Business & Economy
September 8, 2009

Mixed blessings

I don’t usually do a lot of postings on Vancouver’s real-estate market since it’s a favoured topic in so many other places.  But Tom Durning passed along a post from a Portland blogger who picked up on an interesting anomaly:

During this “Great Recession,” property values and employment rates have been declining across North America, with my hometown having one of the worst unemployment rates in the US.

“[‘s] office market has logged seven building transactions this year capped off by Germany-based Deka Immobilien’s recent $263 million purchase of Bentall V, a 33-story tower in the heart of the city’s district. Just as impressive, prices have held up well. By contrast, only five office properties valued at $5 million or more have sold in Manhattan in the first two quarters of this year, and average prices paid are off 32%, according to Real Capital Analytics, a New York-based real-estate research firm.”

Nevertheless, Wall Street Journal reported that ’s property market is remarkably robust.

The writer goes on to discuss our residential market:

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You can now see Eagleridge Bluff – what’s left of it – at a hundred kilometres an hour.   As you depart the Upper Levels Highway through West Vancouver and start the turn on to the Sea-to-Sky Highway, don’t blink.

The bluff was the site of the a major protest (sit-ins! camp-outs! arrests!) back in 2006 when the Minister of Highways, Kevin Falcon, rejected the option of a tunnel under the bluffs for what he claimed was the cheaper, safer option of a cut. 

The Minister, of course, prevailed, and the highway now takes an exquisitely graded curve through the centre of the much-blasted bluff.

For something under a billion dollars, we now have a finely engineered four-lane, high-speed route to Squamish and beyond – a wonderful testament to the art and engineering of the 20th-century road builder.

The upgraded highway really is a pleasure to drive.  One can take in the views without the anxiety of a head-on crash with some exhausted, bleery skier from Whistler.

The scale of the roadway, however, is so grand that the view I saw from  the bluff, pre-dynamite, is missed because of the sweep of the curve going south.

You can grab a look of English Bay, Point Grey and the islands in Georgia Straight with a fast turn of the head to the right. 

It’s all so ironic.  Justified for the Olympics – the most sustainable ever! – the Sea-to-Sky is an expensive gesture for a world fast departing: one where there was an endless supply of cheap and secure oil, where carbon had no apparent consequence, and the car was the only realistic form of transportation.

One good consequence, though.  One of the leaders of the protest – Trish Panz – went on to win a seat on the West Vancouver Council in the subsequent election.

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My latest column in Business in Vancouver:

Hard to dig Ottawa’s shovel-ready spending

A lot of money is suddenly going to be spent on “shovel-ready” infrastructure. The question is: what kind of hole are we digging?

There’s a battle underway for the hearts and budgets of the decision-makers to shift spending priorities.

Some argue to go green, others for more traditional approaches. One pretty good indication of who prevails will be the comparative amounts spent on new roads and bridges versus transit and alternatives.

Will government continue facilitating more of what we’ve been doing for the last half century: high-energy, low-density development designed around the car and truck? There’s a huge constituency in favour – an alliance that in the 1920s called itself “Motordom.” Auto clubs, car dealers, vehicle manufacturers, road builders, truckers and transportation departments – they’d prefer the world to unfold as it has: more pavement, more cars, more economic activity, more car dependence.

At this time of writing, it doesn’t look all that promising for those calling for more public transit, alternative energy solutions and less sprawl.

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February 3, 2009

Lots of commentary these days on the need for spending on infrastructure.  Here’s one.

But they all say more or less the same thing: we’re falling behind, and it’s going to be expensive.  Upgrading water and sewer lines, fixing bridges, extending broadband service – all familiar stuff. 

And while I’m sceptical about the numbers (prepared by those most likely to benefit), I have no doubt that it’s more than we’ve been budgeting.  But something is missing from the litany. Namely, that the bill is coming due for the cost of sprawl. 

We have been blessed, these past two or three generations, by a combination of circumstances that have made possible the most comfortable and affluent way  of life human beings have been fortunate enough to experience – at least those of us in this part of the world.

After World War II, in particular, we were able to access vast quantities of land, water, energy, money and technology, sufficent to build our urban regions at a scale never previously seen at a price that made the single-family house and automobile accessible to the average working person. 

So good were we at building the suburbs (and let’s give government credit for providing in abundance the essential ingredients), that we assumed we could emphasize growth and expansion over maintenance and reinvestment. 

I should note, as someone who sat on a city council, that in fact municipalities in B.C. are pretty good at maintenance: we replace, for instance, one percent of our sewer and water lines every year, and incorporate those expenditures into our capital plans.

