13 ways of looking at Ian Gillespie

Embarking on his ambitious reinvention of Oakridge, the Westbank founder isn't like other Vancouver real estate developers. What does Gillespie think he's doing, and what does it mean for the city?

At Oakridge Centre in south-central Vancouver, the slow-moving lineup snakes down the hall. People keep gathering indoors on this mild Saturday afternoon in late September to catch Unwritten, local developer Westbank Corp.‘s showcase for its coming transformation of a brown-brick, low-slung shopping mall into a gleaming new vertical community.

The exhibition has been running for months, but today marks the opening for sales of Oakridge x Clémande, a 17-storey luxury tower in the redevelopment. If some visitors are just here for the free dim sum and the hourly iPhone 11 draws, there’s plenty more to see.

“A living city forever grows from its people,” reads the slogan above the entrance—one of many statements, poems and explainers scattered throughout the winding exhibit, set in a facsimile of a Pacific Northwest rainforest. Amid the greenery, a piano, bass and vocal trio covers pop classics like the Beatles’ “Something” and “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys. The grand piano is a Fazioli, whose Italian-made instruments fetch an average of $1 million.

There’s a Lego-building contest, a fashion show, a bookshelf stocked with art and design volumes. A studio for Goh Ballet Academy, which will move from its current Main Street headquarters to a 25,000-square-foot school at Oakridge. A section of floor and wall plastered with concert posters, heralding the six live music venues that will also have a home in the development.

A model of the new Oakridge, with its nine residential towers, office space, community centre, 10-acre park with running track, 300-plus stores and the Kitchen, a vast food court. A demonstration suite showing the work of French designer Clémande Burgevin Blachman, who will furnish and curate each home in her portion of the project, right down to the books and toothbrushes. And the Tea Lounge, where Westbank sales reps can help you secure your own piece of Oakridge.

Near the exit, before the gift shop, a video screen shows the man behind this spectacle: Westbank founder Ian Gillespie, chatting with some of the internationally renowned architects he’s enlisted to help build his version of Vancouver. When you step outside, the surrounding mall feels dated and lifeless, like it knows it will soon be rubble.

Due for completion in 2027, Oakridge will join Gillespie’s many other additions to the city skyline over the past three decades. Westbank is developing the 28.5-acre site, whose designer is local Henriquez Partners Architects, with Vancouver-based QuadReal Property Group. Owned by British Columbia Investment Management Corp., QuadReal bought Oakridge from Ivanhoé Cambridge, the real estate division of fellow pension fund Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, in 2017.

Downtown is dotted with Gillespie’s buildings, from his early Residences on Georgia to the Woodward’s redevelopment to the Telus Garden office and retail complex to Vancouver House, the eye-catching and much-Instagrammed residential tower designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. As a key piece of a new municipal town centre, Oakridge represents another level of influence for Gillespie, who’s active in Toronto, Seattle and Tokyo but lavishes much effort on his hometown. In a feeble market for ultra-high-end condos, he’s offering units at a premium while other developers kill or delay projects. Can he pull off the Oakridge gamble?

Ask anyone who knows Gillespie and his work, and will talk about him, and they’ll tell you he has many sides. He’s a lone wolf who doesn’t suffer fools, a smart businessman for whom ideas are valuable currency, a forward-thinking patron of art and architecture who pushes his peers to up their design game. He doesn’t much care if you like him, but he wants to make his mark. He’s been cast as a luxury developer who uses art to flog condos, driving up home prices for the average Vancouverite. But in fact, he’s helped improve the city’s public spaces and tackled tough projects that include social housing. And with his plans to generate renewable energy, he’s also leading his fellow developers on sustainability.

Credit: Alan Wong. Gillespie is making his mark on Vancouver’s skyline

The whole world is looking

Gillespie does a great sales pitch, too. In June, at Westbank HQ on the fifth floor of downtown’s Shaw Tower, another of his buildings, he shows off models of planned, coming and almost-finished projects. Gillespie, who wears a dark blue crewneck sweater and black pants, is lean and wiry, with tousled wavy hair and piercing eyes.

One of the most striking buildings on display, near the Vancouver Public Library, is scheduled to open next year. Reportedly Apple’s future Vancouver digs, the 24-storey structure consists of a stack of steel-framed glass lightboxes. “This building turns into a sculpture when it’s not occupied,” Gillespie explains. Vancouver House, whose first phase completes this fall, is “regarded today as probably the most followed and interesting highrise residential building in the world,” he says. “People in Vancouver don’t realize that their community has born something that the whole world is looking at.”

