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Bentall Centre 3 and Bentall Centre 4 are seen in downtown Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Anbang Insurance Group’s broker has held preliminary talks with more than a dozen institutional investors about the sale of the Bentall Centre in downtown Vancouver, according to people familiar with the matter.

The broker, commercial realtor CBRE, is running the sale of the four office towers, as Anbang restructures after being seized by the Chinese government last year. It’s one of Canada’s highest-profile commercial property sales and is viewed as a test for what buyers are willing to pay for a large office complex near the top of the cycle in the Vancouver market.

CBRE contacted a number of big domestic and foreign investors about the sale earlier this month. It’s been in contact with prospective buyers including Oxford Properties, Alberta Investment Management Corp., PSP Investments, Bentall Kennedy and Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, according to sources who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

CBRE also contacted one of the Bentall Centre’s previous owners, GWL Realty Advisors, the sources added. GWL sold its minority stake to Anbang in 2016.

The sales process remains in the early stages. It is not yet known which potential buyers will make initial bids and whether the process will result in a deal. CBRE declined to comment. Oxford, Alberta’s pension fund, PSP, Bentall, CPPIB and GWL either declined to comment or could not be reached for comment.

Separately, the Bentall Centre’s property manager, Canderel Ltd., made an unsolicited pitch to continue managing the office buildings. But Anbang directed CBRE to run a full sales process.

“We made a pitch to Anbang to continue as property manager but to no avail as they decided to put the complex up for sale,” Canderel’s chief executive Jonathan Wener said in an e-mail. “We indeed look forward to the possibility of continuing with our team, with the successful bidder.”

Anbang paid $1.06-billion for the four Bentall Centre office towers in 2016 – the most expensive commercial property deal in Vancouver’s history. It may be difficult for Anbang to recoup its entire investment, as there are only a few players who both have the capital and are willing to spend that much on a single Canadian commercial property, analysts say.

“Given the scale and complexity of the offering and given Vancouver’s late-market cycle position at present, the buyer pool may be smaller than we may have seen a few years ago,” said Chris Langstaff, LaSalle Investment Management’s head of Canadian research.

“Many investors are keen to see where the market is given that fundamentals and pricing have continued to strengthen,” he later added.

The sale is occurring as the big Canadian pension funds continue to divest domestic property and embark on large development projects.

Ivanhoé Cambridge, which sold its majority stake in the Bentall Centre to Anbang, had about one-third of its real estate assets in Canada as of the end of 2017 compared with nearly half in 2012.

Cadillac Fairview, the real estate company owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, said it is “not buying this property.”

For its part, Anbang does not want to sell the Bentall Centre at a loss, the sources said. The troubled insurer, which was nationalized by Beijing in 2018, is taking steps to divest real estate in Canada and the United States as it sorts through its financial woes.

Anbang’s other Canadian holdings include a chain of seniors’ residences in B.C. and a smaller office tower in Toronto, but those properties are not up for sale.

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