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In your touring urban architecture exhibition “Vancouverism: Architecture Builds the City” (shown in London, Paris and Vancouver to date) there are more buildings by Westbank than any other developer. Why?

In that exhibition I looked long and hard at the last 20 years of urban development in Vancouver, and very quickly the Westbank projects rose to the top – because of their innovation and investment in top quality architecture. One example of this is the Shaw Tower, harbour-side at the foot of Thurlow Street. I think James Cheng’s architecture took a major step up with this design (and with the Residences on Georgia for Westbank, which preceded it.) I think Jim will be the first one to confirm that innovative, quality design comes from being given latitude and support from the client.

In terms of its building program, the Shaw Tower’s particular blend of functions are a breath of fresh air. By the end of the 1990’s, Vancouver had not built much in the way of office space for many years, and many of us had started worrying about the evolution of our formerly diverse live and work downtown towards singularly high end residential – a resort. Vancouver’s desirability has made it a place to park global hot money in residential real estate, but there has been disturbingly little investment in new workspaces on the downtown peninsula, and a downtown given over solely to high end condos confounds our sustainable planning goals, is deadly socially and culturally, and will inevitably compromise Vancouver’s long-term economic prospects in a post-industrial economy. Westbank’s solution for Shaw was highly innovative in its place and time, with the lower 18 stories being offices, surmounted by a tall condo tower that exploits terrific harbour and North Shore mountain views from its elevated base. So downtown Vancouver got a rare and significant supply of new office space in a very desirable location (our city’s difficult reality is that top businesses want to be in the very same locales as homes for its richest residents) with condos above, superior landmark status architecture, and a major public art component, to boot.

In a nutshell, what does Westbank do differently?

If I had to give Ian Gillespie a generic job description, it would be “City-Builder.” I think he is deeply interested in shaping cities – in their economic, social and artistic dimensions. He’s interested in the kind of cultural, personable and symbolic nature of developments, over and above being rentable square footage for sale. Gillespie has developed a sixth sense about the city as an ongoing cultural and social project, and makes money when he sees patterns and futures that others miss. This is what sets him apart from nearly all of his development industry colleagues here.

How would you describe the culture of development in Vancouver?

Over the past half century, Vancouver has evolved a very clever and very advanced urban development community. The least capable, the most schleppy of our developers would be stars and innovators in any other North American city. Because of Vancouver’s civic culture of regulation (clear and cogent planning rules make smart developers), and even more because of our outrageously high land prices, you have to be pretty smart, savvy and coherent to make it as a developer here. Even within that talented, overachieving cohort, Westbank sticks out. Ian Gillespie (through Westbank) and Ben Yeung (through the linked Peterson Investment Group) are often ahead of the market, anticipating where things are going.

For example, when the office space was first proposed for the Shaw Tower a lot of their peers thought Westbank was crazy, because financial returns on downtown Vancouver housing at that time were five times those for office space. So, if Shaw’s first 18 storeys had been more condos, they could have generated a lot more money than workspaces. Many people thought they had missed an opportunity, or had let our aggressive planners (under attack from critics like me and Bing Thom for encouraging the “resortification” of downtown) talk him into something ill-advised. I don’t think this is true, even ten years on, as the Shaw Tower has become the home base of Western Canada’s most important entrepreneur, Jimmy Pattison, and that returns on the office portion are better than anticipated. Still, it is telling that Shaw is Westbank’s only office project downtown until the TELUS project is completed in a few years, and even it – headquarters for a national corporation – tellingly includes significantly more residential than office space.

Truly enlightened developers need to be a little ahead of the market, and a herd mentality in their profession is a recipe for disaster, especially in volatile times – two examples of this are our leaky condo tragedy, or the Japanese, then American, and now currently the Canadian and Chinese real estate bubbles. Urban real estate developers cannot be so far ahead of the market they lose their shirts, but they are obliged to anticipate change. I think Vancouver developers who came to the fore in the 80ʼs, and 90ʼs tended too conservative as soon as they started making reliable money, ceaselessly cranking the handle of the same ‘skinny tower on townhouse podium’ prototype they had initially resisted – when city planners under Larry Beasley imposed it on them in the 1990ʼs. By 2000, things had become rote, and too much of Vancouver’s development industry (including the planners themselves, who had become far too cosy with the real estate industry) had become blinded with self-praise, not truly innovating anymore. In this context of closed-loop self-praise, Westbank stands out.

