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Commercial properties going for unreal prices, but do buyers know the limits they face?

February 2nd, 2016 · 4 Comments

Just a side note: I will be so happy when I get to write fewer stories about the city’s kooky real-estate market. But, now, in the meantime …

Lots of chattering these days about the high prices that key pieces of Vancouver commercial real-estate are going for: Royal Centre, $400-million to a German investor. Bayshore, $300-million to Concord Pacific. The Denny’s restaurant site on Broadway, $500 a buildable square foot.

All of that is mysterious enough. On top of that, various reporters have latched on to another puzzling phenomenon, which is a couple of local companies that appear to have businesses going “crowd funding” real-estate purchases. Solicitations for investors for the Molson’s brewery site and a Nelson Street site have been dug up in recent weeks, with various promises in the solicitations, which appeared to be linked to a company called Sun Commercial, about what kind of redevelopment is possible on the sites. (Sam Cooper at The Province was the first to spot this.)

The B.C. Securities Commission got involved to find out whether this was a violation of any rules on raising money from investors. In the meantime, councillors and planners are mystified and not sure whether these buyers will know, when they arrive at city hall, that rezoning is going to be complicated or downright impossible. My story, detailing some of the saga of what’s been going on, is here. (Don’t be put off by the inaccurate headline.)

I should point out that, at the moment, no one seems to know whether anyone did actually invest anything. All we know is these weird solicitations appeared on various social media locations.

One set of companies that got caught up in the reporting and securities commission review, Luxmore Realty and Canada Luxmore Crowdfunding, has been trying to set the record straight, at least about what its company is doing. Luxmore, which hasn’t been pitching any big Vancouver properties to my knowledge, doesn’t raise money directly or “crowd fund” in the Canadian sense of the word.

Instead, as Luxmore rep Jason Liu said, what it means in his operation is explaining to people what kinds of investments are out there (real estate and otherwise) and then encouraging them, if they’re interested, to find other interested investors and form legal partnerships so they can invest as a group.

Whatever is going on, Vancouver’s market continues to get weirder … and not in the fun, Austin sense.

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Former UBC president Arvind Gupta issues defence: “It was clear I did not have the full support of the board.”

January 27th, 2016 · 3 Comments

This just out


Today UBC released a number of documents related to my resignation as President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia. As a result, I am compelled to comment on the documents, their content, tone and the accuracy of what they portray.
What was published is a one-sided representation of what transpired in the months prior to my resignation.
I have spent my entire working life trying to make this country and province better. The chance to be UBC’s President was an exciting opportunity to build a 21st century university, one that is better connected to the community, and the bigger world beyond the campus. This modern version of our largest university is essential to making BC into an even better society.
As President, I made a commitment to the people of British Columbia, the Board, the students and the faculty that we would move UBC to become one of the top universities in the world.
That goal meant substantial change including a rethinking of priorities and refocusing on the academic mission. And change can make some people uneasy. If it didn’t, it would be called the status quo. So, it is no surprise that not everyone at the university embraced this vision and the required actions.
That said, the assertions in the released documents, were not based on facts or evidence given to me at any time.
Still, I attempted to work in a collegial manner which is the hallmark of every well-governed university. Unfortunately there was never any formal review of my performance, or outreach by the Board to the broader university community. This would have allowed both the UBC Board and myself to assess my first year accomplishments and the scope of the work ahead.
This past summer it became clear to me that I did not have the support of the full Board and, as such, felt I had no other option but to resign in the best interest of the university. It is my sincerest hope that I, with leading UBC scholars, will carry on this important work on behalf of UBC, British Columbia, and Canada.


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TransLink prepares for a change year: New board members, new managers, new approach

January 27th, 2016 · 8 Comments

I asked to interview TransLink’s new board chair, Don Rose, recently to get a sense of what course corrections the agency is making these days. A couple of days after I talked to him, former interim CEO Doug Allen’s confidential report on what’s right and wrong at TransLink got released through Freedom of Information.

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City looking for volunteers for homeless count

January 27th, 2016 · 2 Comments

This out from city:

We are recruiting volunteers for the 2016 City of Vancouver Homeless Count. The count will take place throughout the city inside shelters during the evening of Wednesday, March 9, 2016 and on the streets during the day on Thursday, March 10, 2016.

By volunteering for the count, you will be helping to gather valuable information that governments, service providers, community groups, and funders use to plan appropriate programs to address homelessness and measure our progress in reducing homelessness.

We hope you will participate as a volunteer by completing the online application form ( ) by Friday, January 29, 2016. We also welcome you to recruit amongst your friends and colleagues whom you know would be good at this. Please feel free to forward this email on to them.

