How B.C. developers are building the world

Vancouver property developers and the local companies that work with them have created a booming global export business. Do they get enough support at home?

Credit: Courtesy of Westbank

Westbank’s Vancouver House is slated for completion next year

Vancouver property developers and the local companies that work with them have created a booming global export business. Do they get enough support at home?

Ian Gillespie speaks quietly, and he doesn’t do small talk. As a Neil Young live album jangles on the stereo, the slender Westbank Projects Corp. founder sits in a corner of his roomy downtown Vancouver office, North Shore Mountains at his back. Fine-boned, dressed in jeans and a dark blazer, he looks more like someone from the art world than a property developer.

“There does not go a week here where I do not get a mayor of some Asian city coming to my office, wanting to talk about what’s going on in Vancouver and how did we accomplish this and how could that help me over there,” Gillespie says.

Launched in 1992, luxury residential and mixed-use specialist Westbank is known for local landmarks such as the Woodward’s redevelopment, Telus Garden and the Shangri-la Vancouver hotel. It’s also the force behind Vancouver House and Alberni by Kengo Kuma, daring additions to the city skyline due for completion in 2018 and 2020, respectively. For those two towers, Gillespie is working with leading architects Bjarke Ingels of Denmark and Japan’s Kengo Kuma.

Westbank, whose finished and current projects have a combined value of $25 billion, is a global player, too. With 12 offices in Canada, the U.S. and Asia, and 1,500 staff including those at its hotels, the company counts properties in Toronto, Seattle and Tokyo among its works in progress. “We’re bigger outside Vancouver than inside Vancouver,” says Gillespie, who regularly holds art and design exhibits and lectures.

As he points out, Westbank is far from alone. “I could literally give you 100 firms that are doing work internationally,” Gillespie says. “And so it’s thousands of people. It’s big business.”

Courtesy of Westbank

Besides developers, those firms range from architects, structural engineers and urban design consultants to model makers, concrete forming specialists and property marketers. With expertise honed by helping to create a new standard for livable, high-density residential developments, often called Vancouverism, they’ve made their mark on cities from San Diego to Dubai to Dalian, China. But this thriving export business mostly flies under the radar back home.

When it comes to world cities with an influence on urban development and design, Vancouver punches above its weight, says David Thom, president of IBI Group Inc., a global architecture, planning, engineering and technology firm. “There’s a lot to learn from what’s happened in Vancouver, and that’s been driven by a bit of a push and pull between the public sector and the private sector,” notes Vancouver-based Thom, the only IBI senior executive outside Toronto. “Some of the things that the city does from an urban design perspective and what’s important have become embraced by the development community over the years. And that’s really put Vancouver ahead of the curve.”

Other Vancouver developers with a footprint outside the province include Bosa Development Corp., whose founder, Natale (Nat) Bosa, entered Seattle in the 1970s before expanding his reach throughout Southern California. Concord Pacific Developments Inc.—its master-planned community on the former Expo 86 lands became a model for Vancouverism—is working in Toronto, London and Calgary. Onni Group is building several major projects in downtown Los Angeles, while Intergulf Development Group is active in Alberta and California.

By looking beyond B.C., these companies have created work for a host of local consultants and subtrades. “Basically, we followed developers down south,” says Geoffrey Glotman, managing principal of structural engineering firm Glotman Simpson, whose first U.S. job was in 1998, for Intergulf in San Diego. “We coattail on them. It’s a pretty easy way to move around the globe.”

At home, Vancouver developers don’t enjoy the same respect as they do abroad, contends veteran real estate marketer Bob Rennie. “We look at our kids, and we don’t see how they grow up, and we always see them as our children,” Rennie says. “But the world looks at this jurisdiction as a very, very mature homebuilding industry.”

The federal and provincial governments are quick to promote the technology and resource sectors, but you’re unlikely to hear a politician talking up the development business. For Gillespie, it’s a missed opportunity. “People only think of it as almost a necessary evil of densification and housing affordability and all this other noise,” he complains. Even those who look kindly upon his industry see it as a domestic concern rather than an exporter of the Vancouver experience, Gillespie adds. “I think it’s something to be promoted, because if you have a successful export business, then support it.”