All this is not to say that Westbank gets it right every time, but usually they are just far enough ahead of the curve that they benefit from the evolution of the city. In the end, city-building is a designed product that must evolve and innovate (Westbank as design-centred Apple Corporation), not the generic ‘by-the-square-foot’ commodity it has recently become in Vancouver (the more chary developers are more similar to Microsoft.)

Is Woodward’s an example of changing perceptions?

Woodward’s is socially and urbanistically a very complex deal. A lot of Ian and Ben’s colleagues thought they should have their heads examined to take it on after several previous developers had given up there. Frankly, the financial upside of Woodward’s is tiny or non-existent. I don’t know how much money Westbank/Peterson made on it, whether they broke even or not, but I think in the long haul Ian Gillespie did it for other reasons. Someone needed to step forward for this crucial hinge site between the poorest and richest sectors of the city, when no one else could or would, and Jim Green had already been working to catalyze things for a decade.

I think Ian and Bob Rennie’s marketing slogan for Woodward’s – “Be bold or move to suburbia” – was very clever. In other words, if you can’t deal with other classes of citizens, social housing, addiction and poverty, then maybe you don’t really like central cities, so bungalows on the outskirts might just be fine for you. Their other marketing catchphrase for Woodward’s was that it is an “intellectual property.” This referred to the SFU university component, cultural agencies such as the National film Board, plus creative/community art organizations like W2s all lodged in the same building. Gregory Henriquez’ architecture here is perfunctory on the budget he had to work with, but the social and programmatic mission of Woodward’s is so much more important than its visual impact. Ian Gillespie painstakingly worked with three levels of government, a university, major retailers and a raft of community organizations to make the Woodward’s deal – it is almost certainly the most complex contract in the history of Canadian real estate. More than bricks and mortar, the business acumen that built that deal is the real masterpiece here, not its rather dull bricks and mortar. Prospective buyers were given the feeling from Gillespie (via Rennie) they were investing in something that was edgy, emerging, and full of ideas. And again, those wanting a generic condo tower, should go elsewhere.

What about the public art components of Westbankʼs projects?

It can be argued that psychologically Ian does everything that he does because he wants to collect art personally and be a patron of public art commissions. He will often start talking about a new project in terms of what public artist he’s hired. I will have to pull him back to tell me the basic form and purpose of a project – who is the architect, the market and so on, rather than the art that will embellish it. It’s like he goes right to the gravy without making the roast. There is no doubt that commissioning art is a major component of Ian’s motivation as a developer. I don’t always agree with his choices (the Chihuly glass box on Residences on Georgia for one example) To date, Gillespie has been a better patron of architecture (breakthrough projects for Cheng and Henriquez) than as a patron of truly innovative contemporary art, but this could change with more experience and knowledge of the art world.

What keeps Ian and Westbank grounded?

Ian’s origins are a lot more modest than most people think. A lot of us had him pegged as a West Van brat with lots of inherited money, but that’s not really true. He’s built the value of the company through leveraging hard work and original ideas, not through having deep pockets of his own.

I think that Ben Yeung (whose Peterson Investment Group is a crucial part of many Westbank development projects) is generally underestimated as a player in Westbank’s success. I do think that he and Ian are a kind of superior team – they are the Lennon and McCartney, the Rogers and Hammerstein of Vancouver urban development. They have different skills and are stronger together than either would be individually. The conventional wisdom is that Ben is the money and the sober second thought. Or, that Ben is the governor, who circumscribes Ian’s impulsive intuition, but I don’t think it’s that simple. If Ben was mainly a conservative money guy, Westbank wouldn’t be producing the kind of projects they already have in their portfolio.

Other investors trust Ben, and in particular, the combination of Ben’s expertise with Ian’s. The secret of successful real estate development is leveraging – through trust and example – your own money with a lot more money from many others. When both Ben and Ian get excited about a project, it usually has legs. When a bold notion like Woodward’s or Shangri-La comes along, they have the ability to build confidence amongst lenders at every stage of the process – nothing gets built without this confidence, the financial engine of contemporary urban development.