Archive for May, 2008

It’s Vancouver, but not as we know it

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

Our city would have looked very different had these plans gone ahead

John Mackie
Sun

A 1970 drawing of False Creek and downtown showing buildings that were never built. Photograph by : Glenn Baglo / Vancouver Sun

Vancouver has seen its share of Big Proposals over the years. But Premier Gordon Campbell’s recent announcement that the province would be putting a sunroof on BC Place Stadium and had found a new waterfront location on False Creek for the Vancouver Art Gallery ranks with the best of ‘em.

The refurbished stadium and gallery are supposed to be the linchpins for a new “high-density urban entertainment/cultural hub” on False Creek.

Just what that means is anyone’s guess — as is whether it will ever happen. Old newspapers are filled with plans for cultural facilities and concepts that were never built.

One of the recurring themes in Vancouver is the search for a cultural hub or civic centre. In 1929 American planner Harland Bartholomew unveiled A Plan For The City of Vancouver, a planning document that became the blueprint for the development of the city for decades.

One of the key elements in the Bartholomew plan was for a massive civic complex on the north shore of False Creek at Burrard and Pacific.

“That was probably the most grandiose and most complex plan,” says heritage expert John Atkin.

“It would have changed the face of the city completely, in terms of the focus and how things developed.”

The Bartholomew complex included a new city hall and several other civic buildings.

“It was going to contain a museum, archives, I think it was even going to have a library,” says Norman Young, the former chairman of the civic theatres board.

“It was one of those things where they thought ‘We can put everything together.’”

The drawing of the plan by architect George Sharp is very art deco, elegant and streamlined and perfectly symmetrical. There’s a waterfront walkway, formal gardens, a grand staircase, and two banks of civic buildings on either side of the staircase. At the top of the staircase is a block-long city hall, which has a deco tower similar to the city hall that was finally built at 12th and Cambie in 1935.

Unfortunately, the depression came along, and the plan was never adopted. But one element of the Bartholomew civic complex plan was built: the Burrard Bridge.

Sharp and his partner Charles Thompson had a hand in many big concepts. In 1914, they drafted a plan for the University of British Columbia, but the construction of the university was delayed by the First World War and when UBC was finally built in the 1920s, Sharp & Thompson only got to design three buildings (the library, the science building and the powerhouse).

This didn’t seem to deter them. The Vancouver Public Library’s archives have two Sharp & Thompson designs for museums from the 1930s. The Pacific Museum was to be located at Lost Lagoon on the eastern edge of Stanley Park. It was a handsome, imposing structure, very much like the Bartholomew city hall, save that the central tower was relatively low.

Another Sharp & Thompson Pacific Museum was to be located on Deadman’s Island off Stanley Park. It was a much grander design, with an Empire State Building-style tower and an adjoining citadel-style building. It also had a massive park-like interior courtyard.

If Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot can ever talk the Port of Vancouver’s bureaucrats into letting him build his waterfront soccer stadium in Gastown, he might want to take a look at Sharp & Thompson’s beautiful 1934 design for a stadium at Kits Point. It was very deco, naturally, but also contained a little bit of everything: a 30,000-seat stadium, a civic auditorium, an outdoor bandstand, a civic plaza, a pool and tennis courts.

But someone should warn Kerfoot that there have been numerous plans for sports stadiums that were kiboshed. Young found a 1911 newspaper story for a 50,000-seat stadium on the Stanley Park side of Lost Lagoon. In fact, it was to be built with fill on Lost Lagoon, or at least the northwestern corner of Lost Lagoon. It was a rather ambitious concept: at the time, the population of the entire Lower Mainland was about 157,000.

“There was another [proposed sports stadium] where this guy had almost all the property where the art gallery is now,” says Young.

“He was going to build a baseball stadium there in the early 1900s. He couldn’t get one or two lots, so he couldn’t do it.”

Park commissioner George Thompson advanced his plan for a civic centre on Georgia Street at the entrance to Stanley Park in 1949. The nine buildings included a library, polytechnic school, theatre, auditorium, museum, art gallery and art school.

None of it was ever built, but Atkin says the Queen Elizabeth Theatre is a leftover from another civic centre concept.

“I think the [current] site of the CBC was going to be a sports arena, a la Key Arena in Seattle,” says Atkin.

“Then there was going to be a convention centre, and an art gallery and library. The Queen Elizabeth Theatre was actually the first piece of that large puzzle, and the rest of it never got built.”

There were several versions of the sports arena near the Queen E. One was a somewhat brazen attempt by the then-owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard, to get Vancouver to give them a block of free land, where they would erect a 20,000-seat arena for a National Hockey League franchise. Council put their plan in a plebiscite in the 1964 election, and voters turned it down.