Gillespie, who has some 1,500 employees here and at his firm’s seven additional offices from Toronto to Shanghai, maintains that he isn’t like other local developers. He doesn’t belong to the Urban Development Institute, the main industry lobby group. “I don’t think about what they think about,” he says of his peers. “I’m really busy thinking about what I’m going to do. And for me, I think our practice is this idea that it’s my vehicle for my own journey.”

But it’s more complicated than that. Some take it for granted that they stand on the shoulders of previous generations, Gillespie adds: “We enjoy going for a walk on the seawall because somebody made that happen.” He judges a life well lived by its positive contributions. “As long as we maintain that as the goal, the overreaching thing that we’re all trying to work and strive together for, then it becomes not about you,” Gillespie says. “It becomes about a greater team effort and a whole bunch of collaborations with a whole bunch of really incredible people that have a shared set of values.

Admiration and envy

Michael Geller feels ambivalent about Ian Gillespie. “I look at him with a mixture of admiration and envy,” says the Vancouver architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer. “Admiration because whether you like the person or not—and he certainly doesn’t go out of his way to be the most likable or ingratiating person; that’s not his style—you have to admire the magnitude of his projects, and also the balls.”

And the envy? “I like to make money, but I’ve also been interested in trying to create beautiful projects,” Geller says. “Ian, I think, has been very successful at creating beautiful projects.”

One of Gillespie’s early collaborators is architect James Cheng, whose firm designed Westbank buildings such as the Residences on Georgia, the Shaw Tower and the Shangri-La Vancouver and Fairmont Pacific Rim hotels. Cheng recently began working with him again, on First Light, a 459-unit condo development under construction in downtown Seattle. “He is the most impactful developer in Vancouver in terms of creativity,” says the founder of James KM Cheng Architects. Gillespie tries to bring something special to every project, Cheng notes, including public art efforts that grow ever more ambitious. “He’s one of the rare people who pay a lot of attention to art and community.”

Larry Beasley, Vancouver’s co-director of planning from 1994 to 2006, dealt with Gillespie extensively at city hall. “Ian is a developer who, I think, takes a much longer view,” says Beasley, who now runs his own Vancouver-based international planning and urban design consulting firm. “I don’t think he just sees development as a business. I think he sees it as a calling, he sees it as a mission, and he sees his projects as city-building and city-changing projects.”

Credit: Courtesy of Westbank. 400 West Georgia is currently under construction

Do anything but study business

Ian Gillespie grew up in a 700-square-foot house in Port Coquitlam, at the foot of Burke Mountain, with his parents, Norma and Don, and four siblings. His mother and father, who worked as a psychiatric nurse at Riverview Hospital and a chemist at the Gulf Oil refinery in Port Moody, still live in the home, which is heated with a woodstove.

Both parents retired early to become full-time environmentalists; now in their late 80s, they devote 50 to 60 hours a week to a handful of organizations. For 20 years, Don and Norma have also fought to preserve the Riverview Lands as a botanical garden.

A gifted middle-distance runner with Olympic ambitions, Gillespie attended California State University, Fresno, on a track scholarship before an injury forced him to end his athletic career in 1984. “What it gave me was the discipline and the work ethic,” he says of running. Back home, he finished his commerce degree at UBC. “I was undecided between that and mathematics, and I sold out,” recalls Gillespie, who also earned an MBA from UofT. “And so my advice to my kids has been to do anything but study business.”

Returning to Vancouver, Gillespie got his start as a developer by working for his cousin, Rod Schroeder, whose red Jaguar XKE convertible he’d coveted as a child. “It’s really that car that brought me to the real estate industry,” he says of the vehicle, now displayed outside the Fairmont Pacific Rim.   

Gillespie, who launched Westbank in 1992, lives in a house he built with Cheng on the UBC Endowment Lands. He and his wife, Stephanie Dong, whose uncle is Vancouver property tycoon Robert Lee, have three children. Lauren and Sean work in the business; Ryan is a freshman at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

“He is just so creative,” says real estate marketer Bob Rennie, who worked with Gillespie for 22 years and remains friends with him despite past differences. “I know it rubs people the wrong way, and Ian will always be misunderstood. But people don’t need to be understood. His obligation is to Stephanie and his family to understand him. The rest of us sit in the cheap seats and take shots at him, because there’s not a lot of people that step out like that.”

