Vancouver developer Peter Wall brings arts venues to life


Vancouver developer Peter Wall says he wants to work with politicians to create more housing and community amenities. And the wily entrepreneur has done a great deal of this during his lengthy career in the real-estate business.

But in an interview in a West Side restaurant, he also tells the Georgia Straight that it’s not always easy.

“It’s very difficult ’cause you have to have some business sense,” Wall emphasizes. “And most politicians don’t have that. You know, most people don’t have that.”

Then he asks the Straight why this might be the case. He hears an answer that perhaps it’s because these politicians have never met a payroll.

“It’s not that,” Wall responds. “They’re scared of numbers. And you know why? ‘Cause a number is an absolute.”

Wall has worked magic with the numbers for more than 50 years, developing a vast number of buildings, including his landmark One Wall Centre in downtown Vancouver.

Wall Financial Corp. is in the midst of several other large projects, including Wall Centre Central Park near the Joyce SkyTrain Station, the redevelopment of Shannon Mews, and 900 Hastings, which Wall’s marketer, Bob Rennie, has dubbed “Proudly Strathcona”.

Along the way, Wall Financial Corp. has delivered $117 million in community amenities to the citizens of Vancouver, which often came as a result of negotiations with the city in return for development rights.

“I’m happy to do it, but I’m not sure whether anyone else is contributing an equal amount as they develop,” Wall comments.

Several of these projects have enhanced the arts. That includes the $13-million restoration of the century-old York Theatre on Commercial Drive.

Wall points out that the 370-seat venue, which debuts this month, was refurbished as a result of an inquiry from former councillor Jim Green. Wall adds that Mayor Gregor Robertson and the mayor’s chief of staff, Mike Magee, “kind of brought me in”.

Eventually, the city agreed to let Wall take possession of 106,793 square feet of heritage density in return for bringing the theatre back to life.

“That’s how that came about,” Wall reveals.

He says the numbers worked, even though he still hasn’t landed the heritage density on any of the sites that his company is developing.

Another new amenity for the arts community is a $14-million theatre space for Bard on the Beach and the Arts Club.

It’s included in the Wall Centre False Creek development in the 100 block of West 1st Avenue.

That’s not all. Wall is particularly proud of the $23-million cultural investment in the 900 block of Seymour Street, which includes a Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music school, expansion of the Orpheum Theatre, and rehearsal space.

It was provided in return for extra density for the Capitol Residences building in the block.

“Where we did a good job—a really, really good job—was the Orpheum,” Wall says. “In order for them to get what they wanted, we had to put up the money.”

Wall Financial Corp. also played an instrumental role in the rehabilitation of the Stanley Theatre on Granville Street. It was falling apart and the city didn’t want to forward any of its own cash along with the federal and provincial governments under a federal program.

To cover off the municipal contribution, Wall’s company negotiated a payment of $1.4 million to the city in return for additional density at One Wall Centre downtown.

It was a controversial move opposed by some councillors, including the NPA’s George Puil, who didn’t think density should be transferred across the city. The Arts Club took over operating the theatre after the restoration was completed in 2000.

Wall Financial Corp. has also committed to $30.5 million for 151 affordable-housing units and social-amenity space at two projects, and spent many millions more on a daycare facility, a universally accessible SkyTrain station, and a neighbourhood house in Vancouver.

Wall suggests that sometimes people get resentful when his company puts up money for projects like these. “That’s because they think you want something, so they try to shut you out,” he says.

The $117-million figure doesn't include his support for the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at UBC, which was funded with a $15-million donation—the largest ever received by UBC in its history at the time.

It helps underwrite the work of researchers such as pioneering microbiologist Brett Finlay and geographer Derek Gregory.

Finlay is examining the relationship of microbes in the intestinal tract to a sharp rise in asthma in the developed world.

Gregory is an international authority on the use of drones in modern warfare.

"We got into the institute to basically do some free thinking," Wall says with a smile.

Now, Wall is setting his sights on another big donation.

He reveals that he's considering creating a $1-million annual "genius" prize, along the lines of the MacArthur Foundation's genius grants.

"I am really upset about the obesity of North Americans—and how they put so much pressure on our health-care system," Wall says. "I would like to see if we could get a lifestyle award for different categories."

He then muses about the possibility of office workers spending two or three weeks a year doing physical labour to enhance their health.

"I know it's a bit idealistic," Wall acknowledges, "but what a phenomenal world we would have. I don't think we're going to achieve it right off the bat, but to strive for something like that gets me enthusiastic."

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