Bob Rennie’s Long Walk Home

A walk through Vancouver with the King of Condos, Bob Rennie. Bob Rennie is standing on Richards Street. He has a white Starbucks cup in one hand and a BlackBerry in the other. The index finger of the bony hand wrapped around the paper cup is ticking like a metronome, pointing briefly to a lot across the street, then back to the aging house before us. “There were two old houses there,” Rennie says. “My aunt used to own one of those: 1085 Richards. She was a bootlegger. Her name was Lina Pelle.”

Monte Paulsen takes a stroll through Vancouver with Bob Rennie, the King of Condos.

A walk through Vancouver with the King of Condos, Bob Rennie.

Bob Rennie is standing on Richards Street. He has a white Starbucks cup in one hand and a BlackBerry in the other. The index finger of the bony hand wrapped around the paper cup is ticking like a metronome, pointing briefly to a lot across the street, then back to the aging house before us.

“There were two old houses there,” Rennie says. “My aunt used to own one of those: 1085 Richards. She was a bootlegger. Her name was Lina Pelle.”

Rennie pauses to sip his coffee. His bobbing finger does not. I wonder if Rennie, a man perpetually in motion, really needs any more caffeine.

“So in 1985, I brought her an offer of $85,000 for that house,” he continues. “She said no.”

The finger seizes. “This 50-foot lot right here just sold for $6 million.”

Rennie takes another sip. He watches me. He looks like he’s counting the beats, waiting for my

“Six million?” I ask in disbelief.

“Six million.” He smiles. His finger stops dancing. “Twenty-one years later.”

I’m stunned. And in my moment of mental paralysis, he moves in for the comedic kill.

“Had I bought her house,” he deadpans with a theatrical shrug, “I wouldn’t have to go through this stupid interview.”

In Vancouver real estate is a sport. It’s what we talk about at dinner parties, the way Angelinos gossip about movies or Calgarians gush about oil. It’s our über-metaphor: the thing we talk about when we talk about ourselves. And it’s how we keep score; anyone who’s owned a home in Vancouver during the past decade has a one-that-got-away story.

Rennie’s story is simply bigger, millions of dollars bigger. And his story is family; the seller was his aunt. So like all great real-estate tales, Rennie’s reveals precisely what he wants you to know about him: he’s a hometown boy, he thinks big, and he’s got a disarming sense of humour.

But you already know something about Bob Rennie, don’t you? You know he’s the smooth-talking condo king who has lured thousands of buyers to bet their savings on an unbuilt concrete box. You know he’s transformed his name into a brand: Rennie Marketing Systems, a firm that helps developers plan and market projects that appeal to evolving consumer tastes. And you know that in this city obsessed with real estate, he’s the quintessential celebrity.

What you might not know is that for the past few years, Rennie has been saying some curious things about Vancouver’s future. He’s been warning that downtown is running out of developable land, that the heart of the city is moving east, and that the style of condo-tower development he helped pioneer must now change if Vancouver’s live-where-you-work dream is to survive.
Rennie has put his money where his mouth is.

He’s moving his own company from a sleek office on Howe Street to the oldest building in Chinatown. And on a sunny Vancouver morning like those pictured in real-estate brochures, Bob Rennie and I took a walk across Yaletown and through the Downtown Eastside on our way to the Pender Street building he is restoring.

Oh, and along the way we taped this stupid interview.

RENNIE’S FINGER CONTINUES ticking as we stroll into Yaletown. He points out buildings he’s sold, projects he’s marketing and sites where he thinks new projects could be developed. After 33 years in the business, he’s got a lot to point to. He sold about $1.5 billion worth of condos last year, up from just over a billion dollars’ worth the year before. His project list includes nearly every major building in the city.

“I did the Wall Centre, which was the tallest building in Vancouver when it was built,” Rennie says.

“Then the Shaw Tower, which was the tallest on the water. Now I’m doing the 62-storey Shangri-La, which will be the tallest when it’s completed.” And across the street, he’s selling the Arthur Erickson-designed Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which includes a penthouse listed at $28 million.

Just six kilometres east lies the East Vancouver neighbourhood at Fifth Avenue and Nanaimo Street, where Rennie was known as Bobbie. His father Bob drove a truck for Carling Breweries for 49 years. His mother worked as a waitress at the Eldorado Hotel, among other jobs.

“It was a very average upbringing,” he says. “We probably thought it was upper-middle class. And it wasn’t. It was lower-middle class.”

In his last year at Vancouver Tech, Rennie sent away for licences to tend bar and to sell real estate. He hoped one or the other would help him earn enough money to attend college. “I figured I’d try whichever came first,” he recalls. He opted for real estate, and for the first 15 years of his career he sold nothing but single-family homes. In 1990 Dan Ulinder talked him into selling a condo project.