Clockwise from top left: Bing Thom Architects, Concert Properties, Western Kowloon Cultural District Authority

Larry Beasley stepped down as the City of Vancouver’s co-director of planning on a Friday in August 2006. The following Monday he was on a plane to Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, which had approached him about consulting. “There’s hundreds of stories of people who found their own opportunity to market this different way of building cities,” says Beasley, founding principal of Beasley & Associates Inc., a Vancouver-based urban planning consultancy, and distinguished practice professor at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning. “As I work now all over the world and see what the state of modern city building is, I realize, ‘Wow, we do have a lot of answers that work in other places.’ And a lot of people in this town were smart enough to realize that.”

After Expo 86, Beasley and his colleagues at City Hall, along with the local development and design communities, saw that Vancouver had to do something different, he says. The resource sector was on the decline, and Expo had shown that the world cared about the city by attracting many more visitors than expected. The plan, according to Beasley: “Reinvent Vancouver as a place that would draw people because of the quality of the place.”

Although there were disagreements, everyone learned as they worked together, says Beasley, whose firm’s current and past work spans Canada, the U.S., Europe, China, the Middle East and Australia. Thanks to housing demand created by immigration, new ideas came to life quickly, on big sites that could model a new kind of development. “What that created was a lot of experts, and they were experts who were right in line with what a lot of people around the world were coming to see as a better way of building cities,” says Beasley, singling out the late architect and urban development expert Bing Thom. “It wasn’t about theories, and it wasn’t about just talking. Everyone could see, ‘This is really pretty good.'”

Concord Pacific‘s 1988 purchase of the Expo lands made Vancouver a hotbed of property development, says Sid Landolt, co-founder and president of S&P Real Estate Corp., a Vancouver-based marketer of luxury highrises. During the early 1990s, while the rest of North America endured a real estate recession, the city boomed.

When things began to improve elsewhere in the middle of that decade, Vancouver was ready to take advantage, recalls Landolt, who has moved into Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Waikiki since he and business partner Peter Dupuis joined forces in 1983. Over the past 25 years the pair, who typically employ 40 to 50 staff at S&P, have sold roughly 25,000 condominiums.

“There was a lack of expertise in other markets and a tremendous amount of expertise in Vancouver,” Landolt says. “That’s when the exporting really began.” This coincided with the rise of developer Intrawest Resorts Holdings Inc., which took skills sharpened at Whistler Blackcomb into ski resorts across the continent, Landolt adds.

Clockwise from top left: Courtesy of Kasian, Bosa Development, Concord Pacific

Well before Expo, Nat Bosa was building in the U.S. “Nat’s had one foot over the border virtually his entire career,” says Richard Weir, executive vice-president, real estate and development, with Bosa Development, whose head count in Vancouver, San Diego, Seattle and San Francisco is just over 100. “It’s always been part of a diversification strategy for him.”

Bosa first went into Seattle in the late 1970s, when the Vancouver market was soft, explains Weir, who has been with the company for 20 years. He then branched out into Quebec, Hawaii, Oregon and Alberta before entering Southern California in the late ’90s, starting with San Diego. “There are a lot of very sophisticated and well-capitalized developers in the United States, but on the West Coast, anyway, they haven’t had the expertise in the residential highrise condominium space,” Weir says.

Today, at least half of Bosa Development’s work is outside B.C., Weir estimates. In downtown Seattle, the company just completed Insignia, two residential towers with a total of 698 units. It’s the city’s first post-recession condo development and one of the largest such projects ever undertaken there, Weir says.


Outward Bound: VP Richard Weir estimates that at least half of Bosa Development’s work is outside B.C.

Back in Vancouver, Concord Pacific has built 57 highrises on the 208-acre Expo site, with 13 to 15 more planned, says senior vice-president of sales Grant Murray. Since acquiring a tract of land east of the CN Tower in 1998, the company led by Terry Hui is also on its 35th tower in Toronto’s CityPlace. And in its first foreign project, Concord has teamed up with Toronto-based Brookfield Office Properties and the U.K.’s W1 Developments Ltd. to build a 50-storey residential tower with some 310 suites in East London’s gentrifying Shoreditch district. The Principal Tower will open in about two and a half years, says Murray, who adds that Concord has bought another London property. “We’re very keen on having a presence in London and getting our name well known there as well as Asia.”

Concert Properties Ltd. hasn’t ventured abroad, but it works in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario. The company, which has 225 employees and started out building rental apartments in Vancouver in 1989, went into Ontario in 2001, says president and CEO Brian McCauley. Concert has since built about 2,400 rental housing units in Toronto.

