• The Wall Street Journal

The New Global City

Russians in London, Brazilians in Miami—and Chinese almost everywhere. The biggest players in the residential-real-estate scene today often come from halfway around the world.


This spring, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner paid $100 million for a French chateau-style mansion in Silicon Valley, setting a record for the highest price ever paid for a single-family home in the U.S. In January, Ukraine’s Rinat Akhmetov closed on two of London’s most expensive apartments ever for a combined $222.5 million. In Paris, a Gulf princess spent $96.9 million last year for a mansion with an inner courtyard, garden and private chapel on the Left Bank.



Photo Illustration by Mick Coulas; Bloomberg News (5); Alamy (2); Evan Joseph (1)Some of the biggest residential real-estate buyers in many cities are emerging from halfway around the globe.

Some of the biggest residential real-estate buyers in many cities are emerging from halfway around the globe. In London, one report finds that 65% of buyers in the luxury market hail from abroad. According to the Miami Association of Realtors, nearly 60% of all sales last year throughout the city were to buyers from foreign countries. About half of the buyers in one new luxury condominium on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue are from overseas.


While foreign purchasers make up about 7% of the U.S. residential real-estate market, their numbers have swelled: According to the National Association of Realtors, 18% of Realtors in the U.S. market reported selling a home to at least one international buyer in 2010, up from 12% in 2009.

The makeup of these buyers is changing, reflecting changes in the global economic scene. Buyers from Russia have returned, and the numbers are growing from Brazil, where the economy grew 7.5% last year. Australians are buying ski homes in Aspen. In Tampa, Fla., Venezuelan buyers are buying heavily discounted beach condos.

One of the biggest factors in many areas is the emergence of the Chinese. As housing costs on China’s mainland skyrocket—raising concerns of a property bubble there—monied buyers are heading abroad, moving into markets that look, in comparison, like a bargain.

In Orange County, Calif., broker Steve High says Chinese buyers now account for more than half of his showings in tony Newport Coast, up from a very small handful two or three years ago. He says many Chinese buyers seek brand-new homes with more than 10,000 square feet to use either for vacations or as a place for their children to live when they attend college. “We have great big houses here, and they’re sitting vacant,” he says, “Or we have an 18-year-old kid living in the house by himself.”

Amy Williamson, the vice president of sales for Prodigy Network, which markets condo buildings like Trump Soho Hotel Condominium in New York, visited Shanghai last month, meeting with local brokers and potential buyers there. Beverly Hills-based broker Joyce Rey traveled to Beijing in October, arranging a reception at an art gallery where photographs of homes priced between $10 million and $125 million were displayed around the room like artwork. Tim Swannie, the Valbonne, France, director of Home Hunts, says one of his agents is working with two Chinese clients who are looking for vineyards in the $5 million-to-$10 million range in the Bordeaux region.

In the U.S., many foreign buyers are taking advantage of the relatively weak dollar. In March, Pascale Saliou, a 44-year-old from Brittany, France, paid about $600,000 for studio in a building with a contemporary art-filled lobby in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Ms. Saliou has been visiting the city regularly for more than 20 years and finally decided to buy a New York apartment because of the exchange rate. “We never imagined we could one day do this,” she says.

Not all foreign purchasers are shelling out millions (in the U.S., the median price paid for a home by an overseas buyer was just under $220,000, according to the National Association of Realtors). And not all are traveling thousands of miles. Canadians are the largest group of foreign buyers in the U.S. today, representing about 23% of foreign buyers, up from about 17.6% in 2009, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Global property buyers gravitate to a handful of highly specific locales: In London, Russians and people from the Middle East flock to central Knightsbridge, where blocks of sleek condos offer top-of-the-line amenities. In New York, newer condos packed with contemporary design attract foreign buyers. Here’s a look at some of the top global real-estate markets for foreign buyers.



Evan JosephThe Setai Fifth Avenue residences at 400 Fifth Avenue


Last month, Russian composer Igor Krutoy—who has recorded more than 100 songs in Russia and collaborated with many of the country’s music stars—made headlines when he and his wife, Olga, purchased a 6,000-square-foot 12th floor condo at the Plaza for $48 million. It was one of the highest prices ever paid for a condo in New York.