Nonetheless, we have probably overbuilt what we are able to afford, at least in the current circumstances.  So should we now borrow even more money to finance sprawl-inducing infrastructure in order to use up even more extravagantly the land, water and energy which are still the essentials for civilization? 

Of course, that’s not the way the question will be asked.

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Economists talk about ‘clustering’ – the concentration of companies in a similar field.  A computer cluster, on the other hand, is “a group of linked computers, working together closely so that in many respects they form a single computer.”

Brad Danks at Out TV sends along an illustration both literal and metaphorical: “the most amazing map that the Washington Technology Institute has put together about the corporate development of tech companies in Washington State.”

Check it out here.

Brad thinks we should do something similar for the film/TV/videogame/new media biz in Vancouver.

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January 20, 2009

We’re in a crumple.

William Watson coined the word in a Sun column last week:

A bubble, as we have all learned, is a run-up in prices going beyond anything that reasonable economic calculation can justify….

But here’s where I find all the bad news encouraging. If social contagion and information cascades can carry us all off to manic highs, presumably they can also drive us down to unwarranted lows…

In effect, we’re in a negative bubble. (I think of a negative bubble as “a crumple.”) We’re quickly talking ourselves into depression. We’ve gone from the subprime to the ridiculous, you might say.

Why do I find this encouraging? Because a crumple is no more reasonable or justified than the bubble was. And because it may turn around just as quickly.

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At least the Olympic Village will get built.  In Dubai and other real-estate hotspots around the world, the dominoes are falling, along with the public offerings.  Like the $100-billion Jumeirah Gardens development, with One Dubai as its centrepiece: 

More here in Der Spiegel:

The international economic crisis has caught up with the nouveau-riche high flyers in the Middle East and Asia who, until recently, had gloatingly watched the collapse of the West, where one skyscraper project after the next has been abandoned. But now the brakes are also being put on one construction project after another in Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

And here’s a sample of the fantasies that were being pedalled up until just a few weeks ago.

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December 16, 2008

I grabbed a B-Line on Saturday down to Richmond for the opening of the Big O:

The Richmond Olympic Oval will be the most significant purpose-built legacy of the 2010 Games.   It’s certainly Richmond’s pride and joy.  First impression: it has the size, scale and look of an airport terminal – kind of appropriate for the nearest Olympic location to YVR. 

Second impression: at a half-million square feet without a column, it feels even bigger on the inside.

Too big, in fact.  The space is so vast, it has no embrace.  That may be fine for the actual speed-skating competition when thousands of cheering spectators will fill the oval; not so good for day-to-day use.  Fortunately it will be cut up into multiple uses afterwards – hopefully done with finesse. 

The roof is, of course, the dominant design element – and the extensive use of wood gives it some needed warmth.  Hard to tell in some places, though, whether the effect is purposeful or simply unfinished:

The architects of the Oval were  Cannon Johnston Architecture Inc. – something not mentioned in the explanatory brochure handed out on opening day, nor, believe it or not, on the Oval’s web site under “architecture.”

They do name the artists and their works – particularly Susan Point’s Coast Salish themed water-collectors on the buttresses:

And the Water Sky Gardens – a collaborative effort between Janet Echelman, Phillips, Fareraag, Smallenberg Landscape Architecture, and the Cannon Design Team.


The ads for opening day advised spectators to arrive by transit, foot or bike, given the limited parking.  I took transit to Aberdeen and then cycled to the Oval, only to find they had not provided a single bike rack, at least that I could find, at either entrance.

The Oval touts its sustainability (it will be a LEED Silver building).  But I find it hard to take such sentiments seriously when an organization cannot even provide one of the cheapest and most visible indicators of its sincerity, particularly for a facility meant to promote personal health through activity. 

No doubt the racks are in the plans.  And the plans for the future of the site, the surrounding area and the connections to the Canada Line are still to be executed.  

In time the Oval will serve its purpose: to give Richmond an iconic structure that announces its arrival as a destination, not just as a place to travel through or a bedroom for Vancouver.

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A friend in L.A. sends in this inquiry:

I recently sent in my order for Olympics tickets & now must look for lodging. I was totally stunned by the greed of the major hotel chains — asking $750 -$1000/night for rooms that otherwise would be $150-$250. So, being a public sector Planner, with a salary to match, I cannot pay those exorbitant prices.

Do you have any suggestions for alternative housing options? Perhaps some local blogs or websites, where more reasonable accommodations can be researched?

I am bringing my wife & 2 kids (ages 10 & 12) & we are staying for 5 days, so we do need something comfortable, just in a more reasonable price range. There must be some flats for rent or small independent hotels or other lodging options available. Any tips or help would be greatly appreciated!

I thought hotels wouldn’t be price-gouging during the Olympics.  Guess some didn’t get the memo.

Any advice out there for my friend?


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