The New Skyline: Ian Gillespie’s Vision

Ian Gillespie has made time in yet another packed day to share with me his vision of, well, Ian Gillespie. It’s a complicated vision, as befits a man with $10 billion in business on the go around North America. He doesn’t want (merely) to talk about the business of his business, nor about his relationship (envied and resented) with Vancouver’s ruling politicians; he certainly doesn’t want to talk about himself. “I don’t like the cult of celebrity. It’s fucked up.”

Instead, in his art-filled office in the Shaw Tower, the developer creating the city’s most startling projects sticks to a rigidly abstract articulation of his life. Handsome, with long blond hair and the greyhound body of the competitive runner he once was, Gillespie, 52, hesitates over a handwritten journal, deciding what to read aloud to me by way of explanation. He couldn’t sleep last night, so he drafted seven pages of his annual vision statement to the 1,500-plus staff of his Westbank Projects Corporation. This year, it’s all about Gesamtkunstwerk.

Many Vancouverites don’t know the word, which translates as “a total work of art.” Frank Lloyd Wright did it, designing everything from the stained-glass windows to the doorknobs to the furniture in his early-20th-century houses. Gillespie himself had already been Gesamtkunstwerking in a small way, incorporating dramatic public art into his buildings (Stan Douglas’s Gastown Riot photo in Woodward’s, Los Angeles artist Diana Thater’s blue-green light beam on the Shaw Tower), picking out everything from the furniture to the faucets. But now he wants to build the concept out, changing cities through every facet of his developments.

His world is a big one these days. He’s the developer for two of the region’s most ambitious projects. The billion-dollar remake of Oakridge Centre for owner Ivanhoe Cambridge is envisioned as a palisade of towers, some as high as 45 storeys, in the middle of South Vancouver. The cantilevered Bjarke Ingels-designed structure that will grow out of the north end of the Granville Bridge will draw a collection of lower-level, pie-shaped buildings around it. A third major project is simmering: the redevelopment of First Baptist on Burrard, a project whose Bing Thom design produced gasps of “awe and excitement” from a San Francisco audience Gillespie showed it to last year. (He won’t show the design here, saying it’s being redone.) He’s also got a string of other projects changing the neighbourhoods they’re in. He’s recently bought Vancouver’s downtown energy system, Central Heat, and plans to dramatically expand and transform it in order to reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions. One visible user of that system: the Telus Gardens tower rising on Georgia. At 70th and Granville, a Safeway-site redevelopment has popped the first tower into low-rise Marpole. On unlikely Kingsway, he’s marketing a luxe three-tower complex with its own outdoor swimming pool, hot tub, and urban orchard.

For Gillespie, they’re components of a whole new city he’s helping create, something he says most developers have forgotten how to do. “We’ve stopped doing city-building. Why am I interested in this concept of city-building and the concept of the total work of art? The reason is I really think that my contribution is making cities better.”

In case doubt remains, Ian Gillespie wants to make a mark. A big mark. He’s obsessed with his image and his legacy to a degree unusual even among developers. Last year, he self-published Building Artistry, a 532-page tome about his work to date, everything from his first Richmond shopping mall to Woodward’s to the two Shangri-Las (here and in Toronto) to 60 W. Cordova, his experiment in creating low-cost housing. And he’s not shy about saying why he gets picked to do the big projects. “They say, ‘Why is Westbank doing Oakridge?’ And I say, ‘Really? Have you done a Shangri-La and a Shangri-La and a Woodward’s? Do you have the body of work?’ ” Why does the city give him favourable treatment resented by other developers? “I have no time for that shit. I look at the quality of work that they’re doing and I say, ‘If you want to raise your game and do the quality of work that we’re doing, then you’ll get the time and attention of the people at the City of Vancouver that you deserve.’ ” Why did David Mirvish choose him to redevelop the Honest Ed’s site in Toronto? “This is going to sound extremely arrogant, but I can’t imagine another developer in Canada being able to do that project justice.”

“He might have the biggest ego of any developer I’ve met,” says former city planning director Brent Toderian. “But it drives him in very positive directions, to be unique.”

“I think he’s visionary. He makes no small plans,” says the director of UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Leslie van Duzer. Van Duzer confers extensively with Gillespie. He’s part of the fundraising team strategizing about how the school can build the world’s tallest wooden tower (18 storeys), and she makes a point of organizing private meetings for him with any visiting world-famous architects the university has invited. “There are probably in the history of architecture only a handful of developers who are important for city-building. He’s one.”

