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Interior view of a unit in the Aston Condominium, developed by British Pacific Properties. (John Sinal)
Interior view of a unit in the Aston Condominium, developed by British Pacific Properties. (John Sinal)

Guinness Family quietly pushes ahead with West Van development plans Add to ...

Not too many people are paying attention to what’s happening in West Vancouver. That’s because most of the change is happening in remote parts of the district, only visible if you’re a local driving through.

Geoff Croll, president of British Pacific Properties, has even tried to lure real estate agents over by picking them up in a limousine for a recent open house.

British Pacific Properties (BPP) has flown largely under the radar in its 84-year history as the development company in charge of developing 4,000 acres of property owned by Britain’s Guinness family. Until recently, the developer has been moving slowly.

“We have been kind of invisible, which is okay when you’re only selling 10 units a year,” Mr. Croll says.

The BPP of old was all about single-family housing. The BPP of the future is about townhouses, duplexes and condos as well. Mr. Croll wants to build apartments that are 1,000 square feet and priced at less than $1-million, featuring spectacular views.

“It’s a product we haven’t offered before,” he says.

Interior view of a unit in the Aston Hill condo community developed by British Pacific Properties. John Sinal

Mr. Croll is standing inside the show home for their Aston Hill subdivision, which is part of West Vancouver’s Rodgers Creek area. Of the 20 duplexes built, they’ve sold six. They aren’t what immediately spring to mind when you think of “multi-family.” These duplexes are 3,700 square feet in size and priced at $3.2-million. At $875 a square foot, Mr. Croll reasons that it’s better value than what you get in Point Grey, which is well over $1,000 a square foot. To an international market, such as the buyer from mainland China, that’s especially good value.

The duplex is aimed at the wealthy downsizer who used to live in 6,000 square feet. But it’s still a riskier venture than the traditional single-family house. Not everyone wants to share a wall with a neighbour, even if it feels more like a big house than a duplex.

But another challenge is that the windy hillside roads make it tougher to entice real estate agents and buyers.

“It’s hard to find. It’s been challenging,” Mr. Croll says. “They are used to a grid system for roads. This doesn’t show up on a car navigation system and some GPSs. It takes forever to get onto Google Maps. So people just give up.”

Anyone old enough to remember the historic Hollyburn chair lift will know where we’re standing. The chair lift is long gone, replaced by luxury houses with some of the best ocean views on the planet.

There is a lot of parkland, too. Although BPP owns the land, land use is determined through a collective process, helped along by a working group of volunteer citizens. In talks with residents, they found that trees mattered.

Chin Chin Ho

“The main focus of Rodgers Creek was to cluster development areas where it makes sense, and save the rest of it as green space,” Mr. Croll says. Roughly 55 per cent of the area is protected green space.

Over the decades, BPP has sold off or developed about half their land holdings. They’ve got about 1,000 acres of developable land. The other 1,000 acres or so is above the 1,200-foot elevation line, where development has long been out of bounds. But 1,000 acres is a lot of land to develop – the size of Stanley Park.

In 1931, the Guinness family purchased the land for $75,000 and then invested $1-million in infrastructure. The Olmsted Brothers designed the first British Properties subdivision. They were the firm that designed New York’s Central Park. And of course, the company also helped finance the Lion’s Gate Bridge and built the Park Royal Shopping Centre in 1950, to help grow the area.

Throughout the decades, BPP mostly sold off serviced lots of land to developers for various subdivisions. They rode the market highs and lows, including the ultra low recession of the 1980s.

The company is still family run, with four Guinness family members on a board of eight.

“We are a very small part of their overall business interests, but they’ve always shown interest and still care about it.”

With Rodgers Creek, the company returned to its roots in house construction. It’s a slow process. It took two and a half years to receive approval to develop Rodgers Creek. It takes six months for a building permit and 18 months to build a house.

“There is a lot happening in West Van right now,” Mr. Croll says. “And the number of building permits has skyrocketed. People are buying properties with bungalows on big huge lots, and they’re knocking them down and building new houses. I think the municipality is a bit overwhelmed with activity, and we get caught in the crossfire.

“They know we’re not going anywhere. We don’t own land anywhere else. Our business is completely in West Van.”

He’s got a vision for this environmentally important remaining chunk of land. A mountain trail is under construction to connect Rodgers Creek to the future Cypress Village, which is the key component in making these neighbourhoods walkable, and sustainable.

A council-appointed citizens group has drafted a paper that recommends concentrating density into the future village and increasing preserved park area, as opposed to creating residential sprawl. It would include rental and seniors housing.

“You need to concentrate development if you want to make those things happen,” says senior community planner David Hawkins. “One of the key ideas of Rodgers Creek is that it would be a community that would be served by a nearby village. It’s been on the radar for a while now.

“You’ve got a large landowner there, but the municipality also has land holdings, and ultimately it’s within our community.”

Rodgers Creek has already gone through the community planning process. Now there are a series of upcoming meetings about the future of the Upper Lands, a 6,700-acre parcel of undeveloped land north of the Upper Level Highway. It includes the plans for Cypress Village. The public is invited to give their feedback at meetings on April 11, 14 and 16. Details are on the district website.

“Cypress Village has the potential to deliver something that doesn’t exist in the Lower Mainland,” says Ashley Willard Bauman, co-chair of the Upper Lands working group, which prepared the report. “It’s a whole new way to live and experience the mountainside, one of the most exciting propositions. And it’s starting at the very preliminary stages.”

Mr. Croll is keen on the village creating vibrancy, but also acting as a destination, with good restaurants and pubs for mountain bikers. His renderings show a Whistler-style retail complex with a public square, surrounded by trees and a killer ocean view. But it’s too early to know how big the village will be, or its precise location.

“We would like to have it planned and zoned within three years,” he says. “And then put in a coffee shop within five years from now. That’s my goal, to be able to sit and look out over the ocean, and have a coffee there.”

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