The Sun files have an alternative 1949 plan for the theatre that became the Queen E. It would have had a theatre, but also included a 10-storey public library, CBC broadcasting studios, and stores. It would have been located between Robson and Smithe and Howe and Hornby, where Robson Square is today.

The Queen Elizabeth Theatre is now undergoing a $15-million renovation, but a few years ago, Young says, there were discussions about knocking it down and building a new theatre next door on the former Greyhound bus depot/Larwill Park site.

“This was at the same time they were going to build the [present] library, which is why it never got any press, etc.,” says Young.

“Part of the considerations was to buy the post office and put the library in there, because it’s an adaptable building, along with a million other civic things like the museum and stuff like that. And then rebuild the theatre and change the block between [where the Queen Elizabeth is today] to a park. Nothing ever came of it.”

The old Greyhound/Larwill Park site may yet become some kind of major civic space. Before Campbell gave his surprising announcement that the art gallery was moving to False Creek — the gallery was only told about it two weeks in advance — the new gallery was supposed to be on the Larwill Park site.

Now Mayor Sam Sullivan has mused that the long-delayed Coal Harbour arts complex could go to Larwill Park. It was supposed to be built on the Coal Harbour waterfront, but the land was sold to the province for the new convention centre.

The city still has $20 million it collected from developers and the province for the arts complex, but if the BC Place sunroof costs $200 million, the art gallery costs $300 million, and a new national maritime centre is built on the North Shore, funding for a $70-million mid-size (1,800 seat) symphonic hall might be a bit hard to come by. (All of these figures are educated guesses — Gordon Campbell didn’t release any dollar figures in his BC Place/art gallery announcement. The last time Sun reporter Chad Skelton did a Freedom of Information request about BC Place’s roof, he got back 13 pages of blacked-out documents.)

The art gallery looked at many options before settling on the Larwill Park site, including staying at its present site in the old courthouse at Robson Square. One option featured a new building on the southeast corner of the site. A model of the proposal is wild — the top of the building hangs over its podium like a giant ‘T.’ It was as tall as the Sears building across the street.

There also would have been a new entrance on Georgia Street below the current entrance, so that the basement of the gallery could be incorporated into the exhibition space. Arthur Erickson’s 1983 addition would also have been demolished, bringing the courthouse section of the gallery back to its original 1912 look.

There were many, many plans for libraries that were never built. Architect C.B.K. Van Norman designed an ultra-modern 10-storey library at Burrard and Robson in 1952. The firm of Sharp, Thompson, Berwick and Pratt (a latter-day edition of Sharp & Thompson) designed another modern highrise library in 1946, while Ald. Halford Wilson proposed a sleek modern library at Pender and Beatty in 1951. There’s a parking lot there now.

Wilson’s library is quite striking; it’s really too bad it didn’t go through. But in retrospect, many other Big Plans were kind of dumb. A few years ago I found a poster in a junk store for something called “Vancouver: City of the Seventies.” Essentially it’s an artist’s conception of Canadian Pacific’s plan for the north shore of False Creek in the late ’60s — a beehive of bland concrete apartment towers.

The biggest building downtown was also never built: a controversial 50-storey courthouse proposed by W.A.C. Bennett’s Social Credit government. The idea was killed by Dave Barrett’s NDP when it was elected in 1972.

“The legend is when Wacky Bennett got booted out and Dave Barrett came in, Barrett said ‘this is awful,’ ” says Atkin. “So he took the model of the tower, laid it down on its side and said ‘Let’s build this.’ That’s the origin of what was called the three block project, which became Robson Square.”

Reached at his home in Victoria, Barrett chuckles at the memory.

“Well, actually it was [attorney-general] Alex Macdonald,” says Barrett.

“He came up to me and told me about this. I said ‘Well, hell Alex, if that’s the way you believe [then do it]. You know more about the legal structure and what kind of facilities you want.’ He said ‘Fine,’ and went ahead and did it. They built the courthouse, but not that huge monster they had planned.

“We lost the [next] election, but Alex showed up anyway at the dedication for the [Robson Square] building, and they just ignored him. That was chicken [bleep] stuff. Mind you, they were a chicken [bleep] crew.”

Barrett is now 78, but he still hasn’t lost his bite, or his wit. Asked what the idea was behind the Socred courthouse tower, he replies: “They wanted a phallic symbol, I think. People are hard up, they’ve got to have something.”

