Vancouver's 61-storey Shangri-La looms so high over the city that everything around it appears like a miniature, people-less model.
From Roots co-founder Michael Budman's 58th floor apartment, the floor-to-ceiling view takes in everything from Vancouver Island to the tidal flats of Point Grey, to tiny freighters in the harbour, to Stanley Park's Deadman's Island.
It is the best view from any building in the city.
It's also about a $4-million view, from a two-bedroom apartment that is resplendent with the sorts of things you'd expect. Sub-Zero fridge. Wine fridge. Walk-in pantry. Marble this, slate that. Mr. Budman and wife Diane Bald, architect and director of Roots Home Design, decorated the space with Roots furniture and held camp there throughout the duration of the Olympics.
Mr. Budman would not say what he rented the apartment for, but marketer Bob Rennie said one of the penthouse suites rented for $250,000 during the Olympics.
Mr. Budman will continue to use it when he visits from Toronto. It is, after all, the quintessential playground for the rich who come to Vancouver to play - and play they do. At the suite, he entertained famous people like Wayne Gretzsky and his family, Mark Messier, Russian hockey legend Igor Larionov, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, singer Elvis Costello, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, comedian Seth Myers.
"One night the party ended at about 2:30 a.m. when Wayne and Messier left, and there was a knock on door. [Actor]Josh Jackson was there," says Mr. Budman. "He has a place at the Shangri-La too."
Josh Jackson is the young, baby-faced actor who starred in TV show Dawson's Creek. On a recent visit to the Shangri-La, the actor was pacing the lobby while talking on his cell phone.
If a community can be defined as a group of people who share a space and a common goal to thrive happily, then the Shangri-La is a community. It's a transient, live-for-the-day type of community, mind you - like a Love Boat for the ultra rich.
Vancouver's tallest building is also a model for the subtleties of class distinction, and the class lines are drawn by its elevators. There is a hotel on the 15 bottom floors, but there are also units for the moderately rich that are separated by elevators and lobby from the fabulously rich. The Shangri-La's luxury Estates comprise 66 units that occupy floors 44 to 61. The deluxe units share a lobby with the hotel, but they have separate elevators from hotel guests, for a very good reason, says Mr. Rennie. Hotel guests can be a potential downer.
"It's because hotel guests have luggage, and they are grumpy because they missed their flight.
"Whereas these people have really decided that they want to surround themselves with lifestyle."
For some, the Estates elevators aren't division enough.
"I had a wealthy corporate citizen in Vancouver who wouldn't buy in the Shangri-La because it didn't have separate elevators for the staff," says Mr. Rennie, who was shocked.
"In Los Angeles, it's very common to have a centre corridor for maintenance and staff, but it's not common here. It's not a Vancouver statement."
The big penthouse at the top of the Estates runs around $16-million, says Mr. Rennie, who marketed the project for Westbank developer Ian Gillespie. Mr. Rennie also owns some suites in the Shangri-La, as he does in every condo project he markets. Some people collect coins. Mr. Rennie collects condos.
Estates residents are allowed to rent out their units if they so desire, although many don't.
"They are not renting it out. They have their leather couch, and the right art above the couch, and they use [the condo]when they are here," says Mr. Rennie. "It doesn't take away from rental stock, because nobody is missing a 3,000 sq. ft. penthouse in the rental market."
Like most condos, they also hold strata meetings.
"And they all send their lawyers," says Mr. Rennie, laughing.
Travel writer and urban planner Richard Raisler owns a condo on the 19th floor of the Shangri-La, where he spends a few weeks of the year.
"If they have it nicely furnished like I do, I couldn't rent it to anybody that I trust enough," says Mr. Raisler, on the phone from his home in California. "People are also concerned about getting the tenant out when you want to use it."
Like other residents, Mr. Raisler bought into the building because of its downtown location, which means he can walk anywhere. Downstairs is the restaurant Market, owned by celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He also enjoys the pampered community at the building. He attended a party at Mr. Budman's suite, where he met Mr. Vongerichten and former figure skater and gold medalist Peggy Fleming.
"If people understood how the class system works in the building, they would be quite amused," says Mr. Raisler.
The quiet lobby of the Estates, with its minimalist fireplace, crystal chandeliers and fresh cut flowers, does seem to be an oasis from what the rest of us would call reality. Chief concierge Stephane Mouttet from France basically runs the place, which means his job is to ensure that his residents remain pampered and privileged as they are in any of their multi-million dollar residences. Of the 66 units at the Estates, nearly half are owned by international residents who spend only a few weeks of the year there. They are second or third homes, which means they are empty more often than not. But whether the residents are there or not, they will pay around $1,400 a month for the maintenance fee for the average 2,500 sq. ft. unit.
They are paying for luxury hotel treatment in a condo.
Mr. Mouttet greets every resident personally. He does his best to know the names of their children and their pets. He says the residents are happy, friendly people who know what they like.
"They are like guests, but they are residents," says Mr. Mouttet, who clearly loves his job. "I am a bit of a confidante for them."
Italian businessman Cesare Gagliardoni, who breezes through the lobby with a white Maltese dog in each arm, stops to thank Mr. Mouttet for flowers.
Mr. Gagliardoni had arrived from California the day before, where he and his wife Kristina and their two dogs sometimes occupy a 10,000 sq. ft. house with swimming pool, tennis court and full-time staff. He purchased the house from pop star Janet Jackson 12 years ago. He has other houses in California and Tuscany, but his principal residence is in Monaco, where he drives his Ferrari. The 700 sq. ft. condo there is small, he says, but considering that real estate in Monaco runs about $8,000 per sq. ft., this is not a modest abode.
Mr. Gagliardoni wears expensive looking knit wear, has tawny smooth skin and teeth as white as a hotel sheet. He is serene and amiable as he considers his successful career as chairman of a company that makes disposable medical products. He sold the company a few years ago, which had 1,300 employees in Texas and Mexico.
"I worked hard and treated people very well."
About a year ago, when the market was down, he paid $2.5 million for his condo in the Shangri-La, but he says it is already worth much more. He brought his decorator from California to furnish it.
"I am very frugal," he says of the interior design. "I didn't spend more than $120,000."
His wife Kristina, a lanky blonde American, says she comes for the skiing and mountain biking. The pair spends about six weeks a year in Vancouver and often rent a room at the Four Seasons in Whistler for the duration. It means they can go back and forth from mountain to city with ease. His favourite restaurants are the Blue Water Café and Cioppino's for Italian.
"To me, [my condo here]is not an investment," says Mr. Gagliardoni. "I love Vancouver."
Mr. Rennie insists it's that kind of appreciation that makes the Shangri-La work as a development, even if the condos are often empty.
"A vibrant community is built with filled homes, yes," he says. "But you have to look at the other side - they're paying property taxes, living here six months a year, eating in our restaurants and shopping in our stores and causing employment. So they're not taking from our community.
"And in this global society, what is a community today? One of the reasons people move to Vancouver is it is one of the most amazing places to work from. So you can say, 'this is a great place to work from, but I don't have to live here all year long.'"
Special to The Globe and Mail