The British Properties embraces density

How density and diversity are remaking the face of Vancouver's most exclusive neighbourhood

April 4, 2016

By Hadani Ditmars / Photo: Terry Dadswell

The story of the British Properties reads like a cinematic saga. As Donald Luxton and Lilia D’Acres recount in their 1999 book, Lions Gate, it’s a narrative that spans the Great Depression, political intrigue, skulduggery from a rival railway developer, and the Second World War. Now, as it approaches its 85th anniversary, British Pacific Properties (the company that owns and developed the land known as the British Properties) is embarking on its next great adventure: densification. Geoff Croll, President of BPP, is using words like “walkability,” and architects are drawing up plans for new 12-storey towers in what has been historically a low density, car-oriented, single-family enclave.

The BPP area, less than half of which is developed, comprises a huge swathe of West Vancouver between the Upper Levels Highway and the 1,200-foot elevation line, and includes Arthur Erickson-designed modernist gems and sprawling mansions as well as wildlife and pristine forest. But extensive community consultation has called for more multi-family dwellings and concomitant amenities, including commercial and retail centres. As a result, an open plateau on the southwestern edge of the 4,000 acres of land that the Guinness family acquired in 1931 is slated to become the home of a new mixed-use “retail village,” while new, smaller-footprint homes are encouraging families to settle in the area much as they did in the post-war era.

“There’s a sense that it’s coming full circle,” says Croll, who himself was part of the post-war baby boom and grew up in West Vancouver. “We’ve been selling single-family detached homes as small as 2,400 square feet,” he says of the more mid-century-sized offerings that are a pointed contrast to the monster homes that mushroomed in the 1990s and 2000s. “We’re also moving back to a diversity of housing that can accommodate young families,” he adds, pointing out similar new developments within walking distance of Mulgrave elementary school. There are even plans afoot to build new semi-detached homes in the new BPP developments to the west, where secondary suites will be allowed so that young families can have mortgage helpers or older family members living with them—a first for the area. More important, perhaps, is the plan to build a new mixed-use village off Cypress Bowl Road—meaning area residents can shop above the Upper Levels “for the first time ever,” Croll says. Among others, it will serve the new Rodgers Creek neighbourhood, a 215-acre parcel of land that will one day be home to 700 families.50's BPThe British Properties circa 1941

“I’m glad to hear they’re finally going to put retail above the Upper Levels,” says author Douglas Coupland. He grew up in the Properties in the 1970s, a time he recalls as being a “very Brady Bunch” era. “The absence of any form of retail has been the Properties’ biggest mark of shame for decades. If you needed butter or scotch tape you had to drive five miles down to sea level [to Park Royal].”

Other important things have changed since Coupland’s childhood, a time when the community newsletter was called the Tally Ho and the Properties were nicknamed “Martini Hill.” That’s especially true in the new developments to the west of the original Capilano Estates area, where the changes are as much about demography as they are about density—and serve as a rebuke to the darker parts of the neighbourhood’s past, a time in which discriminatory covenant clauses were written into land title documents. Now the Properties are home to large Asian and Iranian populations attracted by the same dreams as their WASP predecessors. Azadeh Sheikh-Nabi, a 33-year-old mother and businesswoman, grew up in the Properties and is raising her young family here. “I remember arriving from Tehran in 1998,” she says. “The trees and the mountain air reminded me of the resort area near the Caspian Sea. It was beautiful.” Her neighbours were friendly but mainly aging Anglo-Canadian couples. “But now,” she says, “a lot of families are living here with kids.”

Exterior RenderingThe Peak at Mulgrave Park

She still resides in the Chartwell area, where she and her dentist husband both grew up, and she’s still in touch with her high school pals from Sentinel Secondary, many of whom are also raising young families in the area. “It’s a great place to raise children,” she says, noting the access to hiking trails and nearby Hollyburn Mountain, excellent schools, and a sense of “safety and community.”

But an additional determining factor, she says, was the fact that “it’s a much better deal, real-estate wise, than Kitsilano, Dunbar, or Shaughnessy,” where some of her friends live. Indeed, while the stereotype of the British Properties as a luxurious haven for the wealthy still has merit, the new Vancouver real estate reality means that price per square foot is significantly cheaper here than on the west side. The push for density aims to trade on that reality—one that speaks as much to the changing face of the British Properties and area as it does to that of the rest of the city.

For her part, Sheikh-Nabi welcomes plans for new retail and housing developments, but she says achieving density here will require a “delicate balance.” This is, after all, a neighbourhood whose original plans—which were drawn up by the Olmsted Brothers, famed landscape architects who were known for New York’s Central Park—included designs for a polo field. The new luxury may be downsized, and the old sales pitch of exclusivity peppered with planning buzzwords. But the new BPP developments, named for pioneering farmers like James Rodgers, still join the old logging roads monikered after Guinness family estates arcing their way up the mountain.

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