“I didn’t want to do it at first,” Rennie says. At some point though, it struck him that condos might be the only homes that the next generation of young Vancouver families would be able to afford. “I figured it out. My clients’ children could buy condos.”

Rennie figures he’s sold more than 10,000 condos since he refocused his business in the mid-1990s. Among his many current projects is The Hills, a tower due to begin rising later this year at the site of the same motel coffee shop where his mother used to wait tables.

“A good realtor is really just an overpaid waiter,” Rennie says. “The diners at one table want to know your name and want you to tell them all about your day. The people at the next table just want you to bring their food and leave them alone. The waiter’s job – and the realtor’s – is to adapt to their needs.”

MAINLAND STREET BRISTLES with activity as we walk. Women push baby carriages. Men cradle cell phones. Electric scooters hum and delivery trucks rumble. Yaletown looks like a neighbourhood torn from a Richard Scarry picture book.

I ask Rennie what made Yaletown work: “If this is a recipe, what are the ingredients?”

“Land and retail,” he replies, without missing a beat. “First you need developable land, or land that can be assembled. Without that it’s not even a question. Then you need amenities.

“If you look at Concord Pacific, they bought that land, and they started by selling condos to offshore buyers who bought Vancouver for investment. But as soon as they put in Urban Fare – as soon as we could walk to buy groceries and coffee and all those sorts of things – then the locals started to buy.”

Rennie turns onto Nelson Street, points to a patch of road and offers another real-estate yarn to illustrate his point.

“I have coffee with Peter Wall every Sunday afternoon. He’s a dear friend and obviously a very important client. We were having coffee over at First and Cypress and I said, ‘Why aren’t you buying the Maple Leaf Storage site?’ He said, ‘What is it?’ I said, ‘Give me 15 minutes.’

“We got in the car, came around this block and we sat right here.” Rennie fingers the spot. “I told Peter, ‘Buy it now and we’ll figure it out later.’ He phoned up his friend [and Prospero Realty founder] Bob Lee and he said, ‘Buy it.’”

Rennie helped Wall plan what is now Yaletown Park: three condo towers standing over a cobblestone plaza. A Starbucks overlooks the square, which is ringed by small trees.

“Everybody said, ‘The market is over! Bob’s crazy! He’s got people lining up to buy condos. They don’t know what they’re doing.’” And then in February 2004, Rennie sold out the first two towers in a single day. The Vancouver Sun declared that the city’s “condo-buying frenzy” had “hit an unprecedented fever pitch.”

Rennie scoffs at the taunt. “Who’s the speculator?” he asks. “The guy who buys or the guy who doesn’t? To not buy – provided you are able – because you think the market is about to go down, that’s speculation. It’s sheer speculation.”

Rennie grins. “And what happened to those people who waited on the sidelines? Those who said, ‘No, I’m not buying Yaletown at $400 a foot. It’s a fraud! It’s a bubble!’”

He shrugs again. It’s the same humble shrug he’d offered when he told me about his aunt’s house. “Now they’re buying at $650 a foot.”

THE SHADOW NOW LOOMING over Yaletown is cast by the simple fact that many of the working couples who might have been able to buy a home there in the spring of 2004 can no longer afford to do so. Real-estate prices have roughly doubled in those four years; wages have not. As a result, one of Rennie’s best-known marketing slogans – Live where you work, Work where you live – has become a mirage for many downtown workers.

“Where will the policemen and firemen and wage earners live? Nobody is addressing that, not in any serious way,” Rennie says. “That’s probably my next career, coming up, is to try and figure out how to do that.”

Density is one part of the answer. Rennie says that if he were planning Yaletown Park again today, he’d do it differently.

“Times have changed,” he says. “Could we add five floors to each building and create 180 additional units? Could we hold those units to a certain spec – keep it all at the Ikea level? Could the city waive the parking requirements in order to keep the price down?” he asks.

“If we can’t create residential land, I’m going to have a hard time creating affordable residential real estate.” Rennie predicts that downtown will soon exhaust its limited supply of sites large enough to support major projects. Once that happens, he expects downtown real estate to begin rising even more steeply than it already has.

“Vancouver didn’t go up in isolation. The whole planet went up,” he adds. “There’s no way you can be this close to the downtown of any city and keep prices down. New York couldn’t figure it out. Seattle couldn’t. You just can’t.”

This time I saw the shrug coming. It’s a gesture that seems to say, “But you knew that already, didn’t you?” Like Socrates, Rennie has mastered the art of planting a notion in his listener’s head, then gently cajoling that listener into thinking it was his or her idea all along. It’s humble, it’s genuine, and it’s one hell of a closing tactic.

“Downtown,” he says with a shrug, “is for the rich.”