According to Jonathan Miller, CEO of appraisal and consulting firm Miller Samuel, foreign buyers make up 15% to 20% of all home sales in Manhattan. They’re particularly strong buyers of thoroughly renovated or newly built condos priced at several million dollars or more. Pamela Liebman, president and CEO of New York-based brokerage Corcoran Group, says that in the first quarter of this year, nearly 20% of new condo sales at Corcoran went to foreign buyers. One deal under way includes a group of Asian investors who are buying 13 apartments in a building, each priced between $1.5 million and $2.5 million.

Manhattan has long been one of the most popular markets in the world for international buyers. But the makeup of international buyers has shifted. Gone are the investors from Ireland who were snapping up condos amid the economic boom in their homeland, says Mr. Miller. Today, it’s buyers from China and Brazil. In the past 18 months, brokers say Russians—known during the boom years for making large real-estate purchases in opulent trophy buildings—have returned after sitting on the sidelines during the recession.

International buyers tend to gravitate to certain buildings. Luigi Rosabianca, a real-estate lawyer who works with international buyers, says the André Balasz-designed William Beaver House in the Financial District is popular with his Latin American clients. “Certain people are attracted to certain energy and aesthetics,” he says. At the Sheffield, a 582-unit condo building at Columbus Circle where 28% of sold units have gone to overseas buyers, sales staff now print marketing materials in Mandarin, French, Spanish and Italian.



Kreg HoltA unit at the Sheffield, which has many foreign buyers.

At midtown’s Setai Fifth Avenue Residences, where apartments are priced from $1.2 million to $15 million, about half of the buyers have been from overseas. Giuseppe Rossi, the executive vice president of Bizzi & Partners Development, who is originally from Italy, notes that many Italians have purchased apartments there. “We’re Italian developers so there’s a certain appeal to Italian products and the way we built,” he says. Brazilian buyers have also made several purchases there, including Brazilian soccer star Kaka, who recently bought three apartments in the building which he plans to combine, says Mr. Rossi. (Kaka didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

Giorgio Castro, a 62-year-old Rome-based entrepreneur, says he dreamed of owning a place in Manhattan for decades. Last year, with the euro-dollar exchange rate giving him more than a 40% discount, he finally snagged a $1.3 million one-bedroom condo in a Wall Street building designed by David Rockwell.

“It was a good opportunity to buy something I longed for,” says Mr. Castro. “With the money I spent, I could not have bought something equivalent in Rome.”



A three-bedroom apartment with views in the seventh arrondissement.


The Paris real-estate market is booming, driven in part by the high prices foreigners are willing to pay. In the “Golden Triangle”—the tony area near the Champs-Élysées—apartment prices rose 38% in the last year, according to the Paris Notary Chamber. For Paris apartments costing over $2.8 million (€2 million), three foreigners buy into the market for every one foreign seller, says Charles-Marie Jottras, president of the Daniel Féau network of real-estate agencies.

Mr. Jottras just closed his first deal with a mainland Chinese buyer, an apartment on the luxurious Avenue George V for $14.2 million (€10 million). The six-bedroom apartment, down the street from the Chinese embassy, features a 2,150-square-foot living room. A new influx of Chinese buyers is also looking at the 16th arrondissement near the Trocadéro Place, where stately buildings appeal to foreign buyers. The Brazilian presence is also growing; Jean-Philippe Roux, manager of luxury real-estate agency John Taylor’s new Paris office, says he has nine Brazilians interested in the seventh and eighth arrondissements.

France’s neighbors Italy and Britain account for about a third of the international market. These buyers often seek apartments on the Left Bank, in the Saint-Germain neighborhood, as well as in the more bohemian Marais area because of the central location for train stations.

Russian and Middle Eastern buyers tend to concentrate in the “Golden Triangle,” where there are the most luxurious hotels and boutiques. A 1960s-era building at 12-18 Avenue Montaigne, near the Louis Vuitton and Chanel stores, is a big draw, as is the recently renovated building at number 51-53 on the opposite side of the street.

There are only a handful of mansions in Paris. Mr. Jottras’s record sale happened last year and was for the Hôtel de Bourbon-Condé, a mansion with an inner courtyard, garden and private chapel, in the seventh arrondissement on the Left Bank. For $96.9 million (€68 million), a Gulf princess had a new home.

—Christina Passariello



The Cullinan, in West Kowloon.


China’s housing boom spilled over to Hong Kong, where property prices have surpassed previous historic highs and are now some of the highest in the world. According to property agency Savills, Hong Kong’s homes are 52% more expensive than London’s—and 111% more than New York’s.