Gillespie “wants not only recognition, he wants recognizable,” Rennie says. “As Canadians, we have a tall poppy syndrome, and yet he wants to be a tall poppy. So that comes with consequences.”

We’re like a baby

Outside Gillespie’s office hangs a small 1953 photo by the late Fred Herzog, whose work he collects. If you know Vancouver, you might spot the Marine Building looming above the weather-beaten yellow pier building in the foreground. Most people think they’re looking at San Francisco, Shanghai, Hong Kong—typically an Asian city, Gillespie says. “But that picture was taken from within 20 feet of where we are standing right now.”

His point? “We are the youngest big city in the world. We’re a work in progress. People want to see everything happen overnight. It’s like, my God, we’re like a baby. And look where we’ve come in such a short period of time.”

Given his track record of winning approval for projects, some think Gillespie enjoys favourable treatment at city hall. “It is harder for me to do business in Vancouver than it is in any other city I do business in, by far,” he responds. “So if I have all this power, why would that be true?” At the same time, Vancouver has a strong tradition of sound planning, he adds.

“He’s astute, and he does have the good sense to work with people who have good relationships with city hall,” Michael Geller says. “I believe he gets things approved because he designs and develops beautiful projects.”

Cheng thinks Gillespie also benefits from Vancouver’s openness to new ideas. “If Ian was trying to do what he does in San Francisco, he’d probably have a lot of resistance,” he says. “Our value is about the mountains, the water, the green. So as long as we reinforce those values, there’s no prescription as to what kind of buildings you have to design.”

Credit: Courtesy of Westbank. Vancouver House stands out

100-percent contextual

Here’s how Gillespie explains Westbank’s Vancouver House. The 59-level, 375-home building, which twists skyward from a tiny triangular lot under the Granville Street Bridge, is “100-percent contextual,” he says. “If you take all of the constraints—shadows on the park, setbacks from the on-ramps, all the municipal constrictions—and you put those into a computer program, and imagine you have a three-dimensional block of space, and you put those six constraints into it, that’s exactly what it spits out. It’s like a sausage, and I filled it full of meat.”

Of all of Gillespie’s projects, architect Cheng is most impressed by Vancouver House, whose public art includes the 6.4-metre-high Spinning Chandelier by local artist Rodney Graham. “To take the underside, the former parking lot for tow trucks, towed vehicles, and turn it into a celebrated public space is a major contribution.”

How involved is Gillespie in the design of Westbank’s buildings? “He’s extremely hands-on,” Cheng says. “When we work together, we have lots of brainstorming sessions. We just sit around and toss ideas out, and then we will build on each other’s ideas and try it further.

A high level of mediocrity

Gillespie makes no secret of his unhappiness with most of what gets built in Vancouver. He’d be better off concentrating Westbank’s growth in Toronto, Seattle, San Francisco and Tokyo because they’re more profitable, he says. “But this is my home. And so I’ll go by a site and I’ll say, Man, if I don’t take that project on, then somebody’s going to put up a piece of shit, and I’m going to go by it and have to live with the consequences.”

He dials it back a little. “Vancouver has less bad stuff than a lot of communities,” he says. “But a high level of mediocrity shouldn’t be acceptable, and that’s what we’re getting.”

During his time as co-director of planning, the City and developers took flak for doing great urbanism but not necessarily great architecture, Larry Beasley says. As many people complained, builders kept cranking out boring structures that would look at home in any given suburb.

Gillespie thought there was a market niche of intelligent, well-informed consumers who wanted something better, Beasley explains. “He always started with good local architects, but he then started hiring international architects and bringing what I would literally call high design into the development industry in a way that Vancouver hadn’t seen before.”

The result: “A lot of other developers started paying attention to the issue of design, to using design as one of the selling points of their projects,” Beasley says. “It set the bar way higher in the city, and I think it solved an issue we were facing, which was we were getting nice streetscapes and a good mix of urbanism, but we were not getting those iconic buildings. And now we’re starting to get them, and [Gillespie has] been in the vanguard.

Credit: Courtesy of Westbank. Telus Garden was completed in 2016

Epic battles

At Westbank headquarters, Gillespie shows me a red maquette of Rising, a sculpture by Chinese artist Zhang Huan, who based his work on the stump and roots of a tree. The real thing—22 tonnes of unpainted stainless steel, including 1,200 birds—soars up the outside of Toronto’s Westbank-built Shangri-La hotel and residences. Gillespie, who says his company has executed on roughly 100 pieces of public art across the country, notes that the City of Toronto required him to spend $1 million on Rising. “My cost on this was over $22 million.”