“In 2004 myself and Larry Beasley both stood in front of the Urban Development Institute and told them the city is moving east,” Rennie recalls as we reach Victory Square. “We all pretended that we were geniuses. But really, the city has nowhere else to go.”

Woodward’s rises into view as we turn onto Hastings Street. And in Rennie’s view, it is from the Woodward’s model that the next new city must rise.

The Woodward’s redevelopment includes 536 market condominiums stacked over 200 units of social housing. A pedestrian mall at ground level is to include a grocery story, a drugstore, recreational facilities and SFU’s School for Contemporary Arts.

Rennie says marketing the Woodward’s project taught him to think differently. He initially planned to sell the project as an eastward extension of downtown. Those plans brought him swiftly into conflict with Downtown Eastsiders who opposed the gentrification of Canada’s poorest urban postal code.
“I met with three ladies who were going to picket it. They said I’d taken away their neighbourhood identity,” Rennie recalls. “They were right. They really helped me to understand that.”

Rennie remained a lightning rod, but he also wove the best of the old Downtown Eastside into his pitch. He printed oversize brochures featuring glossy colour photographs of iconic local establishments such as Only Seafood and Save-on-Meats, with its glowing pink neon sign shimmering like a beacon of bacon.

“We used the whole street – all the street people and all the signs around the area – in the materials,” he says. “We called it ‘intellectual property’ because you had to have a brain to figure it out. Some properties in a hot market can be an unconscious decision. But at Woodward’s, you really had to understand it.”

Vancouver’s sluggish investment community didn’t understand it. (“Canaccord called it ‘Pain and Wastings’ in its newsletter,” he recalls.) But Vancouver condo buyers did. On April 24, 2006, Rennie and his team sold every single one of the market condos in 12 hours – $200 million worth of real estate in a single day.

For the first time since leaving his Howe Street office, Rennie falls silent. He seems to savour the sight of labourers hammering large wooden forms into position.

“If I hadn’t come from East Van, I don’t know whether I would have understood this,” he says at last.

“I have this philosophy that the West Side is like America and the East Side is like Canada. We Canadians know everything about America while they know nothing about us,” he muses. “In the same way, people who live on Vancouver’s West Side don’t know much about the East, but those of us from the East Side have always been fascinated with the West.”
[pagebreak] PART OF WHAT MAKES Woodward’s so striking is the ghost town from which it rises. In the spring of 2008, nearly every building that faces north across the 100 block of West Hastings Street remains shuttered.

“They’ve all been bought up,” Rennie says as we stroll past the row of vacant storefronts. “A lot of the Downtown Eastside – and all of these properties – they’ve all changed hands.”

This too is a consequence of the Woodward’s sale, albeit an unintended one. For in the eyes of many Vancouver real-estate speculators, the headline about the sale of 536 homes was overshadowed by the news that Rennie had turned away dozens – some say hundreds – of wannabe buyers, each of whom was both willing and able to lay down hundreds of thousands of
dollars for a condo in Cracktown.

It was as if someone had fired a starting pistol. A Downtown Eastside buying frenzy ensued as speculators and developers snatched up nearby properties. City records show that among the buildings sold in 2006 were 22 residential hotels with a combined total of 1,178 rooms. Hundreds of low-income tenants have since been evicted. Housing advocates warn that if such evictions continue, Vancouver will host more homeless people than athletes by the start of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

“I think the Downtown Eastside has a love-hate relationship with me,” Rennie says with a sigh.
We cross Abbott Street, and he rattles off the list of prominent developers who now hold deeds to the Downtown Eastside. Holborn Forward Real Estate owns the lot that faces Woodward’s across Abbott. Holborn, the Ritz-Carlton developer and a major Rennie client, tore down the local grocery that had long marked the corner. Concord Pacific owns half of the north side of Hastings Street between Abbott and Carrall. And developer Rob Macdonald has applied for permission to erect a 40-storey tower in what is now the parking lot behind the B.C. Electric Building at 2 West Hastings Street.

“Concord bought this,” Rennie says, pointing to the properties Concord president Terry Hui quietly assembled. “So everybody goes, ‘Oh, here come the high-rises.’ But I don’t think you’re going to see much more height here. You may see some 12- to 18-storey buildings. I think it wouldn’t hurt to go to 22, personally. But you’re not going to see this turn into Yaletown. It can’t. There are too many heritage buildings. With the exception of the Army & Navy site, the assembly of a large parcel is impossible.”

