Skip to main content

Interior of a one-bedroom apartment at the former Pacific Palisades buildings, now known at PaPa, in Vancouver, B.C., 2012Bruce Edward

It was the early seventies, not long after the Mad Men era, and the stars were gathered in the Pacific Palisades' lounge, in the heart of the West End, on what was then Robsonstrasse.

Sid Caesar. Bob Hope. Frank Gorshin. The three men, all guests at the hotel, hooted and hollered and drew a lot of attention, to the delight of the hotel's original developer, Mel Zajac, who'd become a fixture at the hotel.

"It wasn't a fancy hotel, but we had fancy people staying there," recalls Mr. Zajac. "All the big stars of the era stayed there, like Katharine Hepburn, Fats Domino, Roy Orbison, Sammy Davis Jr. And Bob Hope stayed there, 10 or 12 years, when he came to town. I became good friends with him."

The faded old icon has undergone a major facelift and renovation over the last two years, and throughout June and July, it's filling up again – but this time with renters.

And a good many of them appear to be tenants who've already been residing in the neighbourhood, say the new property managers. The newly christened PaPa holds its place as a West End icon, appealing to locals who want the simplicity of renting as opposed to mortgages and strata fees, strata meetings and property taxes. Of 200 or so applicants for the first tower, 53 of them said they were local property owners. As well, of course, PaPa has the cachet of that history, which its marketers are banking on, and which includes famous bad-behaviour stories, such as the time a young Johnny Depp got into a big fight in front of the hotel.

"Certainly you want to have an understanding of the market and know there's demand for this kind of thing, and people love living in the downtown peninsula, and they don't want to leave it," says Andrew Abramowich, chief executive officer of Austeville Properties, a developer and property management company. "We are getting a lot of looks from existing residents. A lot of people have had uncomfortable condo experiences."

Mr. Zajac is one of those locals who could never move out of the 'hood. He gave up his penthouse at the Pacific Palisades in 1990, but he's lived in the Robson Street neighbourhood for 40 years, and now lives across the street.

After the renovation on the first tower was recently completed, he was one of the first to get a tour of the studio and one-bedroom suites, which start at $1,100 and $1,500 per month, respectively. He applauds new owner Austeville Properties chairman Gordon Diamond for staying true to the hotel's architectural roots.

The development has gone from its celebrity heyday to a stylish rental complex that pays homage to its international modernist history. The cheesy stucco facade is gone and the big arched exterior main floor windows have been restored to their modernist glory. In keeping with the era, it's a symphony of glass and clean lines.

The two-tower, 240-unit complex had a waiting list of more than 400 for the 106 units available in the first tower, near Jervis. Renters will move into the second tower on Alberni Street in July.

The Pacific Palisades Apartments opened to much fanfare as the tallest building in Vancouver in 1966. It was originally a four-building complex that included an office building, but was later scaled down to the two towers. By 1970, due to demand for business hotel suites, the complex was converted into the Pacific Palisades Hotel. Co-owner and president Mr. Zajac, who lived and partied in the penthouse, was soon in for a wild ride.

He recalls enduring spoiled-celebrity demands, such as hiring white limousines and having to repair rooms that had been trashed. One time, he says, rock star Alice Cooper gave him money for a limo to go down to Blaine to pick up Budweiser beer.

"The only person who didn't stay there was Frank Sinatra. But I met Frank, and the rest of the Brat Pack."

As late as 1985, Mr. Zajac says the hotel was filled to a record 93 per cent capacity, almost all of them movie people. On Thursday and Friday nights, the lounge was the place to be, and nobody could squeeze in. But then, times changed and hotels like the Sutton Place Hotel, and more recently, the Loden and Shangri-La came along, and the old hotel was out-glammed.

"It couldn't compete with the new hotels," Mr. Zajac says of the Pacific Palisades closure in 2010.

The conversion hasn't left the downtown area with a shortage of hotel rooms. The city has made it a policy to create additional rental units in the West End to support the 170,000 jobs in the area, without threatening the stock of hotel rooms required by the tourism industry and business community. Last year, the city council approved redevelopment of the Coast Plaza Hotel and Suites at Denman and Comox for rental apartments.

"Rental is a key city objective," says Kevin McNaney, assistant director of planning. "We have some targets around rental we are trying to achieve. There are a number of projects moving forward. And with all the construction over the last five years, we had seen a net increase in hotel rooms downtown, in spite of hotel conversions in the last few years."

After the 2010 Olympics, owners Anthem Properties sold the building to Austeville Properties, and construction began that summer.

"It was very ineffective as a hotel," says Mr. Abramowich.

Because the layouts were already meant for apartment living, in terms of renovation, it was a relatively easy transition. With 20 feet of windows along one wall, as well as 20-foot-long balconies capturing ocean views, the apartments are unlike most condo layouts built around Vancouver. Because of the window wall, even the 400-square-foot studios in the no-smoking tower feel spacious.

"I looked at it as an opportunity to bring rental back to Vancouver and give life to an old structure," says Mr. Abramowich.

"The fundamentals weren't bad. We had a feeling that some of the old style was there, because before we did the reno, you could see some hints of it. But the building was clad in stucco and granite. It was hard to know what we were going to get until we peeled off the skin."