That willingness to take a hit is nothing new. Just ask former Vancouver chief planner Brent Toderian, who worked with Gillespie for six years in that role and has advised and consulted for Westbank. “I have had truly epic battles with Ian, particularly at city hall, and there have been times where we have not been on the same page,” says the founder of Vancouver-based Toderian UrbanWorks. “But more than any other developer in the city, I have always respected where his passion comes from.”

Where Toderian’s fights with developers were often about profit and cost, Gillespie is driven by better ideas, he says. “I have literally seen Ian add time and cost to a project of his to argue for something that he thinks is interesting and better, but that has no financial benefit to him. It might even have a financial detriment.

Credit: Courtesy of Westbank. Gillespie envisions the new Oakridge, expected to finish construction in 2027, as a cultural hub

I think it’s a shambles

Gillespie’s involvement with Oakridge began a decade ago, when he met with Daniel Fournier, who recently retired as CEO of former owner Ivanhoé Cambridge. Fournier’s firm had already spent 10 years working with the City of Vancouver to rezone the site. “He said, ‘Well, what do you think?'” Gillespie recalls. “And I said, ‘I think it’s a shambles. I think it’s terrible.'”

He told Fournier that simply driving in condo stratas was the wrong move. “I said, ‘Future generations are going to look at 30  acres of consolidated ownership on a hugely important transit line, which has a lot of capacity that it could grow into, and go, What a wasted opportunity.'” The project would also lose money, he warned.

Westbank went on to win the City’s approval for its Oakridge vision, partly by talking to 30,000 residents over three years. “Our ambitions are to make a project looked at as the most thoughtful, complex, layered, sustainable mixed-use project in the history of the world,” says Gillespie of what he calls a cultural hub.

For Beasley, Oakridge is just one example of savvy developers across North America reinventing malls as entire communities, but he thinks it’s a vanguard project. “I dealt with two generations before Ian of people thinking about that site, and this is probably one of the most intelligent proposals that has been confirmed.”

How are sales going? Gillespie starts by pointing out that condos make up just one part of Westbank’s business, which spans offices, hotels and energy. Within residential, there’s affordable rental and home ownership as well as luxury product. (Besides more than 2,300 units of market housing and 500,000 square feet of office space, Oakridge will include 290 affordable and 290 rental units.) “We are selling more than the rest of the market combined,” Gillespie says of Oakridge. “It’s probably going slower than we would have gone in the past, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. To be honest, we were probably in a market that wasn’t sustainable in the long run.”

Like other developers, Westbank—five of whose eight offices are in Asia—markets its Vancouver projects abroad. Where will Oakridge’s residents hail from? “It’s no different than where is Vancouver coming from,” Gillespie replies, adding that the provincial government’s foreign buyers tax means few offshore purchasers. “The vast, vast bulk of the homes bought at Oakridge are bought by either residents or citizens of Canada.”

Beauty, eh?

In Westbank’s second book, the 600-odd-page Fight for Beauty, Gillespie contends that creating beautiful things has always been a struggle. Two years ago, Vancouver artists picketed the accompanying free exhibition, slamming it as “artwashing” by a developer whose projects displace people.

Besides visual art, Gillespie owns one of the world’s largest collections of vintage couture, displaying pieces at various Westbank properties. He doesn’t think Vancouver has to choose between creating a beautiful place to live and ensuring that everyone has shelter. “Real, true beauty isn’t ornamentation,” he says. “It is what makes us human.”

Beasley cuts him some slack. “You’ve got to give credit to anyone who is interested in the aesthetic side of our culture, because we don’t have enough people interested in that side, especially people with investment possibility,” he says. “I think it’s kind of courageous to say I have this interest in beauty and couturier culture.

We’re actually going to make a difference

Gillespie has a tip for his fellow developers. “Everything needs to be looked at through the lens of climate change. If you’re not looking through that lens, then you’re a dinosaur.”

And if you work in downtown Vancouver, there’s a good chance your office gets its heat from Creative Energy, which supplies 45 million square feet in some 210 buildings. This utility, purchased by Westbank in 2014, is southern B.C.’s biggest consumer of natural gas; expanding to downtown south, Oakridge and Horseshoe Bay, it’s also moving into Toronto and the U.S.