In April 2011, a 5,636-square-foot condo at 39 Conduit Rd. in the Mid-Levels district sold for $46.4 million (HK$361 million). Local newspaper Ming Pao reported that it was bought by Shi Yuzhu, the Shanghai-based founder of online gaming company Giant Interactive. Forbes magazine reported his net worth at $1.6 billion.

Meanwhile, a house on 11 Headland Rd. in Hong Kong’s Repulse Bay neighborhood recently sold for $84.9 million (HK$660 million). Newspaper Ming Pao reported the buyer as Gao Yanming, chairman of Hebei-based shipping company Hosco Group. Henderson Land, the developer, confirmed the transaction but declined to comment as to the identity of the purchaser.

Mainland Chinese buyers are more concentrated in the new luxury sector of condos priced over $1.5 million (HK$12 million), like the Cullinan in West Kowloon. In this sector, they represented 28.8% of the deals during the last half of 2010. In the ultra-expensive range—$25.7 million (HK$200 million) and above—Joseph Tsang, managing director at Jones Lang Lasalle in Hong Kong, estimates that almost all the transactions involve buyers from China.

Mr. Tsang says Chinese buyers look for luxury finishes, ornate decorations and grand hotel-style lobbies. “They’re into glamour and bling,” he says. “In order to attract the Chinese buyer [from the mainland], you need to put out the most expensive stuff on display.”

In the past, the pricey homes along the southern coast of Hong Kong island were popular among well-heeled expatriate bankers from the U.K., Australia and the U.S. But the influx of Chinese buyers and the resulting spike in prices has even forced some members of this wealthy class out of their traditional stomping grounds.

The city’s largest brokers routinely organize bus tours for interested buyers from mainland China to visit new development sites.

Local brokerage firm Midland Realty recently organized three tours during the May 1 weekend, a public holiday. By the end of the weekend, the agency had 10 deals signed, starting at $643,000 (HK$5 million) for new condos. During a tour earlier this year, the agency says some buyers purchased units for $1.3 million (HK$10 million) on their first visit to Hong Kong.

“If you look at the new apartments [in West Kowloon], over 60% are mainland Chinese buyers, but if you count the lights at night, you won’t see many. It’s sold out, but it’s pitch dark,” Mr. Tsang says.

—Jason Chow



One Hyde Park luxury residences in LondonOne Hyde Park, the Candy Brothers’ development in Knightsbridge.


According to Liam Bailey, head of residential research at real-estate agent Knight Frank, London’s ratio of international to domestic buyers for prime real estate is the highest of any major city in the world. According to his report last month, 64% of buyers of central London homes priced over $8.1 million (£5 million) are foreign—”the highest of any major city, without a doubt”—and probably the highest it’s ever been, Mr. Bailey says.

The number of nationalities represented has also swelled; 61 nationalities purchased homes in London last year, up from 46 in 2009, with Russian, Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern buyers seeing the biggest growth, according to Knight Frank.

For many, the U.K.’s steady political environment and stable economy make London a safe haven for wealth. Sterling’s decline against the dollar—around 20% since 2008—makes property even more enticing. But currency arbitrage and safe-haven status aside, different nationalities are drawn by different aspects.

For U.S. buyers, it’s London’s leafy Hampstead Village, according to Marcus Oliver, associate director at real-estate agent Chesterton Humbert’s Hampstead office. He said 80% of foreign buyers in Hampstead over the past three months have been from the U.S. “Americans are attracted to the quintessentially ‘London village’ feel of Hampstead, with its quaint Victorian houses and the rolling Heath. It matches up with the clichéd impression of London.”

Meanwhile, the status and bright lights of a pad in central Knightsbridge are luring the newly monied Eastern Europeans and Middle Eastern buyers, says Roarie Scarisbrick of HSBC-owned buying agent Property Vision. “Knightsbridge property is the ultimate status symbol for the new settlers of Eastern Europe with their newly amassed fortunes.” Properties like the Knightsbridge, One Hyde Park and the Lancasters, where residents enjoy 24-hour security and amenities ranging from golf simulators to private movie theaters, are attracting some of the world’s wealthiest oligarchs and sheiks.

One such buyer is Ukranian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, who in January closed on two apartments in the Candy Brothers’ new One Hyde Park development in Knightsbridge for a reported $222.5 million (£136.6 million) to combine into a triplex penthouse. Mr. Akhmatov’s press secretary Olena Dovzhenko confirmed the property was purchased as investment through the oligarch’s company, SCM Capital Management.