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

 

Real estate boom hits Iran

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

Prices surged by more than 100 per cent in 2007

Parisa Hafezi
Sun

The price of real estate, such as these apartments in northwestern Tehran, is rising substantially as Iranians pay the equivalent of millions of dollars for luxury housing. However, many are being priced out of the market. Photograph by : Morteza Nikoubazl, Reuters

TEHRAN Negar Ehteshami just paid the equivalent of $6 million in rials in cash for a luxurious apartment. But it is not in New York or London. It is in the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“I am a millionaire because of this 300-square-metre (3,229 square feet) apartment,” said Ehteshami, a 56-year-old interior designer from a rich Iranian family who has always lived in an affluent northern Tehran neighbourhood.

“But nothing else in my life resembles the life of a millionaire,” she said, moving her Hermes handbag out of the way as she closed the window of her apartment.

“Here I feel (as though) I am inside a helicopter. I can see the whole city.”

Hers is a tale with echoes in much of the West: a house price surge fuelled partly by easy lending. In Iran, however, people are still being priced out of the market.

Mansour Bagheri, a businessman living in Germany since 1980, hopes to make a fortune from this business model.

“I get loans in Europe, where I live, and buy apartments in Tehran. I am all set to become super rich,” he said.

A real estate boom in the world’s fourth-largest oil producer has been powered by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s economic policies since he was elected in 2005, economic analysts say.

Real estate prices surged by more than 100 per cent in 2007, after rising by about 65 per cent in 2006 and more than 50 per cent in 2005. Some economists see huge scope for the market to keep rising as, with interest rates below inflation, Iranians seek a store of value in property.

“The high prices might be a bubble,” said economist Reza Abdizadeh. “It might be fake and not logical. But it is a fact. Historically, housing prices have never dropped in Iran. The government might be able to stop prices from rising, but will not succeed in lowering them.”

Shortly after Ahmadinejad was elected, his government came up with a plan for “quick-impact loans,” handing out substantial sums to individuals and companies with plans to create jobs in Iran where the official unemployment rate is above 10 per cent.

This stimulus is also a textbook trigger for inflation and alarmed many, including the head of Iran‘s Central Bank, Tahmasb Mazaheri.

“It has created problems since in effect … the main issue is massive floating capital,” said economist Saeed Leylaz.

The government has said those who have used the money to invest in property and not for creating jobs will be banned from obtaining loans for five years.

Criticized by politicians and economists for his populist economic policies, Ahmadinejad cut bank interest rates despite strong liquidity growth last year. They are now well below inflation, currently above 20 per cent a year.

“When there is no other opportunity to invest, and interest rates of banks are around 16 per cent, naturally money flows to real estate,” said Ali Afshari, a real estate agent.

The government has tried unsuccessfully to rein in prices.

With one million prospective owners coming on to the market each year and Iran capable of building only 600,000 new homes a year, conservative politician Mohammad Khoshchehreh said there was a shortage of 1.6 million homes.

Hamid Taghavi, a government employee with two children, sold his 60-square-metre apartment in Tehran to pay for his son’s wedding in 2007. It has since become difficult for him even to rent a smaller apartment.

“I wanted to buy a smaller apartment with the rest of the money, but it seems at the age of 55 I will be homeless in less than two years,” he said.

Stoking the fire, some real estate brokers and analysts forecast a “super jump” in prices in the coming months amid mounting international pressure on Iran to suspend its nuclear work.

The United Nations has imposed three sets of sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear program. In addition, Washington has blacklisted three of Iran‘s main state banks and, under U.S. pressure, European banks have also pulled out.

“Low interest rates, strong housing demand … and the threat of additional UN sanctions on Iran will fuel prices,” said Mehrdad Divani, a broker, expecting yet more Iranian capital to go into bricks and mortar.

Foreign capital has played a large role in the market’s success, because of money repatriated by Iranians living abroad, which analysts believe has increased since Iran was first hit by UN sanctions in 2006.

“Fear that assets may be frozen over the nuclear row and the economic recession in the West have accelerated money flows to Iran,” said economist Bagher Safarian.

An engineer involved in mass construction of houses in southern Tehran also saw prices rising even more in 2008 as construction booms in much of the country, including in towns near Tehran, where many poorer workers live.

“People have money and they do not trust Iran‘s banking system because of political and economic instability,” said Mansour Khalilian. “Also because the dollar and gold are losing value, people prefer to invest in real estate.”

Among those hit by rising prices are Mahmoud Rahimi, a 35-year-old government employee, and his wife Simin. He said it was now impossible for them to buy a small apartment in Tehran where prices range from $2,000 to $20,000.

“If we do not eat, drink and basically do not spend a penny for 40 years, then maybe we can afford to buy a 20-square-metre house,” said Rahimi. “If, of course, prices do not increase.”

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

 

Investors cool to apartment market

Friday, May 30th, 2008

Borrowing money harder for buyers in tight credit market, broker says

Derrick Penner
Sun

Sales of rental apartment buildings have plummeted in the Lower Mainland this year, but not their price tags.