B.C. developers always had to compete with seasoned rivals in their own backyard, says McCauley, whose company is directly owned by 19 Canadian pension plans. “We learned very quickly that if we wanted to acquire sites in Vancouver proper or in Metro Vancouver, we had to sharpen our pencil, put our best foot forward and be aggressive.”

Seeing opportunities that local developers in other cities don’t—and being prepared to take risks—has been another advantage, McCauley maintains. “I know that was the case when Concert came into the Toronto market back in 2001,” he says. “No one was building purpose-built residential in Toronto and hadn’t been doing it for a dozen years or more.”

Westbank’s first development outside B.C. was Azure, a luxury Dallas highrise that opened in 1998. For one of three Seattle projects, the company is planning to turn a Belltown parking lot at 3rd Avenue and Virginia Street into 500 apartments atop 100,000 square feet of office space. “If I had to buy that site today, as an example, I’d be bidding against all Canadian guys,” founder Gillespie says. “There would not be one developer from Seattle.”

Why not? First, the Canadian and U.S. banking systems are very different, Gillespie explains. Westbank’s first Seattle project is with a Canadian lender that will take a $350-million loan. “There’s no American lender that could put a $350-million loan on their books,” Gillespie says. “You’d have to stick six American lenders in that deal.”

The U.S. has thousands of banks, but seven firms dominate in Canada. “Those seven have built up a really strong expertise in real estate lending,” Gillespie says. “You go talk to real estate lenders at American banks and Canadian banks, the Canadian bank lenders would run circles around them.”

The second reason is that many U.S. developers got wiped out in the Great Recession of 2007-09. Canada didn’t suffer the same calamity, partly thanks to the strength of its banking and regulatory systems, Gillespie says.

The third reason: Canadian development expertise. “They can build single-family homes like nobody’s business,” Gillespie says of U.S. developers. “They’re just not as good at building the type of building typologies that you need for a walkable, dense urban environment. And it isn’t as simple as putting up taller buildings; there’s a lot more that goes into it.”


B+B Scale Models’ rendering of the Anaha tower in Honolulu for U.S. developer Howard Hughes Corp.

At B+B Scale Models Ltd.‘s cluttered Granville Island studio, Bernd Zwick shows off his company’s exquisitely detailed work. In one corner: a streetscape of downtown Vancouver highlighting Westbank’s proposed luxury residential project at Burrard and Nelson, a curved 56-storey tower designed by Bing Thom Architects. B+B has built models for developments in Hawaii, Zwick says, pointing to a shelf filled with rows of tiny palm trees. “We don’t grow them; we just make them,” jokes the German expat.

Zwick, who co-founded B+B in 1969 and looks a decade younger than his 73 years, now has local rivals, but he’s the grandfather of architectural model making in Vancouver. He began working for American clients in the 1980s; that business took off during the next decade, thanks to exposure from Intrawest. But Zwick knows all too well how prone America is to booms and busts. By 2007, as much as three-quarters of B+B’s output went to the U.S. Then came the 2008 crash. Zwick went four years without a single American job, and his staff dwindled from 43 to fewer than 20 today.

Westbank and other local clients helped fill the gap, and international customers began trickling back. Since 2012, B+B has done U.S. work for Bosa Development, Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates and Dallas-headquartered Howard Hughes Corp. Zwick admits that over the past 10 years, he hasn’t chased business south of the border because Vancouver has kept him so busy. “Maybe we should have kept better in touch than we did,” he says.

Reflecting on how his work has changed, Zwick notes that B+B now uses lasers to cut the pieces for its models, a task once done by hand. “It was much slower, of course,” he recalls of the old days. “But the architecture was simpler then.”

A developer building a project in Los Angeles has good reason to hire Zwick, contends Westbank’s Gillespie. “Shipping the model down costs you almost as much as the model costs,” he says. “So, why do they do it here? Well, because A, he’s the best model maker in the world, and B, because probably his architects are here.”

In nearby Kitsilano, Glotman Simpson’s one-storey headquarters belie the fact that the structural engineering firm has worked on about 500 highrises in Canada and the U.S. Managing principal Geoffrey Glotman explains that during the 1970s his father, who founded the business in 1964, did what he believes was Vancouver’s first condo development. Locally, Glotman Simpson’s projects include the Vancouver Convention Centre and the Richmond Oval, but highrises account for much of its work. In downtown San Diego alone, his firm has engineered some 50 such towers, the powerfully built Glotman says. “Most of the highrise stuff down there, the large majority is Canadian developers, and they’re all using Canadian architects.”

