A growing number of Vancouver developers are looking across the Strait of Georgia for opportunities in the capital region, where prices and housing demand are strong and the economy is booming.
Several companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars and built thousands of homes in capital region projects in the past two decades, often in the form of downtown condominium towers where the urban lifestyle is catching on. Once they build here, they often stay to put up more projects.
The developers say they are attracted by a ready pool of buyers, including those who cash out in Vancouver and move here for less-expensive housing.
Concert Properties is a seasoned member of Victoria’s development scene. It has a Victoria team and is on the lookout for its next condominium site, said Brian McCauley, president and CEO.
It made its first purchase here in 1999 when it bought a chunk of land called the Y lot from the province. That site became home to the Victoria Marriott Inner Harbour Hotel at 728 Humboldt St., and two condominium towers, the Astoria and the Belvedere.
“It wasn’t just about coming in and building one project and leaving,” McCauley said. “We felt we could build a presence and be there long term.”
Victoria is a predictable marketplace, and the company has been willing to modify plans to accommodate community concerns, he said.
“The politicians have generally been supportive of good urban design and we’ve lived through several mayors there. We’ve always found it a reasonable political environment to do work in.”
He added: “The only thing that I think is important — and I think many of our competitors have found this in Victoria — is it is not a big market. So it is one that you can easily get overexposed in if you are not careful.” McCauley figures that the ideal project size for a residential development here is about 70 to 80 units.
Concert’s aim is to “stay focused in urban cores where we have really witnessed over the last 10 or 12 years a resurgence in downtown lifestyle. People [are] willing to live closer to the core to avoid having cars and be closer to work and be closer to recreation. We’ve seen that in just about all of our projects.”
Concert also built the 66-unit Chelsea on Burdett Street, 365 Waterfront at the Selkirk Waterfront, and the 157-unit Era condominium on Yates Street. The company converted the Queen Victoria Hotel into a rental apartments. It won rezoning last month for its former Crystal Court Hotel property on Belleville Street that includes a 15-storey tower as part of a new seniors community with 131 rental units and 42 condos.
Concert is partners with Victoria’s Jawl Properties in the development of the six-acre, mixed-use Capital Park site next to the legislature. “It’s just such an exceptional opportunity and so rare to have a site of that size and scale,” McCauley said.
Vancouver’s Reliance Properties is working with heritage buildings in or near downtown.
“We focus on urban renewal and urban densification and that is what is happening in Victoria right now,” said president Jon Stovell. Victoria is “great walkable city, has a great vibe, has a great culture,” said Stovell. He added that another factor is Victoria’s official community plan, which sets out a “robust approach to growth and development.”
Reliance developed the 122-unit Janion Hotel, which brought micro-units to the city, on the north side of the Johnson Street Bridge.
The company is seeking a rezoning for its Northern Junk property, on the south side of the bridge, with two old brick warehouses. Stovell is hoping for approval, aiming to start marketing next year.
The Fairfield Block, the Board of Trade Building in Bastion Square and the Guild Building, all historic downtown properties, are among Victoria holdings in Reliance’s portfolio.
Continued growth on the lower Island is expected because of demographics, and Vancouver’s home prices, Stovell said.
He would like Victoria to consider a procedural change allowing council to delegate some of its authority in the development process. In Vancouver, the planning director or the development permit board can approve certain projects consistent with official community plan or zoning, he said.
Vancouver-based Chard Developments, has built six condo towers in downtown Victoria over the last decade. The company recently received approval from Victoria to build two 21-storey condo towers on Yates Street with market and affordable housing.
Vancouver’s Townline is completing final touches on its Hudson Walk Two rental project. This will be the fourth of six buildings Townline plans in its Hudson District. In 2006, Townline converted the historic Hudson's Bay building into a 152-unit condominium development called The Hudson. After that, there was the 120-unit Hudson Mews and the 178-unit Hudson Walk One, both rental.
Other Vancouver developers include:
• Onni, which is planning 10 buildings with commercial space and hundreds of apartments at Colwood Corners. The company took over after the original developer ran into financial problems.
• Robert Bosa’s Bosa Properties, which is building the $40-million, 17-storey Encore tower, with 134 units, at Bayview Place at Songhees. It is slated to be finished next year. It also completed the neighbouring 21-storey, Promontory with 177 units, in 2014. BlueSky Properties, a division of Bosa Properties, has started construction on its $70-million, 209-unit rental project on Pandora Avenue.
• Aragon Properties Ltd., which holds the former Trio Ready-Mix gravel pit in Saanich, where it is working on plans to develop just over 300 homes.