Pie in the Sky

September 2, 2007

Does Vancouver have any edge?" Charlie Smith, a realtor from London, wonders. We're on the enormous deck of a private residence in Coal Harbour's Callisto building. The tables are dressed with soft gold drapery. A jazz trio sets the tempo as early arrivals sip bubbly and look around for potential cover from the gathering storm. I tell Charlie about the Downtown Eastside. He looks bemused.

Delta Group and Sotheby's International Realty Canada have flown in 10 of Sotheby's leading property scouts from around the world to explore Vancouver and check out the blueprints for the elite Residences at Hotel Georgia. After dinner the previous night at Cioppino's, a day checking out the project and a float plane tour, the agents have been invited for cocktails and dinner at the Coal Harbour home of Delta Land Development president and CEO Bruce Langereis.

This two-day, wining-and-dining tour will set Delta back about $100,000, a worthwhile investment if the agent's clients-Hollywood celebrities and more discreet multi-millionaires-purchase one of the mansions in the sky at the Hotel Georgia, set to open in 2010. The penthouse suite-7,100 square feet, listed at $14-million-includes four bedrooms, four decks, a formal dining room seating 14 and a kitchen spacious enough to accommodate a catering crew.

Jennifer Lopez's agent, who was invited on the trip but cancelled last minute, has arranged for a private tour later in the summer. So has the property scout from Dubai, who represents several Arab princes.

"Mr. San Francisco had to bail," whispers someone in my ear. Apparently the close confines of the float plane, the smell of diesel and the choppy waters culminated in a panic attack. Mr. San Francisco-realtor Patrick Barber-doesn't let it get him down. Why should he? At 40, he's already Sotheby's Bay Area boss, about to double his staff and putting the finishing touches on his Pacific Heights dream house, two years in the building. His team leads the Bay Area in highest average sales price, and sales of five of the 12 most expensive Bay Area properties in a single year. He just sold Andre Agassi's place for $21 million.

In Napa right now, $1-million (U.S.) will buy you about 800 square feet. "Spending another three of four million dollars on something is really not a big deal to my clients," says Gloria Smith, an agent who regularly ranks in the top one per cent of realtors stateside.

"You can pick up a huge estancia-500 acres-with horses and everything in the suburbs of Buenos Aires for $2 million U.S.," Sotheby's Argentinian rep Alejandro Reyser points out as we huddle under a patio heater in hope of warding off the biting wind. He's explaining why his properties are so popular among the well heeled of America, Canada and Europe. Uruguay, he assures me, "is economically stable-it's somewhere you cannot go wrong investing in real estate right now."

This is the "high net worth" market: that top percentage of incomes beyond most people's comprehension. In fact, the False Creek head office of Sotheby's Canada, run by president and CEO Ross McCredie, doesn't chase down potential buyers-it opens its doors and lets the international jet set take advantage of its business facilities. It's not so much about selling as it is cherry picking the prime developments and waiting for the money to start pouring in. When you're looking at the prospect of making five or six per cent on a multi-million dollar deal, it pays to be patient.

"I waited an hour at Immigration to get my work permit renewed," sighs Delta senior vice president and Brit, Ken Bowden. Bowden moved here to lead the Hotel Georgia development. His resume is impressive, and includes a rather fabulous restoration of the City of London's medieval Guildhall-Delta is world renowned for its work restoring and converting heritage buildings. Immigration, it seems, does not prioritize such successes.

We all meet again next morning on a 94-foot yacht with Mission Hill Chardonnay in our glasses and a plentiful supply of canapés from C Restaurant. Patrick's decidedly bleary-eyed. This time it's not motion sickness. "We were out with Alejandro until 3:30 a.m.," smiles Charlie. "Sampling the local nightlife." In Brandi's, apparently, they found the Vancouver "edge" they had been looking for.

Charlie already has a client in mind for the Hotel Georgia-a Canadian no less: the CEO of RBC is looking for a pad in London and Charlie thinks he should take a look closer to home while he's at it.

Everyone's impressed with the landscape, though the New Yorkers in the group are starting to twitch. "Is it just me, or is this town really provincial?" one of them dares to ask. She's sold property to the Bush family (both Junior and Senior). "It's all a bit outdoors."

We dock and are guided to the patio at C to continue lunch. Ross announces a new listing on the seawall-an $18.2 million penthouse. It's huge and has an unobstructed double height panoramic view of English Bay. I note that the traffic noise on the deck from the Burrard Street Bridge is more than I'd care for at that price point. Ross says if I buy it, he'll call Sam Sullivan and have it pedestrianized.

In the real world, more than one agent has a "zillionaire" that might be interested. And everywhere I look, cell phones and BlackBerrys are in frantic use. But no one seems to be rushing to get a potential buyer on the line. Indeed, several of the agents are moving up their flights home.

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