Ideal volunteers

· Are compassionate, accepting, and comfortable with one-on-one conversation

· Have a “customer service” orientation to life

· Have a non-judgmental attitude and a good sense of humour

· Are outgoing, curious, persistent and not afraid to make mistakes

· May have worked with or befriended people who are homeless or in deep poverty

What’s involved?
The Homeless Count involves identifying and conducting a brief anonymous survey with people who are homeless. The shelter survey on March 9 will be conducted in emergency shelters. The street survey on March 10 may involve walking around a neighbourhood. Shifts will be 2 to 3 hours and volunteers will be required to attend a 2-hour training session in late February or early March 2016. Volunteers must be 19 years of age or older.

Homeless Counts have taken place in the City of Vancouver in 2002, 2005, 2008 and annually since 2010. The counts provide critical information on the number and characteristics of our city’s homeless population and how this population has changed over time. To read the Homeless Count 2015 report, please visit

Thank you for your willingness to participate as a volunteer and your help to recruit others!

If you have any questions, please contact Jennifer Hales at or 604-873-7004.

Please complete the online application form ( ) by Friday, January 29, 2016.

Thank you.

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UBC economists recommend a surtax on vacant properties, as the call for new strategies to moderate housing speculation grows

January 19th, 2016 · 22 Comments

As likely most of you who read this blog know, a group of UBC and SFU economists and/or business professors put out a joint statement yesterday calling for a tax on vacant homes. That follows an interesting op-ed piece published last week by SFU public-policy prof Rhys Kesselman for a surtax on expensive properties whose rate would increase with the price of the property. And that follows calls by Mayor Gregor Robertson for a speculation tax or luxury tax.

The clever piece of the various professors proposals is that they say that the surtax would be reduced or eliminated as long as the property owner has declared local income and paid taxes here. So it would be targeted to anyone who uses Vancouver as a vacation camp: Americans, Brits, Russians, you name it. If I’ve understood it correctly, it could even apply to, say, the many Albertans who own summer cabins in Kelowna and the rest of the Okanagan or the Vancouverites who have summer cabins in the Gulf Islands.

It’s been interesting to see the raft of defences and “oh, that can’t work” from the other side. Real-estate marketer Bob Rennie said it would kill foreign investment in everything, since it would inevitably lead to a tax on foreign investment in manufacturing or other sectors. (Never heard of that in other jurisdictions with housing taxes.)

The mystery documents from the finance ministry surfaced again, claiming it would kill off $1 billion and 4,000 jobs related to construction. (Puzzling claim, since this surtax wouldn’t affect, say, foreign investors who are putting capital into major construction projects.)

And Premier Christy Clark claimed again that somehow this could end up targeting seniors who spend part of the year in the hospital or vacationers. Yet the proposal clearly stated that people who do or have contributed to the local economy (in other words, people collecting pensions) would be exempt.

It’s almost like someone is just trying to confuse the public.

My Globe story here. Oddly, the link to the actual proposal on the UBC site is not functioning.



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Buy anywhere to build equity. Rent where you want to live. The new Vancouver strategy

January 19th, 2016 · 14 Comments

I started hearing this kind of story that last few months almost, it seemed, every time I went out of the house. People who told me they were renting out the condo they purchased years ago, but had moved on to renting a larger house somewhere. My son-in-law was urged by a friend to buy in Squamish while just continuing to rent in West Van. (He chose not to.)

I tracked down some people doing this, one more strategy that people are using to try to get a foothold in the Vancouver market. It depends, of course, on two things: You can get reasonable rent for the condo that has now become your investment. And you’ve got some kind of favourable renting situation yourself. Everyone I talked to for this story had one thing in common: I’ve got an amazing deal where I’m renting. Apparently they still exist here.

My Globe feature on this is here. After this came out, more than one reader told me they have friends and colleagues doing this. It’s definitely a thing.

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Giant Oakridge project gets scaled back amid concerns re construction costs, retail economy

January 13th, 2016 · 7 Comments

This is a first for Ivanhoe Cambridge, the global real-estate investment firm, and for the city — a $1.5-billion redevelopment project scheduled for Oakridge Centre is being scaled back.

My story here details the many reasons the company gave and that retail consultants also suggested: high construction costs, a hugely long period of construction that tenants would surely object to, a changed retail market in Vancouver, and more.

The advance news about this started seeping through city hall before Christmas. I’d heard that one possible reason, along with the others, was that the project developers (Ivanhoe and its residential-development partner, Ian Gillespie at Westbank) were still unhappy about the $148-million in community-amenity contributions the city had demanded. That amount had been increased significantly by former city manager Penny Ballem just before the approval, which created a certain amount of, shall we say, unhappiness.

Ivanhoe’s vp said that wasn’t at all the reason. But, interestingly, when I talked to Councillor Raymond Louie about the whole issue a couple of weeks ago, he spent part of the conversation defending the city’s CAC bill, saying the city couldn’t be expected to lower its requirements just because Ivanhoe/Westbank were running into unexpectedly high projected construction costs.

