Renee Hourston, from leading Vancouver-based developer Onni, joins Adam and Matt to discuss the redevelopment of the False Creek Flats Community and up-and-coming areas and projects.
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Who are you and what do you do?
They used to call me the dream maker. I’ve been licensed since 1999 but was in sales for 20 years prior. I worked all over the world, and was licensed in the US too. I love my job and making dreams come true.
You used to be independent? No, I worked with S&P who worked more with high end resorts. I’ve worked in Whistler, the Island, Mexico, Colorado, and Saint Martin. I came back in 2010 for the Olympics and chatted with Onni. I’ve been with them ever since.
Since day 1 you’ve been in real estate sales? I took the course at 19 and did some modeling. That turned into a full-time job at the Show Mart building (now the FX building) which was selling wholesale clothing to retail stores across Canada. After awhile, I was riding one of my many motorcycles and was hit by a car and got a concussion. One thing led to another, and I ended up with S&P and then Onni.
You’ve been with Onni since 2010. Which projects have you worked on?
I’ve been blessed to work on some incredible projects. We started with The Mark downtown which was amazing. Social in the Southeast False Creek area and V6A, on the opposite side. They were interesting. We were one of the first developers to move into the Chinatown area. Much of the overseas market wasn’t interested; it was more local people moving in. But demographics have changed a lot; there’s much more interest in that area. Social was great and has proven to be good for resale. Most people we sold to were end users; there were not a lot of investors. We’ve done bigger homes where a lot of realtors purchased. To this day we still have many original owners, but if something comes up it doesn’t last long. A lot is sold from people in the know on the inside of that building.
Now rents in that area have caught up to the downtown core.
For sure. The next iconic building was the skybridge tower, Central, Onni’s signature for the next 100 years. Seconds from the waterfront, this is a building of many end users and investors. From a rental point of view, you can charge $2,400 for a 650-sq. ft. one-bedroom, unfurnished. It’s a very professional clientele that loves that area and the access to everything we love about Vancouver.
What’s your impression of the market recently?
It depends who you’re talking to – it’s fantastic! The only way to screw the market up now is to not have purchased in it. People keep saying it’s going to pop, it’s going to pop. The reality is we’re an international city, not unlike New York and San Francisco, where price points are at a point that people don’t purchase, they only rent their whole life. You’re saving for your next margherita. Young people can’t afford to think of ownership. They have more of a lifestyle without being house poor. More condos are catching up to home prices. It’s an interesting concept.
Where did you and your son buy?
I bought in Canvas and we were looking to buy in Canvas phase 2 for him. It’s the bank of mom and dad, unfortunately.
Matt and I have known you for years and we’ve worked on several different projects together. Canvas comes to mind as something we worked quite consistently on. Can you give us the back story on the building, project and area?
Canvas is a vibrant looking and will be a vibrant living building; it’s part of the arts district in the flats. I purchased there because I wanted to be east of Main Street, where it’s quieter and less populated. There is a community, neighborhood feel more than any other building I’ve done. Owners keep selling to people they know; for every one unit I sold, they sold three more for me. It’s an organically seeded building that kind of just happened. There are many past-Onni purchasers from Social, or others. It has a number of family units: there is one family of nine! 95% of the building is owner occupied, which is a huge number. And 48% know one another: five guys on the same hockey team, four in the same wedding party, six in the same industry, 12 realtors. It’s going to be a fun building, and hard to get into. Many bought to live there; there’s not much on the market, which is great.
When you launched Canvas, which sold quickly, certain people had trouble with the location: it was too far east. What type of changes have you seen in the neighborhood?
That’s true. But west of Main Street is busy; it’s a destination. There’s shopping, dragon boating, etc. When people come over, I want them to find parking and not have to drive around for 15 minutes. It has more of a neighborhood feel but there was definitely a pushback for many people who didn’t understand that or have the vision. Now, if you drive by it there’s the Red Truck Brewery, Emily Carr is being built; this is Vancouver’s art district. Many people walk up 1st Ave; there’s many galleries there. The flats will be a cool spot with so many exciting things happening: Georgia wharf, the hospital coming. It’s a killer investment area if you have the opportunity.
When you think of when it first launched to now, it’s so obvious now.
If you had pushback then but came in today, you’d have people behind you. We couldn’t sell them fast enough. There is a huge void in the market. Block 100 on the east side of Quebec (a three-minute walk away) was similar. It was slow to start.
Vancouverites are that way – we are very specific about areas that work and that don’t make sense. We saw the potential and our clients there are feeling pretty good about their purchase.
Easily half the people who bough in Canvas have expressed interest in Great Northern Way coming soon. It’s super quiet with great views and a quiet, neighborhood feel. There are not many huge towers so the mountains look enormous, and you’re seconds from the seawall. It’s going to be great – I wish I’d bought three more!
By Great Northern Way, you mean an upcoming project by Onni?
Yes, Onni has a “coming soon” section on the website with various projects. These include Tsawwassen, Gilmore Station, Great Northern Way (I call it Canvas Phase 2) on 1st Avenue & Thornton. It’s the dog park beside Red Truck.
Can we get the inside scoop on this?
You’re behind me in line! There are no details yet but we’d like to fast track this property as there’s a huge void in the area. There have been successful launches with Epic and Ellsworth. If we had three towers there we’d be excited; we’re just waiting for the City.
Will it be concrete, air conditioned?
I don’t know yet but you’ll want to register for it.
Why is SE False Creek such an exciting area for end-users and investors?
You’re close to downtown but you’re not. What I saw with Olympic Village was it’s many of the original Yaletown purchasers who wanted to get out of the downtown core. If you love the lifestyle component, the seawall is there. Jump on a ferry and you’re at Stanley Park. It attracts higher end professionals, so from an investor’s point of view, you won’t get $2,600/month for a one-bed unfurnished in the West End or Kitsilano, but you will here. You’re near public transit, so you don’t necessarily need a vehicle. Couples could have one vehicle.
When I came to the presentation centre, you had numbers on rental amounts – starting at $3 and by the end the rents shot up.
At Evan, which is Onni’s rental property on Great Northern Way, rents were $390/sq. ft. for two-bedrooms. This is a non-airconditioned, low-rise building.
What does the future look like for SE false creek? Has it peaked?
I don’t think so. Look at the hospital, that’s huge. Look how many will be employed and will want to live in the area. They work long hours and typically don’t have pets – they’re the perfect renter. If you’re investing in the area you need places to stay. There are 1,500 staff/students/faculty coming to Emily Carr on either side of the False Creek area. A huge push. Georgia Wharf will be one of the destinations for visitors. The viaducts are coming down – do you think that real estate will be less expensive than now? I don’t. You’re in God’s country! Mountains, water – everything from a lifestyle perspective is there. It’s two SkyTrain stops from downtown, no commute to work. And the line out to UBC in future is growth.
Onni has a reputation for community building – they go into an area where people don’t see much potential and redevelop. They put in commercial space, create a community. What are some future hotspots? Do you know where Onni’s going for current and potential investments?
Gilmore Station is an exciting location. Get in early to something like that is where you want to be. Development in Tsawwassen is interesting. This year, there’s Abbotsford and Cambie & 57th, but that’s a ways out. The wheel never stops turning. It’s just a matter of being a coulda-woulda-shoulda or are you going to get on board? I don’t think it’s peaked, but we’ll see!