In neighboring Kensington, with its proximity to museums and coffee shops, the typical buyer is French, Swiss or Italian, says independent search agent Charles McDowell. He recently found a home for 38-year-old Parisian Michelle Dellion, in South Kensington. The five-bedroom townhouse on Mulberry Walk cost $16.3 million (£10 million) and has 5,000 square feet of living space. “We had to be in London for my husband’s job. Kensington is near the Lycée [Français Charles de Gaulle] and the park—with our three children it was the best area for us,” said Ms. Dellion, a stay-at-home mom whose husband works in finance.

Mindful of this tendency to flock together, developers have launched targeted marketing drives. Within the last six months, luxury London developments The Heron, Bramah Chelsea, Wellington House and Neo Bankside have held marketing exhibitions in Singapore and Hong Kong. Last September, Bramah hosted a successful exhibition at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong. “We sold 50 apartments off plan over two weekends,” says sales executive Matt Shenton.

— Tara Loader Wilkinson



Icon BrickellThe Icon Brickell, a three-tower complex downtown that has attracted British and Brazilian buyers.


In the Greater Miami area, nearly 60% of all sales last year were to buyers from overseas, according to the Miami Association of Realtors. For sales of newly built condos downtown, that figure jumps to 90%, says the group.

Many of the buyers are from Brazil, which experienced an economic growth rate of 7.5% last year. Brazil’s currency, the real, has risen about 40% against the U.S. dollar in the last two years.

Property developer and marketer Fortune International focused heavily on Brazil to sell Jade Ocean, a 50-story building the company is marketing with infinity pools, a private movie theater and a children’s playroom decorated with Philippe Starck furniture. Its two-story penthouse loft apartments sold for between $3.5 million and $10 million. Nearly 85% of Jade Ocean’s sales have gone to overseas buyers.

Fortune’s principal developer Edgardo Defortuna says that last fall, he worked with American Airlines to invite a group of potential buyers and American Airlines contacts to a dinner party at a restaurant in Brasilia. “The Black Eyed Peas were having dinner in the next room,” he says. His company is also encouraging the airline to add new flights from different cities in Brazil to Miami, which American Airlines says is in the works. In an e-mail, an American Airlines spokeswoman said, “it makes business sense to promote Miami not only as a place to visit but a place to live.”

Russian buyers tend to cluster in northern, beachfront areas. Mr. Defortuna says he’s planning a trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg to pitch several of his Miami-area buildings. There, he hopes to throw a dinner party with Donald Trump Jr., an executive vice president with the Trump Organization.

Unlike Americans, who tend to look for single-family homes, overseas buyers favor condos. Italians have been drawn to the Capri South Beach, a condo building with downtown views and its own marina, says broker Nelson Gonzalez. The Icon Brickell, a three-tower complex downtown, has a large number of British and Brazilian owners, says Oliver Ruiz, a managing broker with Fortune International Realty.

Venezuelans are also a growing presence, as are buyers from Italy, Spain and Switzerland. Phillip Yaffa, an owner of the Miami office of Engel & Völkers, says a waterfront home sold last week for $9.4 million to a Swiss buyer.

Henrik Wiingaard-Madsen, a shoe-manufacturing company owner from Denmark, says he got a 30% discount in July for two apartments in the Icon Brickell—$520,000 for a two-bedroom and $840,000 for a three-bedroom—plus a rebate. Icon “had so many units, they were kind of desperate at the time,” he says. “The price was so low compared to the quality.” Mr. Defortuna says his company took over marketing for the complex last June, and that the building “has filled in significantly since then.” So far, about 80% of the units have been sold.

Write to Candace Jackson at candace.jackson@wsj.com


Vancouver city council will vote Thursday on whether to construct a separated bike lane on Dunsmuir Viaduct seen here February 2, 2010. - Vancouver city council will vote Thursday on whether to construct a separated bike lane on Dunsmuir Viaduct seen here February 2, 2010. | John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver city council will vote Thursday on whether to construct a separated bike lane on Dunsmuir Viaduct seen here February 2, 2010.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

City limits

Bridges, swimming pools, unicorns – just think what the viaducts could be

Stephen Quinn | Columnist profile | E-mail

From Saturday’s Globe and Mail
Last updated 

“We propose to flood False Creek back to its 1898 boundary. An archipelago of over 800 fixed and floating islands and a flexible network of 1,500 bridges occupy the flood zone. Islands and bridges re-assemble in multiple ways creating a flexible, open ended, self-governing spatial and programmatic system.”

