Rumours about the death of Vancouver’s high-end real estate market may be exaggerated.
Several new highrise developments are in the works for downtown. And many are high-end projects being designed by internationally renowned “starchitects.”A rezoning application was recently posted at 1075 Nelson for a 60-storey tower designed by British architect Tom Wright. Wright achieved fame for the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, a “striking sail-shaped building” that bills itself as “the world’s most luxurious hotel.” Now the American architectural giant SOM has been tapped to do a 375-foot tower at 1650 Alberni St. SOM designed the world’s tallest building — the Burj Khalifa — in Dubai. It also designed the Freedom Tower on the World Trade Center site in New York, the tallest building in North America.The SOM building is one of four towers being planned on Alberni by Landa Global Properties. Two buildings were designed by the famed New York architect Robert Stern, in an art deco style. The towers will be 43 and 48 storeys, and include 451 “luxury residences.”
The other Landa building, 1818 Alberni, was designed by local architect Foad Rafii and will be 21 storeys. It will be a boutique building with 36 “private residences,” restricted to two per floor. Landa’s CEO Kevin Cheung said the Stern towers will be a “billion-dollar project,” the SOM building will be $500 million and 1818 Alberni will probably be around $250 million. Add them up and Landa is looking at $1.75 billion in buildings for one street. But with the current downturn in the local market, Cheung isn’t sure how much they will sell for. “That’s a great question,” he said. “The downtown luxury market, or tower market, hasn’t really been proven for quite a while now. The only project that’s currently selling is Davie and Nicola, and they’re going for around $1,900 a foot.”
Nonetheless, Landa plans to press ahead. “We’re dedicated long-term to Vancouver,” said Cheung, the Vancouver-raised scion of a prominent Shanghai real estate family. “We already have our rezoning on 1488 (Alberni, the Stern project). We’re constantly talking with the city on the rezoning process of 1650, the design, the look, so everything is moving ahead in the pipeline.”
Heritage expert Don Luxton said it typically takes seven years for a big tower to go through the planning and building stages in Vancouver. So developers like Landa are looking long-term.“Just because (high-end condos are) temporarily not selling doesn’t mean that people don’t understand there to be a market,” said Luxton. “And they are anticipating the market to come back. That’s pretty clear.”
The new towers are part of an ongoing boom that is dramatically changing Vancouver’s skyline. The city allowed for higher towers on Alberni/Georgia and the Burrard corridor in its West End plan, and developers swooped in. Land prices in the rezoned areas went through the roof. A property search showed Landa purchased the 132×132-foot site at 1650 Alberni for $130 million in April 2018. It sold in 2006 for $11.64 million. Landa purchased the 264.4×131-foot site at 1444 Alberni and 711 Broughton in April 2016 for $130 million, which had sold for $62.625 million two years earlier.
The 1075 Nelson site raised eyebrows in 2016, when Ian Young of the South China Morning Post discovered it had been flipped three times in three years, selling for $16.8 million in 2013, $60 million and finally $68 million. Given the high prices paid for the land, the towers will have to be high end to make money, although the city has negotiated to have some rental units included in the projects. There will be 129 rentals in the Stern buildings, which go to a Development Permit Board meeting May 27. The rezoning proposal for 1075 Nelson includes 323 market condos, 113 social housing units and 49 rentals, and can be viewed at a community open house on May 28 from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Sutton Place Hotel (845 Burrard).=
One common feature of the new wave of towers is they all look different, even when they’re built by the same developer. “We’re not going to do anything like a cookie cutter, or a specific look,” said Cheung. “Each site is unique, in the sense. On the Stern project we had a larger site where we can really pull off the look and feel (of the art deco design). “We thought it was unique, and different. Vancouver really didn’t have that, a more classical building. It definitely stands out from the glass towers that are in the city.” The design for the SOM building is still being finalized. But Cheung said it “will be more sculptural in its nature, but in a glass form.”Wright’s design for 1075 Nelson is an elegant building that features a couple of gentle curves. It also has trees or greenery in the middle. Rick Gregory of Henson Developments said the design was inspired by “the idea of the first meeting of the Europeans and the First Nations.” “(Wright) was looking at the downtown peninsula, including Stanley Park, and seeing that there was water on the Burrard Inlet side and water on the False Creek side and trees in the middle,” said Gregory.“That’s how he thought communications would have gone at the beginning, in terms of describing the geography, so that’s really where it stemmed from. He had some wavy patterns on both sides of some trees, and so he put that up on the edge vertically. The building sits on a block where four new towers will be built, including Westbank’s acclaimed Butterfly building, designed by the late Bing Thom. Units in the Butterfly have reportedly sold for up to $4,000 a square foot.
Luxton thinks Vancouver was “long overdue” for some fresh designs by international architects. But he isn’t sure if they stick around long enough to understand their buildings in a local context. “It’s fine to come and drop some kind of building form on the site, but that’s not really what’s important,” he said. “It’s most important how it meets the ground, what it does for the street, how it fits in. These are all important things to understand. “Is there a lot of context to them? Not really. Is it a bad thing? I don’t know. It certainly isn’t going to help anybody who’s concerned about affordability. They’re for the elite, pure and simple.”
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