'Shangri-La' is faster, higher, stronger

Lucy Hyslop
Telegraph Group Limited
November 21, 2004
Reprinted by kind permission of the Weekly Telegraph and Lucy Hyslop

If ever a city were to embody the motto of the Olympics, then Vancouver would be it. Citius, Altius, Fortius (faster, higher, stronger) perfectly echoes the spirit of the young Canadian city, recently awarded the Winter Games for 2010.

As 'wow' factors go, a description of Vancouver needs no embellishment. Flying in from London, you finally reach the end of the exhaustive Coast Mountain range and witness a cosmopolitan oasis caressed by Christmas-tree-coated peaks; an ocean generously sprinkled with yachts and islands; and a Mt Fuji-like volcano (Mount Baker) on the horizon.

Glass towers dominate the skyline, floatplanes and cruisers add romance to the harbour and Stanley Park - some four kilometres square in size - is a vivid reminder that the city was carved out of a coastal temperate rainforest.

No surprises that the province's numberplates carry the slogan 'Spectacular by Nature', or that Vancouver is already a city of accolades: from regularly ranking as the top city in the world for quality of life to this year's 'best city in the Americas', thanks to the readers of Traveler magazine.

"In the frozen Canadian context, the city seems almost unbelievable," says Jim Sutherland, editor of Western Living, Vancouver and Western Canada's monthly home-trends magazine.

"The climate is similar to western France or the south of England. The scenery most closely resembles the lake district of northern Italy, with some Alps in the background, and the big blue Pacific is dotted with little green islands that are gradually being transformed from woodlots into orchards and vineyards."

Vancouver could so easily be the modern-day Shangri-La immortalised in James Hilton's 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. Apt, then, that the latest - and tallest - building to be stirring the masses goes by the same name. As one of the fastest growing cities (statisticians put the city's population as rising by 80 per cent between 1999 and 2040), real estate is almost like a game in Vancouver.

Sixty-storeys (640ft) high on the border between the downtown and more residential West End area of the city, Shangri-la is riding the post-modern trend for "live-work" suites with an emphasis on cutting out the commute. The development also features a supermarket, restaurant, 4,200sq ft spa/fitness centre and even a public art space managed by the neighbouring Vancouver Art Gallery.

According to one of the city's major condo marketers, Bob Rennie, sales are going swimmingly. "In six weeks, all 223 condos on levels 16-42 were sold," he states. "This is unprecedented activity in the luxury market."

"Vancouver may go down as the place where the North American high-rise was unexpectedly perfected," Sutherland points out. "With few major companies" head offices on its downtown peninsula, the city has re-zoned most of the land to be residential, leading to the construction of hundreds of narrow, glass-clad, view-seeking condominiums. At street level the ambience is almost European, while 30 storeys up the Wallpaper magazine ideal is finally being lived."

All this, and Shangri-La isn't even ready until 2008. In fact, the craze for the development is only the latest in a long line of estate buying. The Yaletown Park complex - billed as the last three condo towers to be built in the extremely hip former warehouse area of the city - sold 483 condos in one day. "Buyers previewed for eight weeks then lined up to purchase," adds Rennie, who has been in real estate here for three decades.

"The past three years have seen consecutive double-digit percentage increases in sale prices, especially for high-rise condos," Sutherland explains. "A lot of the action came from Americans who were attracted by the low Canadian dollar and the safe-resort atmosphere."

It's even spawned an industry of "assigning" your condo on to another buyer before it is even built. Rennie believes that these deals, known as assignments, are "always 20 per cent of all sales" for flats under $300,000 in towers. Easy to see why demand for these hot properties has led to the creation of websites such as www.AssignmentsCanada.ca and Rennie's own at www.rennie.com.

And now Vancouver is already capitalising on the forthcoming Olympics. At the Tourism Vancouver offices, there's talk of it bringing "energy and optimism" to the city. "There are several capital projects under way or in the planning stages including expansion to the convention centre, a new transit system from the airport into downtown Vancouver, and many new commercial and residential projects in the downtown core and suburbs," explains Walt Judas, its vice-president for marketing communications and 2010 strategies.

"We're starting to see evidence of how the games are a catalyst for positive change. The economy of British Columbia has improved and we've recorded an increase in tourism this year. Consequently, people are displaying more confidence about the future, and are willing to participate in changes that make Vancouver even more liveable and welcoming to the world."

He adds: "We know that our city and province will become a focal point after the winter games in Turino as we continue our Olympic preparations. Having the world's attention on Vancouver particularly from 2008-2010, will be a tremendous opportunity to tell our story via international media."

Long dismissed by the more urban, financial Canada of the east as "Lotusland" - a haven for hippies and alternative lifestyle-seekers - Vancouver appears to be coming into its own. Sure, the city is full of fit-looking people who are seeking a healthier lifestyle. But there's also a strong urban and work culture.

As Rennie says: "We are undervalued for Canada for the level of quality that is standard in our market and we are undervalued in relation to the low-profit margins that Vancouver developers accept."

Lucy Hyslop is the former Chief Features Editor of the Vancouver Sun.