That is the actual text that accompanies submission No. 106 in the City of Vancouver’s invitation to imagine what life might be like with the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts either torn down or repurposed.

The competition is called re:CONNECT.

The idea of doing away with the viaducts was embraced by city councillor Geoff Meggs, who noticed that closing the viaducts to traffic during the Olympics significantly reduced traffic on the viaducts.

“The 22-day shutdown required by 2010 Winter Olympic Games security rules gave neighbourhoods east of the viaducts their first traffic-calmed days in more than a generation, a real-life test of what life without the viaducts might be like,” Mr. Meggs argues on his website.

That may be sort of true, but the 2010 Winter Olympics were also accompanied by lane closings and restrictions that made it virtually impossible to navigate Vancouver’s streets by car.

Further, Mr. Meggs argues that the viaducts are the remnants of a freeway no one wanted and was never completed, and that they limit development opportunities and sever vital links that could connect neighbourhoods.

Whatever the reason, the competition has sparked the imaginations of people for whom the practical consideration of getting to work must be a totally abstract and bourgeois concept.

How else could you explain submission No. 114, which shows the viaducts covered in an undulating wooden lattice with cyclists riding on what appears to be a red carpet.

The accompanying text reads as follows: “The complexity of initiating a paradigm shift in how we operate Vancouver’s economy will gain momentum at the community and localized scale, where intricacy is most manageable. The word economy, derived from the word home, brings a call to the domestic, where green discourse and collaboration can take root and prove that spaces we inhabit actually reflect the culture of its time.”

See, I was just going to say that.

Or the submission that imagines dismantling the viaducts as though they were made of Lego and clicking the pieces back together to form a gigantic cone-shaped cavern.

No. 113: “Like the monuments of ancient cities, the viaducts could be disassembled and used to make new monuments. New public spaces, more exciting and mysterious, could take shape where the viaducts stood. A grotto, filled with water from False Creek, is also filled with strange echoes; its walls drip with water, cleansed by a natural landscape and ready to return to the sea.”

Clearly written by a person unfamiliar with the fecal coliform counts of False Creek.

Not to be outdone, submission No. 67 imagines swimming to work as a practical commuting option. The illustration shows one of the viaducts as a kilometre-long glass-bottomed swimming pool: “The urban outdoor public pool is a node that sparks play, fitness, and communal well-being. The elevated concrete structures of the viaducts are a unique resource, and they may be creatively re-purposed to create such a node in downtown Vancouver. Let’s pool our resource.”

The submission has sparked serious debate in the website’s comments section. “Suspect maintenance would be a major issue,” says one commenter. Another complains that the concept is devoid of trees and greenery. “No grass, flowers or food. Too much like the downtown core.”

Water in fact is a major theme.

One submission imagines the land beneath the viaducts as some sort of water park, looking not unlike the viaducts of today after a heavy rainstorm. The difference is that the people standing in deep puddles are dressed in colourful swimwear and appear to be happy. Also, hot-air balloons hover overhead.

I know. Only a true vulgarian would fail to appreciate these efforts. I applaud them all.

Sadly, my own submission to replace the viaducts with rainbow-coloured cotton candy topped with unicorns and fairies didn’t arrive in time to be seriously considered.

I bet it would have not only passed muster, it would have sparked some serious debate.

The most commented-upon submission is also the most simple. It consists of seven words, printed in black on a grey background. It reads simply: “Please, leave the viaducts as they are.”

Crazy talk.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

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City planner Brent Toderian said some themes are emerging for how the land around the viaducts could be used. - City planner Brent Toderian said some themes are emerging for how the land around the viaducts could be used. | Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

City planner Brent Toderian said some themes are emerging for how the land around the viaducts could be used.

Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

Plans envision transformation of viaduct lands

frances bula

VANCOUVER— From Monday’s Globe and Mail
Last updated 

Vancouver is developing detailed options for the land around its downtown viaducts – if those major commuter connections are eventually torn down – that include public open space, low-cost housing, business projects, or a combination.

In a sign of how seriously the city is considering the ultimate removal of the viaducts, the land-use plans, being worked on jointly by the architecture firm Perkins + Will with city planners, were going to be presented at a city urban-design panel next week. That presentation has now been cancelled and pushed to an undefined later date, but only in order to incorporate ideas from the city’s parallel design competition on the viaducts. Awards for the best ideas will be announced on Dec. 1.