Rennie also believes that whatever is built on these sites should follow the example set by Woodward’s, where more than a quarter of the housing units are reserved for low-income residents.
“Like Woodward’s, these buildings will present an opportunity to add some balance to the area. If we can get the fortunate and less fortunate living together, that will decentralize poverty,” he says.
“Woodward’s has a huge responsibility to this neighbourhood. It helped calm it. But it didn’t destroy it. I think that that has to be respected.”
[pagebreak] RENNIE THREADS HIS WAY toward Carrall Street through a gently swaying stand of addicts. The
lifeless smell of crack smoke hangs in the air. When he reaches the intersection, he gazes up Hastings Street, like a general overlooking an unwinnable battlefield.

“You asked what worked in Yaletown. The land was there. We don’t have it here. There are no big sites.”

Indeed, the three-block zone from Carrall Street to Gore Street is studded with historic buildings and residential hotels subject to Vancouver’s single room accommodation bylaw, both of which are protected from demolition. It is these protected buildings, not the addicts who dwell in them, that have rendered the region east of Carrall Street into a firewall destined to arrest the eastward spread of condo towers.

Ironically, these same buildings are the most attractive to boutique developers, who painstakingly remodel them into heritage homes and offices that fetch prices far above those paid for cookie-cutter condos. And so it is that, within a generation, the neighbourhood huddled around Main and Hastings streets could lose its identity as Canada’s poorest urban postal code and find itself up among the nation’s most upscale addresses.

“If you’ve lived in any other city in the world, you’d look at this as an emerging area,” Rennie says. “If you lived here all your life, you look at it as questionable and forgotten.”

As for affordable development, “I can take it to Carrall. Chinatown, we can do. But from Columbia to Main is a tough one.”

Rennie gazes further east.

“At Gore we can begin again,” he says. “I tell clients, ‘Go buy me Clark Drive to Commercial, from Powell to First Avenue, and let’s build a new city.”

Rennie is interrupted by a wired and intoxicated woman who presses herself into his chest. Her male companion leans into me. By the simple act of standing still, we’ve become targets.

“Ah’ll shooow you a thaang…” the woman begins.

“No thank you,” Rennie replies firmly. She takes the hint, wishes us well and wanders on.

“Thank you. You too. Take care,” he responds.

I wait for the shrug, but am met instead with a strikingly earnest question.

“What’s going to happen to all these people?” Rennie asks. “You know, my heart bleeds that those trees fell down in Stanley Park. But we’ve got people falling down in the street. Where is our conscience?”
[pagebreak] ONE BLOCK SOUTH, on Pender Street, it’s as if we’ve entered another country. The sun beats down on the old men sitting outside the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Chinese Garden, and children’s voices rise from within.

Across the street stands the Wing Sang building, Chinatown’s oldest. Rennie leads us through a small door in the bright red hoarding.

There will be no condos here. Rennie – who describes himself as “really good at sucking up” – is far too astute a millionaire to compete with his billionaire clients. Rather, the oldest building in Chinatown is being painstakingly renovated exclusively for Rennie’s own use. About 6,000 square feet will provide workspace for his 26 employees.

The remaining 20,000 square feet will house his large collection of contemporary art. Rennie collects cutting-edge artists such as Barbara Kruger and Dan Graham and is a leading collector of Brian Jungen. In addition to de rigueur classics such as Warhol’s soup cans, Rennie’s collection includes a Jungen sculpture comprised of 48 red-and-white Coleman coolers and another that includes 1,500 plastic food trays and the voice of James Earl Jones.

“We’ve been accumulating the collection for years,” he says. “And now, other than our home, we want to start to install it.”

We don hard hats, and Rennie leads a tour of a project that looks more like an archaeological dig than a construction site.

The oldest portion of the building was erected in 1889 by a man who, like Rennie, made his fortune by providing a necessary service to the city’s most prominent devel­oper: Yip Sang was a paymaster for the Canadian Pacific Railway. He hired the railway’s Chinese workers, and his storefront venture served as their unofficial bank, post office and general store. The company offered “China silks, utensils, trinkets and curios,” according to a notice in an 1891 edition of the Daily News-Advertiser, and was an “importer of opium.”

Sang expanded the Dupont (now Pender) Street building in 1901, and added a six-storey residence in the rear alley in 1912. It was there that he housed his four wives and 23 children as well as countless immigrants.

“He used to bring in a lot of new immigrants who would live here while they stabilized,” Rennie says as he steps onto the small bridge that joins the front and rear buildings at an upper level.

“This is the old laneway through Chinatown,” he explains. “I’m saving it. There will be a roof here, and this will be a slot gallery. Then you come into the big galleries in the back. We’re taking out every other floor so that I’ve got 40-foot ceilings.”

The alley is cool and eerily quiet. Rennie’s voice drops almost to a whisper.

“Real estate has been quite gracious to me, as you know. But my mark is not going to be for real estate. My mark will be what I do with our art collection. That’s why I work.”

And then, straddling a historic bridge between his next workplace and his soon-to-be private gallery, he smiles and shrugs.