Builder of world's tallest structure enters Vancouver market
By Derrick Penner
Thursday, April 03, 2008
Aerial view of the Downtown Burj Dubai complex.
CREDIT: AFP/Getty Images
Aerial view of the Downtown Burj Dubai complex.
VANCOUVER - For a company with projects as audacious as the 160-storey-and-growing Burj Dubai, Emaar Properties' first Metro Vancouver incursion seems modest.
It's taking on a 98-unit townhouse development in South Surrey while adding more storeys to the world's tallest building in the United Arab Emirates.
"You have to be very selective," Robert Booth, Emaar's Canadian director said in an interview about working in Lower Mainland.
"We'll focus on micro-markets. That's the approach we've taken."
Finding suitable building sites is the biggest hurdle in an area were most residential land is already developed and opportunities for large-scale re-developments are rare.
And while Emaar's main focus will remain emerging markets such as China, India and the Middle East, Booth said the company realizes Canada "is a great real estate market."
Emaar is a Dubai Public Joint Stock Company with a $20-billion market value on the Dubai Financial Market. Booth noted that it has operations in 18 countries, with the $20-billion Burj Dubai development its highest-profile international project.
Booth said the company doesn't disclose what the Burj's final height will be, but it is already the world's tallest structure, having surpassed the CN Tower. More floors - equal to two-thirds of the Eiffel Tower - will be added to the top.
Emaar is active in markets ranging from Marrakech, Morocco to Karachi, Pakistan. As a Vancouver Sun reporter met with Booth, the company was signing a co-operation agreement with a partner in China.
To be a global player, Booth said Emaar feels it is important to have a presence in North America, a continent that is also a good "ideas generator" for the company. Emaar maintains a global design studio in Orange County, Calif., for instance.
And over the next 10 to 15 years, Emaar's ambitions for Vancouver, then Toronto and perhaps Calgary, are substantial.
And Booth added that Vancouver was the first choice because of links to Asia - and its ravenous appetite for Canadian resources. The city is also known in the international market for the lifestyle it offers and good economic fundamentals, he said.
"We realized that our first port of call, in the Canadian context, is Vancouver to set up an operation," he said.
Today, Emaar in Canada consists of 12 people ensconced in dark-wood paneled offices on the 14th floor of downtown Vancouver's Guinness tower with a view that opens up to Stanley Park and the Lion's Gate Bridge.
Emaar won't limit itself to residential development because it is also experienced in hotel, commercial and office development.
The company's view is also long-term, he added, with a willingness to weather significant swings in building activity.
"We realize this probably wasn't the time to go out and try to take on a major project, given where we are in the [market] cycle," Booth said. "But projects that fit into a specific market niche are something we're comfortable with."
Booth, a Canadian, is no stranger to Vancouver. He was born in Montreal, but raised here, attending both Simon Fraser University and the University of B.C. before beginning his development career with Concord Pacific.
He moved on to Concord Adex Developments Corp. in Toronto, and joined Emaar in 2001.
Booth's return to Vancouver representing a new competitor in an already hotly competitive industry didn't make too many waves, according to Jennifer Podmore Russell, managing partner of the industry-research firm MPC Intelligence.
"The [development] industry seems to welcome anyone committed to doing it right," she said, focusing on good customer service and furthering the development communities reputation.
Getting into the Vancouver market, she added, "is a matter of how quickly you can find the [building] sites. That's by far the hardest part, [and Emaar] seems to be doing quite well in that respect."
From the conversations that she's had with Booth, Podmore Russell added that she thinks the Emaar executive has a good sense of what Metro Vancouver needs in terms of transportation and infrastructure to "create livable urban nodes," and not just in downtown Vancouver.
Booth said Emaar settled on its South Surrey project, called Wills Creek, located on 32nd Avenue near Highway 99, because it had good potential in the market south of the Fraser River, where empty-nest couples might want to downsize, or new families would want to locate.
Emaar has another, smaller site at 41st Avenue and Blenheim Street on Vancouver's west side that might accommodate 30 units of "urban infill," Booth said. Again, he added that Emaar's intent is to appeal to "end users" - people buying to live in the homes.
"There has got to be very strong local demand, at a micro level, for a real estate project," he said.
In that respect, Booth added that while British Columbia has strong economic fundamentals in terms of job growth, "there is certainly pressure on [housing] affordability," which the development industry and governments need to deal with.
"If people are going to continue to move here, live here, work here, affordability [of housing] is the No. 1 issue that needs to be addressed."