Lunch with Gordon Harris

Gordon Harris, president and CEO of SFU Community Trust
Gordon Harris, president and CEO of SFU Community Trust

Gordon Harris has jammed 30 years of urban-planning experience into SFU’s hilltop campus. The sustainability champion explains why he’s drinking the UniverCity Kool-Aid

Gordon Harris is an unabashed devotee of his latest urban creation. After all, the urban planner not only gave up his decades-old consultancy to become president and CEO of SFU Community Trust six years ago, but he has bought a penthouse loft at UniverCity, a mixed-use, transit-oriented neighbourhood he’s helping to fashion on the university’s Burnaby Mountain site.

“I’m absolutely drinking the Kool-Aid—and loving it,” Harris says of the once-isolated hilltop commuter campus that’s now plump with 3,500 residents (more than double than when Harris first arrived) along with stores and cafés, including our meeting spot, Club Ilia. “I think it’s an important part of our storytelling that those involved actually live here.”

He describes UniverCity as a “livable, affordable, sustainable community,” and how its new childcare centre, for example, has designs on becoming Canada’s first living building (collecting more water than it needs and creating its own energy). “I think we generally set a very high standard for ourselves, and for the region, the province, the country and beyond,” enthuses Harris, a recipient of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Award for lifetime contributions to community building and fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners.

But the sustainability factor of the 16-year-old project, which he estimates is six to nine years from completion and will eventually house 10,000, is achievable only because the business model makes sense, he stresses. “I’m a pretty hard-nosed sustainability champion, but if it isn’t economic, it isn’t sustainable,” Harris continues over a plate of tuna tataki. “We’re able to say we’re going to do it differently and we’re going to do it better, and as long as we’re making money, contributing to the SFU endowment fund, then certainly our shareholders and developers are happy with that.”

Harris draws on global expertise for his role at UniverCity, which has been developed by such groups as Polygon Homes, Liberty Homes and Porte Development, and lauded with accolades, including the American Planning Association’s first national award for innovation and green community planning. After growing up in Nova Scotia and studying urban geography at the University of Alberta, the 61-year-old worked through his Vancouver practice in land-use planning and strategic development nationwide, as well as business liaison for the Canada Line and economic development abroad including the Balkans, China and Guatemala.

“This is an opportunity to bring everything I’ve done over 30 years—as a practicing planner, consultant and real-estate analyst—to one project and to really drill down into this in a way that a consultant rarely gets to do,” says the father of three grown-up daughters and two grandchildren. When he’s not travelling to Montreal, London and South Korea, visiting his far-flung relatives, the longtime tennis fan plays at Vancouver Lawn Tennis & Badminton Club—“a real players’ club”—and is a keen hiker (he points to the 26 kilometres of SFU trails).

Along with urban planning, Harris is equally supercharged about art. Sitting on the B.C. Arts Council, he is well known for collecting what he self-effacingly calls a “modest” roll call of contemporary artists such as Scott Massey, Douglas Coupland, Angela Grossman and Gordon Smith.

After lunch, Harris shows off one more thing: his cavernous home a block away. From calling on his urban-planning chops to helping design the layout to the embarrassment of artwork inside, the space feels beautifully intoxicated by his dual devotions.

Gordon Harris’s Favourites

1. “To catch up on the activities of the trust, one morning every week I have breakfast with my board chair at Paul’s Omelettery (2211 Granville St., Vancouver; I always order two poached eggs and medium dry multigrain toast. It’s terrific.”

2. “I have a lot of meetings so I like to plan them around mealtimes and there are plenty of places here on campus. But if we’re completing a deal with developers, we usually head toward Gastown, and steak and frites at Jules (216 Abbott St., Vancouver; is probably my favourite–very urban and wonderful.”

3. “I’ve recently discovered Mink Chocolates (863 W. Hastings St., Vancouver; I love that it’s a great location off the street, with quality and fun service. I usually have an Americano with milk and it also has lots of chocolate, obviously, so how can you go wrong?”