City planner Brent Toderian said there are some themes coming forward among the designs in the competition that might be included, like ideas about including water features in this former tidal-flats area.

Ultimately, though, it’s the detailed planning being done by the city and its consultants that is setting the stage for what use to make of the 4.8 hectares that are under and around the viaducts.

The city plans are looking at how the land could be used under several different scenarios: leaving the viaducts as is; altering the eastern end to bring them down to street level at Main; closing one viaduct or another; keeping the viaducts but converting them to other, non-car uses.

“Council could decide to make it open space. It could be social housing. It could be rental housing,” said Mr. Toderian. “And, if it’s sold, it may not all be to one developer.”

A previous engineering report had said closing both viaducts – they’re 822 and 670 metres in length – if council chose that option, would not be feasible for at least 15 years. That’s because better transit and alternative truck and car routes would need to be put in place.

The city owns almost all of the land under and around the viaducts – 4.1 hectares – and Concord Pacific owns the small amount remaining. That’s about half the size of the Olympic Village site.

There’s been a perception among some that the proposal to tear down the viaducts is some kind of giveaway to Concord Pacific, the mega-developer that has built thousands of units on the former industrial land of False Creek since Expo 86.

But since the city owns most of the land, the real question is what it could do with that land, if the viaducts were fully or partially removed, that’s of most value.

Even if the city did nothing but alter the eastern end of the viaducts to bring them down at Main Street, something that its engineering consultants said would be easy to do immediately, that would free up two huge blocks of city land next to Chinatown that could be developed into housing – what that land was used for before the viaducts were built.

The city’s detailed land-use planning with Perkins + Will has been proceeding quietly – so quietly that even Vision Councillor Geoff Meggs, who has been seen as the public champion of reconsidering the viaducts’ future, was surprised to hear it was going on.

Mr. Meggs said he’s waiting to hear about the design-competition winners Dec. 1 and how the planning department will mesh those ideas with its existing consultation.

But, he said, it’s clear to him that the public will not support doing anything different with the viaducts unless they’re persuaded that there won’t be a negative impact on transportation or that it isn’t just a bonus for some developer.

But, most important, he said, “Not a lot of people are very interested if there isn’t a big benefit to the public.”

That benefit could be more open space or more affordable housing.

Mr. Meggs said some of the stakeholders in the area – landowners like Concord Pacific and Aquilini Developments – as well as neighbourhood groups need to get involved in the debate about the viaducts’ future.

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The next Yaletown?

The next Yaletown?.

The next Yaletown?

A dramatic redesign plan approved by city council and opposed by some neighbourhood residents will change Marpole, a working class community of 23,000, forever

Marpole, looking south on Granville Street near 70th Avenue.

Photograph by: Dan Toulgoet, Vancouver Courier

If you walk, bike, bus or drive south down Granville Street and cross West 57th Avenue, you enter the neighbourhood of Marpole, an easygoing, unpretentious working class and immigrant community of 23,000 people.

The area is bounded by Angus Street to the west, Ontario Street to the east, and the Fraser River to the south. At 64th Avenue, Marpole’s “downtown” begins, a strip of coffee shops, restaurants, banks, physiotherapists, and clothing stores. Then, as you reach 70th Avenue, you come to Marpole’s “anchor tenant,” a small, older Safeway grocery store and liquor store, sitting back from a mid-sized parking lot.

It won’t be small for long. Last May 3, after some political wrangling, city council approved the rezoning and redevelopment of the property. Safeway and its developer, Westbank Properties, can proceed with the building of the new 50,000-square-foot Safeway (up from 33,000 sq. ft.), a 6,000-sq.-ft. liquor store, some smaller commercial and office units, and the three proposed multi-family highrise and townhouse units on the site. The boldest feature will be a 16-storey residential (scaled back from 24 storeys in the original plan), a startling departure within an area of mainly three-storey apartment buildings.

In fact, most of Marpole is changing too. Riding a bicycle further down Granville as it becomes Southwest Marine Drive, you pass the former Fraser Arms pub site, soon to be a 5,695-sq.-ft. cold beer and wine store. Past the Metro Theatre, then the Motel Nightclub, you arrive at Marpole bus loop under the Arthur Laing Bridge, which connects Vancouver to Richmond’s airport.

Across the road at Hudson Street is a plan for another big condo development, amongst other recent ones. Then, as the drive curves to the left, you see a rezoning application sign outside the Coast Hotel and White Spot: architect Robert Turecki is applying to add six storeys to the hotel with 76 dwelling units.

Riding down Marine past Oak Street, with low rent apartments on your left and Denny’s and Canadian Tire on your right, you eventually arrive at Cambie Street and the grand finale of the Marpole redesign tour: The city-approved 825,000-sq.-ft. Marine Gateway Project at the Canada Line SkyTrain station-two residential towers (the tallest being 335 feet) with more than 450 units and an 11-screen cinema, food and drug stores, all within the fragrance of the nearby city transfer station.

Sleepy old Marpole is changing fast. Higher density boosters say that the 1979 Marpole community plan is woefully out-of-date, and with an average 7,000 people moving to Vancouver every year, new housing is urgently needed. The 1995 City Plan also urged higher densities.

Yet others like Marpole just the way it was, arguing it didn’t really “lack” anything (besides a larger library), is not a “stagnant” region that needs to be “energized,” and should stay as a 1950s-style oasis from the booming high-rise development and pricey condo gentrification in the rest of the city.

It’s also not widely known that Marpole has much unseen poverty and a church foodbank that feeds 300 people a week. Some seniors who have lived for decades on a fixed income in apartments-with the lowest rents in Vancouver after the East Side-fear steep rent increases and have a heavy foreboding of Marpole being gradually transformed into a new Yaletown or West End.

The debates over exactly what the Safeway, Gateway and other approved Marpole highrise projects could or should have been are academic by now, for they have all been approved and construction is set to begin. The main questions now are the overall future of Marpole, of what these projects’ influence (if any) may be upon the area, and whose voices will count the most.

Gudrun Langolf is fighting against any potential development boom. The president of the Marpole-Oakridge Area Council Society, which runs Marpole Place, has lived in the area since 1985, and now helps to rally residents who have generally been, until now, politically quiet.

The Safeway project was their main rallying point. “Safeway is such a drastic change,” said Langolf. “The folks that have stopped to talk to me about it, my neighbours, are unanimous that it’s far too high and too dense. I don’t think developers are evil, necessarily, but they shouldn’t run the show. Reasonable profits like seven per cent are alright, but not 20 per cent. And there is a responsibility of city hall to find the right balance.”

When the city hosted the first public meeting at Marpole Place about the planned development in September 2010, it was reported that not one resident out of an estimated 200 attendees stood up to voice approval of the rezoning application during the question and answer period.

In December, Henriquez Partners Architects said it would reduce the tallest tower from 24 storeys down to 16, and 357 new dwelling units will be built amongst the three buildings, 31 of them rental units, down from a previously proposed 172. They expected a one-bedroom would rent for $1,075 a month, a two-bedroom for $1,677.

A keen supporter of the Safeway project is Claudia Laroye, executive director of the Marpole Business Association. “The BIA believes that the future viability of the Marpole commercial district (and its 200 members) is closely linked to the future success and viability of the Marpole Safeway,” she told the Courier.

Yet the Safeway project’s impact on local merchants remains to be seen. Langolf predicts that many small businesses near Safeway will see their rents increase. She also worries their property taxes will rise and that even with a larger customer base, they won’t make up the difference and survive.

Laroye isn’t concerned about such potentialities. “In relation to rents and property values, the Marpole BIA cannot say what the impacts will actually be. We can estimate that positive commercial redevelopments bring pressures for other property owners to spruce up properties, and potentially raise rents. However, they can only raise rents in so far as the market will bear it, and if they can find good-quality tenants with solid business plans.”

She also “cannot speculate at this time” on what percentage of new customers the Marpole merchants may gain after the new Safeway opens.

Opponents have complained the Safeway project will bring too few amenities, and that Marpole also needs a new community centre. There is also discussion on what to do with the tiny, overcrowded 1974 Richard Marpole library, across from Safeway. Laroye urges that, although enlarged, it should remain near its current place, and while it unfortunately could not fit in the Safeway project, “we believe that a new location, potentially even more suitable, will be found in the very near future.”

Critics also note that the corner of Granville and 70th Avenue is already a traffic bottleneck that will only get worse with the Safeway project, especially after Translink cancelled the 98 B-Line bus.

