Dialogue

Back to Dialogue

The new urbanism design concepts and practices acclaimed as “the Vancouver model” (developed under your leadership at the City of Vancouver) are today aspired for internationally. How does Westbank’s work fit into this?

Westbank has had a very significant influence on Vancouver. The company, among five or six other companies, was in the vanguard of establishing a very high quality of urban design in their projects, at a time when the City itself was articulating a top priority for stronger urban design and really pushing for it through the negotiations and approval processes.

With Westbank, negotiations on design were never very difficult negotiations because Ian, as an individual leader and the people in the company generally, really did understand what we were trying to achieve as a city and they also understood the principles of good design. More importantly they understood the business and economic benefits to them of quality or high design and really used fine design as a part of the brand of the company. So, the combination of their natural inclination to do sophisticated work with the City’s desire for that by making sure that the regulatory framework was flexible enough to achieve all of those objectives simply meant that the relationship between Westbank and the City was very much a collaboration, project after project.

There was a lot of synergy and mutual understanding. Many times Westbank would come forward with ideas and find people at City Hall who understood what they were trying to achieve and who would join with them to try and do it. And there were other times when we would explain what we were trying to achieve at the City and Westbank would say “yes, we understand that” and they would see how they could adjust their projects to move forward with us. As the Director of Planning, I worked in an environment where that was not always the case. With many other companies and development groups there was not as much of an understanding, dedication or commitment; it was more of a struggle.

Now that you’re working well beyond Vancouver, have you seen examples of where Westbank’s portfolio has influenced other developers or planners in other cities?

Yes, for example in Dallas where I am currently consulting. Westbank’s projects are the kinds of projects that I bring forward as examples, because they are actually quite simpatico in scale and personality with what we are trying to achieve in Dallas via work in the new urban design studio that I founded. This has also been true in the work I have been doing in Abu Dhabi and in educational and advisory work I have been doing in places such as Auckland, Rotterdam, Ottawa and in other Canadian cities.

Additionally, in many places where I work, I long to have a development firm like Westbank in the equation. Or frankly, sometimes I wish Ian himself was in the equation because oftentimes, particularly in American cities, it’s a huge struggle to help people understand the connection between fine urban design and business benefits. It’s not just a question of offering benefits to the community or to the collective commonwealth of the community, but it’s equally beneficial from a financial point of view, for the developer.

A developer mindset of “the lowest common denominator for the highest profit” is fairly widespread in America and to get out of that syndrome – to fully understand that as you integrate good design and good city building into your own projects you enhance the value of those projects – is something that development communities elsewhere haven’t learned yet, or are just learning. In addition to that, when the economy is a little soft, a number of companies fall back on old solutions – corporate models that worked for them before, or those which are related to their branding – and the tailored benefits of design don’t always come to the fore. I’d never expect Westbank to do that. It’s just not in the culture of the company, or in Ian himself as the leader of the company and this is something that a lot of companies need to learn. In fact Westbank and Ian could really benefit other development communities by getting out there and telling their story and explaining their philosophy.

In terms of Westbank’s work, how does the concept of artistry fit in?

I think it’s quite an appropriate term for expressing the aspirations of the company and not just in reference to public art. In the practice of development that Westbank exemplifies, public art is an expectation, but it’s a minimum expectation. The real expectations are that they bring an architectural artistry to the building itself, that they have a very sophisticated sense of the artistry of community or neighbourhood building, streetscaping and the public dimensions of a building, and how all of those components come together in the project.

Artistry goes as deep as how Westbank integrates uses into a building. In an environment where there is a tendency to do single-use buildings, Westbank’s buildings are always quite complex – they’re functionally artistic you might say. A Westbank project is almost always mixed-use hotels with residential rentals; condos with retail. It’s all kinds of things mixed together in a creative way that’s not often achieved by developers who are just trying to hit a typical program; one they’ve come to see success in, in the past.

It seems to me that the Westbank team looks at a site, looks at the circumstances, looks at the timing in which it’s working and then says, “Okay how can we add to what we build within this context and put the dots together in such a way that we, as a company, achieve more than what some other people might achieve?”

Now, they’ve been fortunate in Vancouver, because it has been a buoyant marketplace so the kind of experimentation that they do has generally been rewarded. In that market consumers understand the benefits of mixed uses as well. In some places I work, particularly in America but also elsewhere in Canada, the consumer will shy away from going into a mixed-use building because they don’t understand the benefits as users or as investors in the building. In Vancouver there is a widespread sophistication and acceptance for the kinds of buildings that Westbank builds. In other markets, Westbank’s artistry of uses and mixes would be more challenging. But I don’t think it would change the inclination of Westbank to do this kind of work; they would just have to think about it in a more clever way. And in fact their level of artistry would probably position Ian’s projects in almost any market better than other projects.

Westbank and Ian understand that if you look at the best inclinations of the consumer and tap into those, you will tap into markets that few other developers have touched. A really good example – and Westbank has been with the vanguard of companies in Vancouver to do this – was to design housing at high density for families with children. We now know, because the City has recently done the numbers in Vancouver, that today, 25% of high density housing is being used by families with small children and teenagers, which is exactly what our target was back in 1990 when we began this. Westbank was among the companies that recognized that this vision wasn’t a socialist myth, but was a genuine marketplace and economic opportunity, a way to broaden out a market for high density housing beyond the young singles and empty nesters that would normally make up that market to now include a huge number of other people who could become their customers.

And of the future, for Westbank?

I think that Westbank’s legacy to date has set a very high standard for itself and people in Vancouver have very high expectations for the firm’s next projects. This offers Ian and his management team a huge challenge to continue to diversify their uniqueness of offerings and specialness in order to stay in the vanguard. They are not the only company in Vancouver that is exploring all of these really good ideas, tapping into new markets and making the city different and identifiable around the world.

While it’s easy to comment on Westbank’s portfolio because the work is there to either criticize or celebrate – and Westbank’s work, as I know it, is there to celebrate – this vision of artistry has to stay as the principle and primary objective of the company, both in terms of how Westbank wishes to express itself to the community and in ways that will allow the team to continue to open up untapped markets.