Atop its existing gas-fired steam plant near BC Place stadium, Creative Energy, Westbank, Bjarke Ingels Group and Vancouver’s HCMA Architecture + Design have proposed an office building designed for creative economy tenants. This redevelopment would allow for major upgrades to the plant and construction of a new low-carbon facility, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 25,000 tonnes a year.

For the Telus Garden project, Westbank captured enough heat from the landline switch centre on Seymour Street to power a million square feet of buildings. At Oakridge, eco-friendly technologies will include a geo-exchange field and waste heat recovery system, biofuels, electric boilers and sewer recapture. The average resident will produce 1.3 tonnes of greenhouse gas a year, versus 5.9 tonnes for the average urban dweller, Gillespie says. “We’re actually going to make a difference.”

Since they met, James Cheng remembers, Gillespie has always been committed to sustainability and the environment. “The idea that he would get involved in the energy sources when it comes to greener, sustainable city-building, it’s just indicative of a bigger-picture perspective,” says former chief planner Toderian. 

Credit: Courtesy of Westbank. Westbank’s Woodward’s redevelopment opened in 2008

A blunt instrument

With the BC Housing Management Commission and other partners, Westbank is one of Vancouver’s top builders of affordable and social housing. But several people I talked to say Gillespie doesn’t get much credit for that, partly because he’s perceived as a luxury developer.

Brent Toderian cites Gillespie’s work to build affordable and social housing at Woodward’s and elsewhere in the Downtown Eastside. “He will get passionately interested in a project around affordability that many other developers would never touch.”

Also overlooked is Gillespie’s effort—still in its early stages—to boost Canada’s supply of affordable middle-income rental housing by working with institutional investors, Beasley observes. “Unless the development community steps up and really tries to help us find solutions, we will not find solutions,” he says. “I honestly think he’s leading the way on that.”

To help combat the affordability crisis by managing housing demand, Gillespie believes the foreign buyers tax was justified—to an extent. “There’s a lot of unintended consequences when you try to manipulate the market with such a blunt instrument,” he says. “I think it would have been better to do it in conjunction with measures to increase supply.”

Look at your watch

In a town where condo presentation centres have become part of the scenery, Westbank’s elaborate show at Oakridge sticks out. “What Ian is always up to is he’s trying to discern what does his consumer want that isn’t being delivered,” Beasley says. “A lot of other developers are generalizing the consumer. He’s actually being very specific about the consumer.”

When it comes to marketing, Gilles-pie takes a smart and contemporary approach, Beasley says. “The people who are making progress are crossing cultural lines and crossing sectors, and delivering their message in a different way,” he notes. “It’s one thing to say, We have 200 units for sale. It’s another thing to say, I’m offering the most suave, sophisticated project in the nation right now—do you want to be a part of it?”

Today’s consumer has high expectations and is very sophisticated, Beasley adds. “So you can’t just deliver that bog-standard, average piece of junk you used to do. Look at your watch, look at your phone, look at your kitchen equipment—the same thing applies. And he’s been one of the earliest developers to realize that also applies to people’s homes and their neighbourhoods.”

Inventing what’s next

Ask Gillespie where Vancouver is headed over the next couple of decades, and he draws a line to his own work. “Right now we’re at a bit of an inflection point, and I think that to the same extent that Woodward’s marked a very important historical moment in our city, that Vancouver House is marking that same moment.”

Where some developers play it safe, “Ian has always pioneered the market,” James Cheng says. Larry Beasley’s take: “It’s one thing to say he knows what’s next. What I find more interesting is the people in our culture who don’t know what’s next but who just invent what’s next,” he says. “I’m not sure he’s tapped into a cultural trend as much as he’s contributed to create a cultural trend.”

As Gillespie pushes ahead with Oakridge, he reports that it’s moving hundreds of units while other Vancouver projects have sold nothing. “And so if our product was always valued much higher than the rest, that gap has grown substantially,” he says. “On the luxury end of our business, we’re in the business of building Porsches. And that’s just where I get more freedom to exercise more creativity.”

Whatever else he does, Gillespie runs a business. “People in business are very competitive,” he says. “And so if we’re doing this, they will try to get there, and then we’ll go higher, and they’ll try to get there. And so I feel like we do have that leadership position and that we have that responsibility, and I feel like that’s what our mission is.”