The question of where the elderly will buy food and medication when the Safeway is closed for three years of construction was also raised. Langolf said the Safeway pharmacy will temporarily relocate to 68th Avenue and Granville. The BIA says Safeway is considering a shuttle service for Marpole customers several times a day to its Oakridge Safeway store. (Safeway officials did not reply to interview requests.)

Opinions differ on whether the Safeway project will set the development benchmark for the rest of Marpole. Brent Toderian, the city’s director of planning, asserted that the 16-storey tower wouldn’t be “precedent setting.”

Asked if the same level of Safeway and Gateway density could spread over Marpole, Matt Shillito, the city’s assistant director of planning, replied, “That’s not a remotely likely outcome. I don’t see any planning logic to that. And Gateway was done in the context of the Cambie corridor community plan.”

The key question remaining is the impact on housing. What happens to low-rent apartments in South Vancouver sandwiched between Cambie and Granville streets? As land values rise, will this result in rent hikes, or even renovations and evictions?

Langolf believes rents will surely rise. “Pressures will be huge,” said Langolf. “We hear that these apartments are ‘old stock’ and should be torn down-that’s wrong.”

“These are well built walkups, for families,” adds Langolf. “But there’s a new brisk trade in what I call ‘renovictions’ by holding companies.”

Shillito offers reassurances: “Retaining the stock of affordable rental housing and expanding it is one of council’s highest priorities, and we have policies in place for that.” Moreover, he adds, in the law of supply and demand, low vacancies usually lead to higher rents, and visa versa, and therefore, “increasing the types and amounts of housing that are now in short supply does help to moderate prices, even if they are market development.”

Laroye agrees. “The Marpole BIA would not support the loss of our existing rental housing stock, as it offers an important housing option for families, students and seniors,” she said, adding that the existing rental stock of these four-storey walk-ups south of 70th Avenue is protected by a ‘rate of change’ bylaw passed by the city. These apartments may not be converted into condos, nor redeveloped in a way that may displace existing tenants. Owners may renovate apartments as they become vacated, and rent them out to new tenants, but they may not evict existing tenants and do a wholesale building changeover.

Langolf countered that may be true, but some building owners, without breaking any laws, are finding ways to force tenants out by simply making it too unpleasant for them to stay.

The very complex and contentious process of urban planning is itself under scrutiny. Some complained that renters were not fully notified of meetings, and that city planners are generally too sympathetic to developers. Furthermore, Vancouver’s former assistant director of planning, Trish French, called on the city to develop a comprehensive area plan with the community before any significant redevelopment such as Safeway was approved. COPE Coun. Ellen Woodsworth, who will no longer be on council as of Dec. 5 when a new council is sworn in, concurs: “I was very concerned we would proceed, when there was no area plan in place. We were supposed to have one in place last fall.” The resulting problem is a kind of ad hoc “spot rezoning.”

Laroye was content with the process: “We believe that the developer and the architect worked hard to inform stakeholder groups and individuals.”

Shillito, Woodsworth and Laroye all say the 1979 Marpole plan is outdated and needs revision. But Langolf disagrees. “There’s nothing wrong with that plan, and I’m worried that good parts of it might disappear. It’s served us well until now. We had the same growth as the West End, and we absorbed it without serious problems.”

The city process of creating new community plans for Grandview-Woodland, the West End/downtown and Marpole began Oct. 15 with a private, invitation-only workshop of local “stakeholders” to set the terms of reference. After council approves the terms, there will be public meetings in the new year.

Only COPE councillors David Cadman and Woodsworth voted against the Safeway Marpole project, as they echoed residents’ concerns about heights, a lack of adequate community amenities and traffic congestion. Vision Coun. Geoff Meggs said the Safeway project is good on balance (but he still wishes it had more rental housing), and he doesn’t expect it to cause any increase in local rental rates. Vision Coun. Heather Deal said she voted for the Safeway development because “it’s a reasonable project, but we should have consulted earlier and more fully on it.” She added there may soon be funding for a new community centre.

Woodsworth concluded: “The developers are laughing all the way to the bank. They don’t even give enough amenities for existing needs.”

The election is over, and planning consultation will soon begin. But regardless of its outcome, Marpole will never be the same again.


Marpole, looking south on Granville Street near 70th Avenue.

Photograph by: Dan Toulgoet, Vancouver Courier

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Housing for Jardins de L’Arche from Dezeen:


Arguably better with all the modern conveniences of air con, running water and Louis Vuitton.

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