Real estate takes visionaries: people who can look at 130 acres of industrial land on the bank of the Fraser River and envision a community with 15,000+ residents, a town centre with over 250,000 square feet of retail space, 25 acres of green space, and 1.5 kilometers of bike and hiking paths. This type of large-scale community – Southeast Vancouver’s River District – does not just appear over night but rather takes decades of careful planning, major infrastructure, and negotiations with multiple stakeholders over time. And perhaps more surprising than the daily building challenges is what the process tells us about ourselves – as consumers, as urban dwellers, and as a city and culture in constant flux. Wesgroup’s VP of Development Brad Jones sits down with Adam and Matt to discuss the half way point of this 40-year endeavor, a career-defining labour of love, and the intricacies that go into planning a community so many will call home.
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Brad Jones is Vice President, Development for Wesgroup Properties. He is heavily involved in the large scale community development, River District – a masterplan community in Southeast Vancouver located on the Fraser River. Brad is an urban planner by trade who attended university in Toronto before moving west to Vancouver 9 years ago. Brad has always had a strong interest in geography and cities and was very interested in Urban Planning after he was exposed to it in high school. He attended Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario.
Wesgroup is a local, family owned development company that has been operating in development and real estate in Vancouver for the last 50 years. They work in industrial, commercial and retail real estate. They also have a history as a large home builder and a specialist in masterplan communities.
On River District and what Brad likes about masterplan communities in general:
Wesgroup considers themselves multifaceted in all aspects of real estate – strong in land development, commercial development and residential development. This allows them to play to their strengths and be creative in all facets of developing the ultimate livable masterplan community from scratch.
On the ‘soul’ of a masterplan community versus a community that grows organically:
This is something that Wesgroup is acutely aware of. A problem that developers encounter when building a masterplan community is that they neglect to add any amenities during the early phases of the project. Wesgroup has made sure to add amenities, like a Romer’s restaurant and a community centre, before rolling out the first phases of development at River District. They are also careful to make sure the area does not feel that it was designed and built all at the same time. They make sure to chose complementary, but different materials, architects and styles (even if more expensive) to make sure that each piece is unique in the community. The project started in the early 2000’s and will be completed in the early to mid 2030’s.
On if Wesgroup looked at other masterplan communities as templates that they wanted to emulate:
In the early days, the company heavily invested in the research component and worked with a number of consultants (internationally) and reviewed other successful masterplan communities to determine which pieces worked well. Sometimes the best decisions to make the community strong (like adding amenities in the first phase) might not be the most cost effective but are important to establishing a strong community in the long run. Wesgroup has tried to be open minded and innovative throughout the process. They have been looking at aspects like bike lanes and creative urban spaces and plazas with the help of well established international consultants. One of the challenges to developing a project of this scope is that you will need to adapt as cities grow and change.
As technology advances and the way people live changes, the community plan will also need to change. Brad notes that it is best to focus on the larger overarching goals and adapt the best way to get there over time. It is important to develop a self-sufficient community, including affordable housing, green space, schools and child care centres. There will also be a mix of rental and ownership units.
On the unique challenges of building a masterplan community versus a one-off development site:
The challenges are many. The scale is enormous. Wesgroup builds all of the roads and infrastructure needed. They are working along the Fraser River and working with all levels of government. Everything from picking the street lights to flood proofing. An established city like Vancouver is not as familiar with building roads like a more suburban city may be; therefore, members of the city and Wesgroup are working, adapting and learning together. The city’s preferences for neighborhoods have also changed over the years – for example, more bike lanes are needed for today’s urban living. The relationship between the developer and the city must adapt to accommodate these changes.
On how the project began and thoughts on density in the area:
The city started looking at the VFK (Victoria-Fraserview-Killarney) neighborhood in the late 1990’s. There was a Mill on the river district site that was shut down and the area needed to be repurposed. The official plan between Wesgroup and the city was not adopted until 2006 – the planning stage was considerable to ensure the community would meet people’s needs. The plan in 2003 was very progressive and was looking at growth and density issues that was considered very forward looking. The lower rise townhome homes are located on the outskirts of the plan, with higher towers that add density as you get further into the community. Southeast Vancouver holds a lot of potential right now for densification and growth.
On Wesgroup having the vision to undertake this masterplan community 20 years ago:
The members of Wesgroup have a long view of real estate with a unique understanding of the real estate market. The owners have long understood the company’s skillset in both residential and commercial space. In the early 2000’s, they recognized that the traditional single-family home masterplan community was coming to an end in the lower mainland because of the lack of new land. The owners took their skill set and decided to apply it to an urban community. Developing the River District area took tremendous vision and a really long view, but it has been incredibly successful.
On Brad’s thoughts on the current real estate market and the long-term market:
The current market is a bit challenging, but the fundamentals are still there. If a home is sharply priced, there will still be buyers. If you are delivering value in a great neighborhood, there will still be buyers. Brad has confidence in the residential real estate market and points to the commercial real estate market in Vancouver – huge tenant demand and lack of space. This suggests the market demand is there.
Over the long term, people are still moving here. We have the mountains, ocean and US border that will continue to attract people to this area and continue to keep real estate viable in Vancouver and beyond into the suburbs all the way to Abbotsford.
The residential rental market is also going strong – Wesgroup is finding significant demand at a site they have in New Westminster.
On the advantages of buying in a phased-out project like River District:
Buyers in the early stages will be acutely aware of the changes coming down the pipe, which allows them to make an informed decision of where they want to live. Wesgroup is also aware that their next building is only going to be successful if they do the right things in the current one, so they must make the right decisions in customer care to protect their brand and reputation.
Wesgroup maintains the commercial space in the River District community and they have a vested interest to ensure the community will continue to be vibrant for their customers and home owners. It is not just filling the commercial space, but finding businesses that people want to see. The retail can attract people and make them stay.
On the unique skillset he is developing by being involved in a massive project that may span the majority of his real estate career:
This was an opportunity that Brad wanted. This is what attracted him to Wesgroup in the first place and he recognizes that a project of this size is rare in Vancouver and rare in the Country. He gets to work on all parts of this community and with all levels of government. This is both very challenging and very rewarding. It is a unique position to be in.
5 Wire – 5 quick questions about Vancouver:
Favorite neighborhood: River District
Favorite Bar or Restaurant: Romer’s Burger Bar – River District
Downtown Penthouse or Westside Mansion: Downtown Penthouse
First place you take someone from out of town: Lonsdale Quay
Something you have purchased for under $500 that has had a positive impact on your life: A 2 iron – he is excited about what it may or may not do for his golf game!
Find out more about Wesgroup and River District: