The Legacy of Peter Wall
June 2, 2012
The Ballroom at the Sheraton Wall Centre is already grad-prom loud when the Holsteins arrive. But even a parade of cows does not produce, except for a few squeals, the shock that might naturally accompany the introduction of livestock into a four-star hotel. There are just too many other distractions. Soon-to-be premier Christy Clark, in an Academy Awards-worthy gown, is working the crowd, selling party memberships and testing her message that "It's all about families." Servers circulate with trays offering exquisite glass ornaments. Overhead, a Santa scampers across the glass roof.
Amid the hubbub of his annual Christmas event, Peter Wall, whose notion it was to bring cows to the party, is almost unnoticeable. His welcoming speech, urging his 400 guests earnestly to enjoy themselves, is brief. Judging only by appearances, you'd be forgiven for missing the fact that this man-developer, philanthropist, political poker player, opera lover-has been a major financial force behind both Clark and Mayor Gregor Robertson, that his company's expansion through the region continues inexorably, and that he remains a terrifying presence to many who still jump at his every idiosyncratic command. Instead, while partygoers ricochet around him, Wall, who has perfected the art of being there and not there, flamboyant and reticent, powerful and dismissive of power, stays put. And the world comes to him.
Wall has all the hallmarks of a city power broker: he's rich, connected, opinionated, passionate about causes beyond just making money, crazy in love with Vancouver. His name is splashed-Trump style-across his distinctive Wall Centre, along with a newer hotel in Richmond and his latest housing project in False Creek. Those who resent his giant property-development and management company see him as an overly influential Dr. Evil. They mutter about the ease with which Wall Financial's land deals clear political hurdles: the rezoning of agricultural land for development in Langley; the city's lightning-fast rezoning of the Shannon Mews property at Granville and 57th. They eye his contributions to the B.C. Liberals and his ties to Vision Vancouver. His reputation as Big Rich Developer was also burnished over a couple of decades with a parade of stories about his Rat Pack lifestyle-his racehorses and Aston-Martins and Rolls Royces.
His name has certainly been attached to some problematic moments over the years. The fracas over the Wall Centre, for sure, where he put up the darker glass he wanted instead of the clear glass city planners had approved. He only recanted when the city threatened to sue. Or his 2004 move to buy a 40-percent interest in Hastings Racecourse for $5.4 million, hold it just long enough for the fledgling COPE council (along with the NPA's Sam Sullivan, until then an adamant anti-gambler) to vote in 600 slot machines, then sell it at a profit of $17 million. Rumours persist that after that vote, Wall helped fund Sullivan's anti-wards campaign. Having been a staunch supporter of the NPA and then-mayor Philip Owen (his generosity was so lavish in the NPA days that the party instituted a $10,000 donation limit), Wall also became the initial and generous backer of the COPE councillors who broke away to form Vision-the same group that voted for the slots.
But that's only part of the story. Wall doesn't really fit the power-broker mould-too eccentric, too much of a loner, too blunt in his scorn for the incompetent. After backing Clark with $50,000 and his name, he didn't go to her swearing-in ("I don't want to be the second guy-I want to be the first guy"); he sent current companion Aleksandra Varslavan instead. He doesn't believe he's wielded the kind of influence he'd like to, anyway. "I have been 100 percent unsuccessful in politics. Because politicians do not understand. They get into power and then they are scared to make a decision," he says when we meet one sunny morning at one of his favourite restaurants, Sweet Obsession in Kitsilano, where he is such a regular that staff keep a jar of jam for his use only. A tall man with a thick ice-cream scoop of baby-fine white hair and the look of a successful farmer, Wall is resplendent today in a cream-coloured summer jacket, cream khakis, startlingly large black Nikes with brilliant red trim, and his trademark sunglasses. It's hard to reconcile his geniality with his notorious enthusiasm for tearing strips off people.
Like the politicians who sold the Expo lands to Li Ka-shing: "Can you imagine giving away 200 acres for nothing?" Or built an expensive convention centre instead of just using BC Place for exhibitions. Or tried to force him to alter the design of the Wall Centre because a grand New York-style building was too different from the standard-issue Vancouver towers with their busy exterior details and townhouse podiums. It's not just politicians he disdains. There are the rich people who give money just to puff themselves up: "90 percent of their donations are complete bullshit and a waste." Architects: "They're all poor in this city." Volunteers at his high-profile events: "Assholes." City planners: "Complete and utter idiots."
Wall has another side, too, one that avoids the limelight and the bombast. Unknown to all but a small circle, he held the mortgage on Arthur Erickson's Point Grey property, so that Erickson could continue to live in that unique house and garden. A few years ago, he put in $25,000 to help save the Pride Parade, an event he sees as a prime tourist draw. At UBC, which has his $100 million in its endowment fund to lure some of the brightest academics in the world, there is no building named for him. "He has a love-hate relationship with his own name," says one source close to him.
His reticent side has been ascendant in recent years, as his circle of family and friends has shrunk. The racehorses are gone, and the car talk has diminished. (Though at a recent concert by Ben Heppner, he had a Harley-Davidson 2012 Switchback brought on-stage, which he gave as thanks for the music.) He has three residences-the main one on the waterfront near Kits Pool-but no family around anymore. He and wife Charlotte, who spent the '90s getting a degree from Emily Carr and developing a career as an artist, separated some years ago. His daughter, Sonja, is a trustee of his institute, and Peter is close to her son. But of his own son, Stephen, Wall says only that he is in New York living "the good life."
Peter Wall started out as a sickly child in the Ukraine, one of five children in a German Mennonite family whose father was sent to Siberia and never seen again. The family had to work to survive, moving around Eastern Europe much of the time, and little Peter was left in the care of a slightly older sister. He was, as he puts it, "pissing blood" from the time he was six months. It wasn't until long after the family settled in Abbotsford in 1948, looking for a better life, that Wall finally saw a doctor who diagnosed kidney stones. An operation erased what had been years of pain, and Wall found himself with more energy than he'd ever known, plus eternal gratitude to the medical system. After graduating from a Mennonite high school in the Fraser Valley, he went to UBC to study chemistry. It was a disaster. "I've never worked so hard and achieved so little in my whole life." He dropped out after first year.
In the meantime, he was selling lumber out in the valley. And then, a revelation. His mother, Maria, asked him to build her a house. He did. For $6,000. Then she decided she didn't want it, so he sold it. For $13,000. That math intrigued him, and he saw that land in a beautiful city like Vancouver was going to be a valuable commodity. "It's so easy to figure out you should buy, buy, buy. You steal, beg, or borrow to do that." For years he bought as much as he could. Wall himself says he's been fortunate enough to be the right person in the right place. "I've always accepted I was lucky, and I've enjoyed the luck."
In 1960, he joined forces with his cousin, Peter Redekop. At first, they built single-family houses in Burnaby. Then they decided the money was in apartments. So the two of them took the company public in 1969 and started building until they owned 2,000 units. In the 1970s, federal tax benefits for apartment buildings evaporated, condo legislation appeared, and the cost of land started shooting up, so they switched to condo construction. By 1990, as the sale of condos on the old Expo lands was heating up, Wall made an unusual purchase: $30 million for an old school site on Burrard that had been a parking lot for almost 30 years. By the end of the decade, he'd transformed that unprepossessing site into a hotel and two apartment towers, tapping into a luxury market for central-city condos no one had anticipated.
People who follow Wall are in awe of his ability to spot opportunities. One senior executive with a major Vancouver developer said the company went looking a few years ago on Burnaby Mountain, figuring nearby oil tanks would be removed some day and the land, next to a golf course, would become prime for building residential. He thought he was being quite clever. Staff checked the land records: Peter Wall had bought it 30 years earlier. "He's got tremendous vision," says former mayor Philip Owen (even though Wall no longer speaks to him, still angry that it was Owen's council that kiboshed his glass). "The guy can see down the road a hundred years."
