The City Council chamber was jam-packed Tuesday and Thursday nights, as one speaker after another shared their opinions on the controversial rezoning application for a 19-storey tower proposed at Broadway and Kingsway in the heart of Mount Pleasant.
At the centre of the controversy is developer Will Lin, head of Rize Alliance Properties, a mid-size development company that was the first to add residential density to the yuppie haven that is Yaletown. His Rolston condo project will complete in 2013, and the 185-unit condo building designed by Busby Perkins + Will will stand where the old Cecil Hotel at the north end of Granville Bridge once did business.
More recently, Mr. Lin has turned his focus on the east side neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant, which, to the dismay of many long-standing residents, has seen the likes of Tim Horton's and Starbucks squeeze in among its hipster boutique shops in the last few years. Because of opposition, Mr. Lin has already reduced the original 26-storey plan to 19 stories, which, he says, is the lowest he can go and still make the project economically viable. (The nearby Stella condo development is 13 storeys, so, if it gets the go-ahead, Mr. Lin's building will still be the tallest in the area.) The rezoning plan for 241 residential units would include two floors of commercial space, and three low-rise structures that would form one complex. Included in the plan is a $6.25-million contribution by the builder for amenities and other city projects.
"We knew that being the biggest project in the neighbourhood would stir some controversy," says Mr. Lin, seated in a Mount Pleasant coffee shop.
Opponents say the project will boost housing prices in the area and contribute to lack of affordability. Other objections include that the tower will be out of keeping with the surrounding lower level buildings; that it will block views and sunlight; and that the extra cars brought by new residents will contribute to traffic congestion.
"This project isn't going to solve the affordability problem," says Mr. Lin. "Affordability is a big word. To you it's one thing, to that guy driving down the street it's another.
"But compared to downtown or a project on the west side, it's affordable. And the more supply we have, the lower the prices we can achieve."
Mr. Lin has owned the property since 2004. If his rezoning plan passes this hurdle, he expects the project to take another three years to complete. That will make it seven years since he began the development, which, he says, is typical for a major Vancouver residential project.
Although he has been developing projects around the Lower Mainland since he came to Vancouver at age 27, this is the first time the low-profile developer has been drawn into the crosshairs of public controversy.
Little is known about Mr. Lin, who is 46, and lives in Shaughnessy with his family. In the past, he has left his mark around town without causing much fuss. He was at the forefront of developing Yaletown when it was only industrial land, starting with the 11-unit residential building at 1230 Hamilton. He was 27 at the time, and he borrowed $350,000 from his father to take on his first project. He made enough money on that deal to buy his father a Mercedes Benz as a thank-you gift.
Mr. Lin is the product of a wave of immigrants from Taiwan in the late 70s and early 80s. His parents sent their four children to live in San Jose, Costa Rica, when Mr. Lin was 13. Many Taiwanese families had moved to Costa Rica at the time because of immigration laws that made it easy to get residency status. His parents purchased a house and spent the summer setting the children up before going back to Taiwan, where Mr. Lin's father worked as a doctor. Mr. Lin's teenage sister ran the household while they went to an American school to learn English.
Because his mother was a devout Christian, the Lin children were then sent to Mennonite school in South Dakota, where the family split up. Mr. Lin and his twin brother lived with a host family on a farm, where Mr. Lin earned $3.50 an hour for chores. After a couple of years, their father moved them again, this time to the small town of Gretna, Manitoba, where they attended a Mennonite boarding school.
"It was adventurous," he says of his childhood. "I got exposed to a lot of different things. It wasn't sheltered, or protected, like some of the immigrant kids nowadays that you see."
After getting kicked out of boarding school for drinking, his father sent him to public school in Brandon, Manitoba, and to work weekends and evenings in a sausage factory he co-owned.
"It wasn't punishment at all. It was my dad's way of saying, 'the kids need to learn the value of money. Not everything will be handed to them on a silver platter.'"
After earning a commerce degree at the University of Manitoba, he and his older brother, a doctor, moved to Vancouver, where their father owned a house near Oak Street. His father had purchased real estate around North America throughout Mr. Lin's childhood, so it naturally paved the way for his own interest.
After that first project in Yaletown, he soon started purchasing other properties and managing them.
"In terms of creating residential units in Yaletown, we were the first," he says.
He's not just a builder of residential properties. His commercial interests include his renovation of the 1912 London Building offices at 626 West Pender, and a 54,000 sq. ft. office complex in Yaletown with Cossette Communications as the anchor tenant. He has plans for a major office development in the False Creek Flats, on Terminal.
But Mr. Lin has mostly made his mark purchasing properties in low-density neighbourhoods that show potential. As part of a then-innovative deal with the city, he purchased and restored the old Canadian Linen building, which is now the Choices Markets store at the corner of Davie and Richards. The deal gave him more than 36,000 sq. ft. of density to build the 100-unit Metropolis condo building next door.
To build the Rolston, Mr. Lin was given 47,000 sq. ft. of bonus density in exchange for renovating the old, beloved Yale Hotel and including 44 units of single room occupancy for the city to manage. That project is expected to kick-start an entirely new Midtown neighbourhood, with long-term plans for more residential towers and a shopping district.
A couple of years ago, he completed 163 units in Richmond, called Centro, and he recently completed the 48-home On Que development in Mount Pleasant, at Quebec and Broadway. He is currently planning for two residential towers in central Surrey that will add 480 residential units near a SkyTrain station.
Despite the controversy, he's not finished with Mount Pleasant, however. Mr. Lin sees the area in need of a major density boost, and the city has already targeted three areas of the neighbourhood for such a plan, including Mr. Lin's property at Kingsway and Broadway.
"We will do more projects in Mount Pleasant, as much as we can," says Mr. Lin. "It has one of the lowest densities in Vancouver. And it's a younger, hipster neighbourhood, and that's why we love it - all that is going to stay, if we build a tower, or not.
"Some people call it gentrification. I think it's part of being all-inclusive to society. People want to live in Mount Pleasant. We try to make that possible."
Special to The Globe and Mail