our own self-interest that’s leading us to do things that are not good for society. We’ve come adrift from greater purpose and civic duty.”
Our politicians, he adds, are elected on razor-thin margins and thus walk on eggshells; meanwhile, our business community plays it safe by not saying “what they know needs to be said.” To his mind, the problem of affordability is 100 per cent related to supply, but some homeowners (he singles out “naughty” baby boomers) are concerned more about their own gain and less about building solutions for future generations.
Meeting today over tuna and miso emulsion at Chambar restaurant (housed in one of the Vancouver buildings developed by Reliance; others include the nearby Burns Block microloft renovation, Burrard Place and West Pender Place, and Victoria’s The Janion), Stovell proposes the city not focus on particular neighbourhoods for development but proportionally “upzone” every square inch in one day.
“A developer doesn’t need housing to be less expensive and a more abundant supply—quite the opposite,” says Stovell, 57, adding that he knows it somewhat shoots his industry in the foot to suggest single-family homeowners, for example, be allowed to sell off their basements and laneway houses to create more homes on the market. “But I just feel really strongly that we’re in real trouble.”
After Vancouver showed off through Expo 86 and the 2010 Winter Olympics, Stovell says it shouldn’t be shocking that immigrants are knocking at our door. Which is why the Vancouver native is vocal about demanding the city “grow up”—both mentally and physically—and change what he considers its antiquated housing policies. Among his proposed changes: allowing condo towers full of microsuites (which are allowed in Surrey, where Reliance is building Prime on the Plaza) as well as inboard (windowless) bedrooms downtown.
“I’m kind of mad because I see a chance for incredible diversity and economic prosperity,” he adds. “Instead, we’re trying to hang on to an already gone notion of ourselves—fill the moat with alligators, raise the drawbridge, shoot arrows through the slits in the castle, and keep everyone away.” Personally, he, his interior-designer wife Nancy and their teenage daughter and son thrive on a peripatetic lifestyle—moving to different parts of the city and in all types of dwellings, from single-family homes in Strathcona and the west side (on a 26-foot lot) to a three-bedroom condo downtown today.
Stovell has enjoyed an equally circuitous route in his career. He jokes that he found himself in real estate after joining a rock group, Casino, playing bass. Following computer and accounting studies at Vancouver Community College and the University of Victoria in the late ’70s, he worked for three years in the computer section of what was then Reliance Holdings Ltd., owned by Jack Leshgold, the father of fellow Casino member Rob Leshgold. He returned to Reliance in 1994, after stints with real estate marketing company Tourigny Hall (1986–1990) and UBC Food Services as finance manager (1990-1994).
Being manager of the band also helped him later on. (“It was super entrepreneurial with absolutely no safety net, so when I moved into business I had a lower desire to feel secure.”) He still jams with colleagues, just playing for themselves. “Today it’s pure narcissism.”
THREE THINGS ABOUT... JON STOVELL
1. Despite his outspokenness, Stovell describes himself as a typical introvert. “When I’m in my world, I can be very gregarious and social, but I’m a really pretty much a to-myself person. If I spend an hour outside, I have to spend two hours inside to recover.”
2. His hobbies haven’t always been run-of-the-mill. From age 10 to 16 he kept 300 racing pigeons in the backyard of his parents’ Kerrisdale property (“It was very obscure”), while today he enjoys regularly wearing fatigues and shooting airsoft replica guns in paintball-style mock combat in Surrey.
3. He once owned the high-profile Tudor-style home at 1550 West 29th Ave., Vancouver, which was considered for heritage status (Stovell sold in 2011). Built in 1922, it was designed by the same architects as Vancouver’s city hall and originally showcased how electricity could be used inside a house.