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urban development

Bob Saunders at his office in Vancouver Jan. 5, 2011.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Forty years ago, the first dreamers looked at Vancouver's run-down, crumbling historic centre and decided it was hidden gold.

Larry Killam, Howard Meakin, Bob Saunders and Ian Rogers - a group of young guys who decided they were interested in real estate and development - saw Gastown as Vancouver's potential version of Ghirardelli Square. That was the historic commercial building in San Francisco that, in 1962, became the first of the old industrial complexes transformed into new urban hubs.

It took a lot longer than anyone imagined, but in the past few years and after a long struggle, Gastown has turned into what everyone dreamed it would be.

For several decades, it floundered as a kitschy tourist spot filled with cheap T-shirts, plastic totem poles and middlebrow restaurants. But in recent years it has turned into a neighbourhood filled with high-end restaurants, condominiums, offices, modern furniture and men's clothing stores so hiply minimal that it makes a person's teeth hurt.

And Mr. Saunders, who is retiring this week after 41 years in the real-estate game (mostly as head of the Vancouver office of DTZ Barnicke with partner John McIntyre), is thrilled with what he helped create.

"It's sort of a pride for me to go down there on a nice day," Mr. Saunders said this week, surrounded by the memorabilia he collected over the years about the neighbourhood the city had written off in the early 1960s as a slum that should be cleared to make room for a highway. "It's developed into something kind of neat now."

Mr. Saunders was 25 in 1967 and working in the furniture business when Mr. Meakin approached him to become a partner in a company he'd formed to buy and develop real estate in Gastown, then exactly 100 years old.

Mr. Saunders liked the idea, and so the two, joined by Mr. Killam and Mr. Rogers, started buying buildings. Banks wouldn't lend money to anyone in Gastown, a place known only as a haven for hippies and bums - and later to be the location of the city's famous Gastown riots.

So the group had to borrow entire purchase prices of buildings from friends and acquaintances. But the buildings were cheap. They began renovating them and converting them to residences, shops and restaurants.

Their first, the Alhambra, cost only $105,000. That building, which sits at the neighbourhood's central intersection of Carrall and Water streets, now houses the hot new restaurant L'Abattoir, the popular bar Six Acres and the recently opened Peckinpah, which took over an old ice-cream business and turned it into a small diner that serves exquisitely casual southern food.

The group bought the Garage next door for $75,000, which has just been transformed into tasteful condos by Robert Fung, the young developer who is part of the latest generation dedicated to transforming Gastown.

Getting people to see it as a viable neighbourhood was a struggle in the beginning, said Mr. Saunders, who lived in a railway car for four months nearby in the early days as they were all working on their various projects. (He decided after four months of being kept awake by "bums" drinking and sleeping nearby that he'd had enough.)

The group also had fun.

They had a statue made of Gassy Jack - "the old man of the town, the bartender" - to epitomize the area. City politicians of the time were not enthused about it, just as they weren't enthused about the Gastown revival in general, so the group installed it in front of the Hotel Europe - on private property where the city couldn't get at it.

When the fresh new TEAM council was elected in 1972, then-mayor Art Phillips and councillors were far more supportive.

Mr. Saunders and his friends never imagined it would take four decades for Gastown to flourish as it is now. But it was hobbled along the way by things happening in other parts of the city - competition from Granville Island at first, and Yaletown later on - and by Gastown owners who just wanted a quick buck.

That's all changed now, as building after building has been lovingly restored and the crowds have appeared.

"It's what we wanted," Mr. Saunders said. "We wanted a social scene for all people, and for it to be a happy place."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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