Glotman Simpson, which has offices in Calgary and Los Angeles, followed companies such as Bosa Development, Intergulf, Onni, Pinnacle International and Westbank up the West Coast, Glotman explains. “We have so much experience out of Canada in terms of doing the built environment and highrises here,” Glotman says. “You would think the U.S. has it. They don’t.”

Glotman, whose firm is working for Westbank in Toronto as well as Seattle, also finds Canadians more cooperative than their litigious American counterparts. “The ability to work with the teams here is just so easy, fast, doesn’t require a whole bunch of meetings, contracts, all the peripheral stuff,” he says. “We just get down to work.”

Wise to Canadian expertise, large U.S. contractors have been hiring his firm, Glotman says. Roughly 40 per cent of Glotman Simpson’s work is now for stateside clients, he reckons. Meanwhile, B.C. subtrades have built a clientele down south. For example, Burnaby-based Newway Concrete Forming Ltd. has a Seattle branch. LMS Reinforcing Steel Group and Starline Windows Ltd., both headquartered in Surrey, have outposts in California and Washington State, respectively.

Like B+B’s Zwick, Glotman fell victim to the 2008 meltdown: from 30 to 40 per cent of his business, jobs in Southern California fell to zero. “Right now, I can say to you that we have a ton of work in the U.S. and everything’s fantastic, but they tend to build up and then they have a crash,” he says. “I’m not sure how long this real estate cycle will last in the U.S.”

As the province’s engineers and subtrades make a big impression in America, its architects have gone global. Don Kasian reckons that as much as two-thirds of his firm’s work is outside B.C., in places like the Middle East, Europe and China. “Going through a number of recessions in the world, you realize that diversity is really important,” says the president of Kasian Architecture Interior Design and Planning Ltd., 120 of whose 350 staff work in Vancouver. “Plus you can grow. You have more things to practise on, and you get better.”

Bing Thom Architects (BTA) operates out of a low-slung building in the shadow of the Burrard Bridge, but the 50-employee firm also has offices in Hong Kong and Washington, D.C. Principal Michael Heeney, who joined BTA in 1989, explains that founder Bing Thom designed several pavilions for Expo 86 early in his career. That led to projects in Thom’s native Hong Kong during the 1990s, when BTA also won an international competition to design the new northeastern Chinese city of Dalian.

The firm’s work on UBC’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, completed in 1997, has helped it land commissions such as Xiqu Centre, a US$350-million Chinese opera house in Hong Kong that is scheduled for completion next year. Although BTA mostly does institutional architecture, it works with Westbank—as Heeney told colleagues at a recent conference in Philadelphia. “They said—and this was someone who doesn’t live in Vancouver—‘It’s only every 20 or 30 years you get a visionary like Ian Gillespie doing the kind of stuff he does.'”

Gillespie is leading the pack, Heeney asserts. “He’s taking what he’s learned here, and he’s exporting it to places like Toronto and Seattle. And he’s working in Tokyo. And what’s interesting is he’s now learning from those places and bringing that back here as well.”

Heeney thinks the federal government could do more to support Canadian architectural firms’ work abroad. As he points out, many European countries subsidize their architects to enter international design competitions. For instance, France does so because it knows that those firms will specify French windows if they win. “The economic value of architectural services is profoundly undervalued by government,” Heeney says. “The architectural fees are just a small percentage of the project. But then we bring all of this influence in terms of what gets built so these Canadian products can be exported.”

Heeney cites BTA’s innovative use of zinc cladding on the Canadian pavilion at Expo 92 in Seville, Spain. Canada is the world’s top zinc producer, and this work spawned an industry now worth hundreds of millions of dollars, he says. “That’s the value of architects working abroad, is they can have this huge industrial impact in Canada.”

The broader development and design community could make the same case. In our culture, real estate development doesn’t have a glamorous or even a positive image, planning consultant Larry Beasley observes. “At UBC, I teach my students not to objectify the development community or developers, because in a sense they’re subtly being taught that anyway,” he says. “The impact that development as an industry has on the economy of this city probably is undervalued.”

What can be done to change that attitude? “I guess you could have a policy approach, and you could have government doing some of the things they do to facilitate, say, high tech,” Beasley says. “But part of it also has to do with the industry, and the industry finding ways to tell its own stories and brand itself differently.”