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Business partners lock horns over mayoral candidates

NPA candidate Suzanne Anton and Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson participate in a Homelessness and Affordable Housing debate at St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church in Vancouver on Monday, Nov. 7, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

Developer Peter Wall once gave his business partner, Rob Macdonald, a Rolls-Royce, handing him the keys to the red-leather-upholstered car that was parked in the plaza outside his hotel at Wall Centre.

After another successful venture, it was an SUV.

Now the two outspoken, strong-minded Vancouver developers – who partnered in building the big-ticket Hudson and Capitol Residences towers downtown – are on opposite sides in the city's civic election, each aggressively championing a different mayoral candidate.

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So aggressively that Mr. Wall offered to bet Mr. Macdonald $1-million that Gregor Robertson will be re-elected on Saturday.

"I like Gregor, he's quite an unusual politician," says the white-haired Wall family patriarch, who hasn't hesitated in the past to blast politicians as idiots and incompetents. "We have to have new ideas."

Mr. Wall, renowned among his peers as exceptionally far-sighted about acquiring land for development 20 or 30 years down the road, doesn't even mind the controversial Hornby Street bike lane that runs along the road that borders his Wall Centre hotel complex.

"It's a statement he wants to make. It didn't screw up all our traffic like some people say."

Mr. Wall and his nephew, Bruno Wall, have become key players in the campaign for Mr. Robertson and Vision Vancouver, along with condo marketer Bob Rennie, who has helped raise $600,000.

On the other side is Mr. Macdonald, 55, who parlayed an education in accounting into a real-estate empire with holdings around the world and $700-million of land development under way in Alberta and B.C.

Mr. Macdonald, a B.C. Liberal contributor who usually stays out of civic politics, threw himself into fundraising for the Non-Partisan Association's Suzanne Anton after considering and rejecting the idea of running for mayor himself.

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He is said to have lent the campaign at least $200,000 in the early days, allowing the party to buy the billboards and bus-stop ads that are now prominent around town.

He has also been urging other developers, traditional bet-hedgers in Vancouver's recent elections, to contribute more to the NPA than to Vision Vancouver.

"I am just a simple old union guy … who hates socialism," says Mr. Macdonald, who worked in mines and as a bartender when he was going to university. Although he's exceptionally gracious in private conversations, he has become legendary for his occasional fiery speeches blasting "socialist" politicians such as Glen Clark and Mike Harcourt.

"You need to run like a gazelle when socialist- or communist-leaning governments are elected," he told a crowd of young developers in September, while commenting bitterly about "some moonbeam mayor putting divided bike lanes right in front of your business, denying your access to customers and destroying your business."

He has been especially critical of Vision's handling of the Olympic Village, as well as the bike lanes, one of which was installed opposite his boutique St. Regis Hotel on Dunsmuir Street.

Numerous sources say Mr. Macdonald has talked publicly about becoming chief of staff under Ms. Anton.

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In response, Mr. Macdonald has said only that he will "do whatever Suzanne needs me to do."

Mr. Wall, who backed Premier Christy Clark in her leadership campaign, is known for liking to offer politicians his unsolicited advice, but hasn't been successful in getting them to take it.

Both developers have had tangles with the city that some believe have motivated their current politics. An NPA council when Philip Owen was mayor threatened to sue Mr. Wall for putting darker glass on his last Wall Centre tower than was originally approved, which earned that group his undying scorn.

Mr. Macdonald tried to get approval for a tall tower on land he owns at East Hastings and Carrall Streets, but a Vision council nixed a plan to allow tall buildings in that part of the Downtown Eastside.

In the end, though, both men say it's more about who they think will be a better leader.

And that million-dollar bet? Well, that's a subject of dispute. Mr. Wall says Mr. Macdonald refused to take it because he wanted to bet only a dollar. Mr. Macdonald says Mr. Wall refused his reasonable offer.

But, really, it doesn't matter to the two.

"We're friends," Mr. Wall says. "If you take politics too seriously, it's ridiculous."

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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