Appeared in Business in Vancouver – December 22, 2014
West Vancouver, the wealthy widow of Metro, might well ask Santa for Christmas: please, how about some nice fresh prosperity for our businesses? Especially for the main business stem, Marine Drive, Ambleside. A former councillor once drily counted something like 13 beauty salons by any name on the Marine Drive strip. Not huge retail magnets and tax-generators.
The “wealthy widow” analogy is defensible. I used to guess that the elderly women squeezing coins from their change purses at Safeway on 17th Street were widows, left pensions – ample 25 years earlier – by their husbands. Inflation was easing them into genteel poverty. Businessman and former councillor Victor Durman, not given to excreting sympathy, heard wailing by widows living skinny – sitting on $2 million properties. Land-rich, cashflow-poor.
That well-worn Safeway is gone, replaced by landlord H.Y. Louie’s own smartly framed (and pricier) Fresh St. Market, its customers visibly generations younger than Safeway’s. Just what Michael Smith, twice-acclaimed West Van mayor, wants – only more, please, Santa.
Retired oil company executive Smith (who gives his $9,000-a-year mayoral salary raise to the West Vancouver Foundation) is an outwardly reserved, even shy man. But demons writhe inside. Business, he says bluntly, is dying along Marine Drive.
“Our commercial area is not doing well,” he said grimly at an election meeting last month. “If we don’t do something we’ll just have a rundown area we drive through on the way to Park Royal [Shopping Centre].”
Ah, Park Royal, West Van’s explosively growing retail gorilla. Its personable vice-president and general manager, Rick Amantea,seems sincere when he says a business-healthy Marine Drive is in Park Royal’s interest. The owning Lalji family may not have heard. Park Royal’s ambition is to be not merely a North Shore but a regional shopping centre, competitive with Oakridge and Burnaby’s Metrotown. Its glossy shops proliferate, its roadways are an off-putting maze with non-stop construction, but its vast free parking is a killer for Ambleside, where scarce parking is also free – but much of it grabbed early in the day by store employees from the suburbs.
The mayor’s centrepiece for Marine Drive revival is Grosvenor Ambleside, a 95-condo and retail gem-to-be on the police station’s waterfront site at 13th and Marine. Smith felt West Van got an excellent deal – $62 million for the site and $1 million a year in future taxes – but the sale to London-based Grosvenor was almost scuppered. Some furious citizens railed about its bylaw-bending, view-blocking heft. Council’s 2-2 deadlock (Coun. Mary-Ann Booth abstaining because her lawyer husband had a Grosvenor connection, now lifted) was broken only through pressure on populist Coun. Bill Soprovich.
Last month’s election could be seen as a chastening referendum on Grosvenor: council’s two naysayers, Craig Cameron (who simply held out for a smaller development) and Nora Gambioli, finished one-two, while longtime poll-topper Soprovich fell to fourth. The big upset was financial adviser and Grosvenor development critic Christine Cassidy’s whipping of several prospective Smith allies. As a potential tie-breaker she’ll be under close watch.
Town hall is by far Metro’s biggest municipal per capita spender, the Fraser Institute found – $2,118 per person in 2012, far above the $1,384 regional average, and more than twice bottom-rung Surrey’s $951. West Van is an oddity. First impression, it doesn’t look that rich. The money is behind opulent private doors up the slopes. But Smith asserts its aging residents would gladly move to condos nearer businesses and recreation – if they were built. Old-timers feel Marine Drive’s modest, human-scale businesses are part of the charm. And trees, views, foreign speculators – let’s not go there.
Next month council begins updating its official community plan – possibly spurred by a jarring 17,500-square-foot home approved for a once-serene neighbourhood – and a new lobby group is inviting developers, builders and realtors to join, its suspected goal to head off as much regulatory stricture as possible. The wealthy widow has panting suitors.
© Trevor Lautens, 2014