There were few signs of all this at the start. Gillespie grew up in Port Coquitlam one of five kids born to a father who was a technician at an oil refinery and a mother who worked as a psychiatric nurse. He did a commerce degree at UBC and an MBA in Toronto before going to work with his mother’s cousin, Rod Schroeder, developing strip malls. From the beginning, he cultivated long-term relationships and made an effort to do more creative projects on the side: he developed small houses with Ken Wai, who went on to open Lumiere. He married a classmate, Stephanie Dong, who happens to be the niece of Vancouver real-estate magnate Bob Lee.

He began by managing developments for the Kuok Group but formed his own company, Westbank, in 1993. Along the way, Gillespie got interested in both art and architecture. “When Ian first started with London Plaza , he had no clue about architecture,” says James Cheng, who designed Gillespie’s first notable projects with him. “But he started to understand he can’t hire just any architect. He started to realize architecture can become a sales tool. Now it serves a purpose for him. It’s part of the brand, because he’s a very smart businessman.” Cheng designed oval buildings for the Palisades condos, a first for the city, and classical-looking buildings like the Residences on Georgia, the Shangri-La, and the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel.

Gillespie, Cheng, and up-and-coming condo salesman Bob Rennie exploded onto the Vancouver development scene together in the mid-’90s; the three represented development savvy, distinctive architecture, and a new kind of lifestyle marketing. But the great partnership evaporated. Rennie and Gillespie had a famous falling-out six years ago. Gillespie says Rennie got so busy with his other lives (power broker to the city and province, other clients) that he didn’t have time or attention for Westbank; Rennie will say only that “We both grew up and unfortunately apart on too many issues.” For his part, Cheng said he moved on because he didn’t want to be a Westbank-only architect and he found his aesthetic preferences diverging from Gillespie’s. “I don’t want to do just flashy things to sell real estate. As a designer, Ian likes a certain kind of architecture, a kind of flash.” Another person who knows his work well commented wryly, “He’s like a raven. He likes shiny things.” The result of Gillespie’s shift is about to become visible, with Telus Garden’s jazzed-up exterior (a Gregory Henriquez design) and the attention-grabbing Bjarke Ingels tower.

The consequence of wanting to make your mark is that a lot of people don’t like you. Gillespie appeared on the radar of the militant West End Neighbours association when he proposed, under Vision Vancouver’s experimental rental-incentive policy, a new tower on Comox Street. Opposition was blistering. Those who’ve studied his developments’ financials say Gillespie has been given a good deal on the normal developer contributions required for community amenities. With the Ingels tower, for example, he was only required to contribute $12 million — the same amount he paid for the much smaller Shangri-La a decade ago. Gillespie says he understands why his numerous highly visible projects upset residents. He believes local developers should do a better job of telling Vancouver what they’re doing and why, although he dismisses some of the opposition as just people “who want a part in the movie.” But, in spite of that, he doesn’t have much time for opponents who don’t grasp the wonderfulness of what he’s doing. (On the financial side, he says his Ingels tower contributions also include him paying the city $35 million for a chunk of land under the bridge that was worth almost nothing.)

Gillespie acknowledges that a lot of developers in town don’t like him either. Certainly there is lots of behind-the-scenes grumbling that he gets favours from the city. And despite how residents feel, some in his industry complain he gives millions away in contributions to community amenities; city staff then expect every other developer to do the same. Critics charge that he can be so generous because he’s using other people’s money, which makes him less concerned about maximizing profits, but he says it’s just untrue: he self-finances about half of his projects and works with partners for the remainder, but still contributes 50 percent of the equity needed to those. The griping has been going on for 15 years, ever since Gillespie had a lunch with Larry Beasley, then the city’s planning director, at which they settled then and there how much the city would get in contributions from the Shangri-La project.

Though charming and generous to the people who matter to him, Gillespie rarely ventures out of his cocoon. He does go to public meetings about his projects to gauge reaction, but he doesn’t talk to the people there much. He’s not a member of the big industry association, the Urban Development Institute. And although he donates to Vision Vancouver, it’s a fraction of a Wall Financial or a Concord Pacific amount. The only Vision-like event he’s been spotted at in recent years was the birthday party for chief of staff Mike Magee last fall. According to a source, he was asked to hold a golf fundraiser a few years ago for the B.C. Liberals and declined. (His liquor licence for the Shangri-La hotel took a long time to get approved that year.) Gillespie says he has no memory of either alleged event.

The critical drag doesn’t seem to affect him. He anticipates spending the next four years developing a plan for Toronto’s Honest Ed’s site (likely to be a killer, situated in a change-averse part of the city). He’s about to announce sizable projects in the States. A guess is that one will be in San Francisco, since he was there last year giving a public talk about his accomplishments.

There are no landmark sites left in downtown Vancouver, so the question for many watching Gillespie’s meteoric career is where he can possibly go next. How will he invent the next death-defying project? The next source of cash for those 1,500 staff members? How will he ensure his place in the history of this city, this country, this planet, as the best, best, best city builder ever?