Wall has also been prescient about people. Back in 1965, he spotted a realtor named Bob Lee. While the rest of conservative, white-bread Vancouver didn't know much about its Chinese community, Wall took Lee to lunch at Trader Vic's and asked him to join his company. As it turned out, when Chinese from Hong Kong started flooding into Vancouver in 1967 because of fears of a mainland China takeover, Lee had the connections to tap into the capital and buying power of that group. In the '90s, Wall latched onto another promising young man, a condo marketer who seemed to understand instinctively how to sell to people-by the cost of the unit as a whole, rather than by the square foot, as developers typically viewed sales prices-and brought him on to market all the company's projects. Bob Rennie, who has since built an empire on those skills and is paid $25,000 a month by the Wall company as a consultant, maintains a close relationship with him, meeting with him weekly for conversations where they call each other "Jimmy" and "George," one of the few confidantes Wall has retained.
"George really, really cares about Vancouver and a better British Columbia and simply masks it with the veil of ‘Peter Wall,' " says Rennie, who says Wall is extraordinary at assessing risk and empowering people.
Today, Wall Financial has assets of almost half a billion and major projects on the go all over: Shannon Mews, the grand estate Wall bought with a piddly $50,000 down when he was 27 and still loves, dropping in occasionally to see how its redevelopment is going; Wall Centre False Creek, which sold out almost instantly, thanks to Wall's insistence on building smaller condos rather than the luxury units that dominated the adjacent and sluggish Olympic Village; the Eldorado on Kingsway; the massive multi-tower project planned for Kingsway and Boundary; an unusual industrial/residential project in the gritty stretch of Hastings near Clark. Plus other developments in Abbotsford, Richmond, Burnaby, and Langley.
But all that is just money. "Wealth in itself is kind of boring," Wall says. "You just accumulate, and it's like having too much food on your plate." As for development, these days most of that is handled quietly and diplomatically by Wall's less flamboyant nephew, Bruno, who went to work for his uncle after getting his medieval-history degree. Bruno stays determinedly in the background and has achieved significant success getting approvals by, unlike Peter, offering what the city wants upfront.
In the past, Wall has poured his energy and money into three things. One is the arts. His developments have frequently been part of a package to create or preserve cultural space: the Stanley Theatre on Granville, the York on Commercial Drive, the new Orpheum space in the Capitol Residences, the Playhouse studio theatre as part of the False Creek development. He has an equally long list of smart, creative, talented people he's willing to give money to. Singers like Heppner, Jessye Norman, and Luciano Pavarotti, whose appearances in the city he engineered through major donations as part of his lifelong craze for opera because, he says before singing a few bars from Norma, "Opera is drama-there's love and violence and sadness."
The second is science and medical research. In 1991, Bob Lee, who left Wall Financial in 1979 to form Prospero International Realty (cousin Peter Redekop split off in '87), convinced Wall to donate to the university where he'd done so miserably. Wall walked around the campus, saw it was a mess, and wanted his money to go to maintenance. "They wouldn't let me do that." Because, unlike many others, he didn't want a building named after him ("What's the purpose of that?"), he donated 15 percent of the value of the company, then $15 million, to an institute whose mandate would be to attract and retain the kind of brilliant scholars that earn his rare respect. Since then, that money has helped the university retain Nobel Prize-winning chemist Michael Smith and support researchers like cellular microbiologist Brett Finlay (who sits on the Wall Financial board) and evolutionary biologist Sally Otto.
Then there's politics, where, as in research, he prizes originality. He likes Gregor Robertson, though he doesn't agree with any of that "green bullshit." And he's entranced by Christy Clark. "Next to W.A.C. Bennett, she is the most uplifting person, the most logical person, I have ever seen in politics." But what is it he wants from these people? It's not the conventional board of trade stuff: less tax for business, fewer stifling rules that inhibit free enterprise, et cetera. No, Wall is after something bigger. "I'm for free thinking. It's an absolute addiction of mine," he says, his English still slightly accented. When he gets access to people with power, he asks them to do unusual, sometimes impossible, things. In the years when Wall was hosting Paul Martin and his Liberal entourage, he once organized an event at the Wall Centre where contributors paid $10,000 apiece to sit with Martin at a roundtable event and pitch ideas. The 11 other businessmen inundated the prime minister-to-be with ideas on how to spend or not spend federal money. "When Peter had his moment to speak," says one of the high flyers at the meeting, "he talked to Paul about how the world needed more love. His only agenda really was to give some money. He just wants to be treated as a player."