“We can’t be subsidizing the redevelopment of sites,” he told me back in pre-Christmas December. “It’s our job to make sure the citizens are taken care of.”

Anyway, now we’ll all wait to see what the revised plan looks like.  I am including below the full, official statement that Ivanhoe released.

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Museum, Urbanarium look for ways to have civil, frank, less polarized talk about Vancouver development

January 13th, 2016 · 2 Comments

I know people who read this blog are getting a little fried with real-estate discussions these days, which all seem to end in stand-offs and abound in contradictions.

In spite of that, you likely want to retain some space in your calendar for an interesting effort being put on by the Museum of Vancouver and Urbanarium, a cluster of academics, planners, architects and so on who want to have more productive discussions about Vancouver’s future. My Globe story is here with the organizers talking about why they thought this was a vital event to put on.

The museum is putting on a four-month show, Your Future Home: Creating the New Vancouver, starting Jan. 21, looking at the city’s past, present and future, with eight scenarios visualized by eight groups of professional planners and architects from the city, along with much more.

As part of that, Urbanarium is staging a series of debates on some of the city’s touchiest issues — densification, affordability, towers, and more.

A little insider tip. (Don’t tell anyone else.) Although all the tickets to the first debate, Jan. 20, “Densify Every Neighbourhood,” are taken, according to the website, those were free tickets and likely a certain proportion of the people who snaffled them early won’t show up if Vancouver event trends prevail. So, if you’re a gambler, come down anyway and hang around waiting for seats to open up.

P.S. Here is the CityHallWatch response to the Urbanarium debates so far, which some may see as Exhibit 1 in the whole problem of having a dialogue about these issues. I had thought the group might give the organizers more credit and been softer in their response, given that their current ex-planner heroes, Ray Spaxman and Scot Hein, are intimately involved in this project, but apparently I am wrong, as happens so frequently.


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Here’s my wish list for Vancouver 2016. What’s yours?

January 2nd, 2016 · 68 Comments

This wasn’t a great year for Vancouver (the city, the region).

A transit plebiscite turned into an unproductive brawl that pitted drivers against transit users and then failed miserably.

The level of angst over the pace of change in the region and the increasingly incoherent real-estate market, with single-family houses and commercial properties trading for astronomical prices, produced another brawl, pitting various groups against each other.

Instead of coming to an agreement about feasible, practical measures to limit destructive types of real-estate investment and speculation, an agreement that could force governments into real action, people spent most of their time arguing about which group of buyers was responsible.

Mayor Gregor Robertson’s international travels and World Green Message notwithstanding, the city seems to be in a state of suspended animation right now, having lost (quit, fired) several top managers with no sense of who will be hired to do the tricky job of driving a strong agenda without provoking too much public backlash — the miracle job. The region is similarly adrift, with no transit plan, no sense of who’s in charge. There are a few bright spots of energy and innovation, but not enough to set a new course yet.

So my wish for the year (yes, impossibly idealistic, naive) is to see people come together to figure out the ways forward on these tough issues. Cities are going through revolutionary change.

Every city I visited this year that wasn’t Podunk, Middle of Nowhere, is struggling with housing prices that are escalating faster than local wages, struggles over how to provide transportation, increasing inequality, and a sense of unstoppable labour pains bringing forth a new kind of city. Some cities are going to do better at handling this change and finding a way forward; others will do worse.

I’d like to see Vancouver in the first category.

In spite of all the disagreements, I think most people want the same thing: a city and region that functions well for those who live here. Can people stop playing defence on their opinions, political strategies, long-held grudges, and so on to do that? I hope so.

BTW, down here in Seattle, where I happen to be today, the Seattle Times’ editorial for the new year was a series of headlines that its readers said they’d like to see printed in 2016. (Interestingly, among them was “Seattle is named most affordable city in U.S.”)

Feel free to express your wish list that way.

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Province and city strike last-minute deal to open more shelter beds as young homeless population grows

December 30th, 2015 · 2 Comments

So odd that Vancouver has to go through this push and pull over opening up winter-shelter beds every year.

There was some angst behind the scenes as BC Housing, aka Rich Coleman, said Vancouver would get only the same 170 beds that the city got last year, while new Vancouver-type winter shelters (open for the four months of winter 24/7) were opened for the first time in Surrey, Maple Ridge and Abbotsford.

Then, surprise, the city shelters started having to turn people away as soon as they opened because there was more demand than space.

The result: a Christmas Eve announcement about an agreement between the province and city to split the cost of 60 more beds.

They’ll be opening in January (details in my Globe story here), with 10 of them specifically targeted for the growing population of young homeless people around Burrard and Davie, along with 30 in Gastown and 20 more in the Downtown Eastside.

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