Commercial realtor CB Richard Ellis counted 24 transactions worth $99.9 million in the first quarter of 2008, with the dollar value falling 55 per cent compared with 54 transactions worth $220.3 million in the same quarter a year ago.

Dan Sander, recently a broker with CB Richard Ellis who has since moved to Hollyburn Properties, said buyers are having a harder time borrowing money in markets that have tightened their lending following the U.S. credit crunch.

And the rates of return that buyers can expect to earn have shrunk as apartment-property values have skyrocketed as much as 100 per cent, Sander added.

“Buyers are a little bit more reluctant to jump into those kinds of deals,” he said.

David Ho, one of Sander’s colleagues at CB Richard Ellis, added that sellers don’t want to sell at prices lower than their expectations even though buyers are reluctant to pay more.

He added that if you combine that factor with weaker investor confidence and tighter lending, “the decline in sales was inevitable.”

David Goodman, a broker with Macdonald Commercial Real Estate Ltd., said that for the first time the market is slowing while interest rates remain low.

Previous slowdowns, he added, occurred when interest rates rose to 10 or 11 per cent from eight per cent.

“When we have properties well priced, we’re getting tremendous activity,” Goodman said. “That being said, there is probably a growing gap between buyers’ expectations and vendors’ expectations.”

Sander said the summer of 2007 was probably the peak for the apartment investment market. A year ago, he said sellers might expect up to 12 competing bids.

“This year, you’re lucky to get one or two,” he added.

Sander added that commercial realtors have seen listings of apartment properties climb, but prices have yet to follow sales in decline.

“I can definitely say with a lot of comfort that the market is flat in terms of what people are achieving in terms of price,” he said.

However, Goodman said that average per-unit prices in sub-markets within the region are still buoyant. On Vancouver‘s east side, for instance, Goodman estimated an average per-unit price of $149,776 so far in 2008 compared with $127,281 during all of last year.

In Burnaby, Metro Vancouver’s hottest market in 2007, Goodman added, the average per-unit price is $135,368 so far this year compared with $125,496 during all of 2007.

Sander added that the Lower Mainland’s extremely low apartment vacancy rates and the rising gap between the cost of home ownership and the cost to rent help support current prices.

Robyn Adamache, a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. analyst, said her forecast is for Metro Vancouver vacancy rates to hit 0.8 per cent this year, up just slightly from 0.7 per cent last year.

That includes purpose-built rentals, in the market that Sander and Goodman track, as well as among investor-owned condominiums, Adamache added.

Adamache said that the cost of home ownership has risen two-to-three-times higher than the cost of renting, which pushes up demand for rental housing, although in recent years builders have only put up about 500 units per year of purpose-built rental housing.

She added that investor-owned condominiums have provided the bulk of new rental stock. Across Metro Vancouver, 22 per cent of new condos are turned over as rentals, Adamache said. In downtown Vancouver, that number is closer to 45 per cent.

FOR SALE OR RENT

Much like real estate generally, the market for apartment blocks cooled in the first quarter of this year. But with Metro vacancy rates hovering below one per cent, investors still view apartments as a good investment.

2008 Transactions: 24

Total units: 902

Dollar value: $99.9 million

2007 Transactions: 54

Total units: 1,950

Dollar value: $220.3 million

Source: CB Richard Ellis

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

Pros & Cons of owning a home in Florida by Canadians

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

Questions, questions

Ozzie Jurock
Sun

“He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes. He who does not ask a question is a fool forever.” – Chinese Proverb.

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I do admit, dear Reader, I enjoy your questions. The most asked questions now center on ‘whither the market’ and ‘should we the United States‘. Here are a few more commonly asked ones on these topics.

Q: We are Canadian and considering a purchase of property in Florida as a vacation rental for our family and friends.

1. When is the downturn to near bottom?

2. What tax issues will we have there and in Canada?

A: Buying real estate in Florida by Canadians is tricky, since full-time residents are treated differently than vacationers, according to the Canadian Snowbird Association. Seasonal residents pay more tax on the same property than a resident. Florida’s new Homestead Act and “Save our Homes” recent amendment gives permanent residents of Florida the first $25,000 of the assessed value of their home tax free and caps the rest of their property tax at 3 per cent. That advantage isn’t conferred upon visitors – who end up paying much of the difference. Example: A Canadian snowbird buys a house and pays $4,800 tax, while his next door neighbour, a Florida resident is charged only $1,800.

Property tax costs on vacation properties are escalating, which snowbirds need to be aware of. You are not necessarily inheriting the tax bill from the previous owner (resident) when you are looking at an assessment notice. Another downside to buying a home in Florida is finding home insurance, vital in a state frequently hit by natural disasters. Vacation home owners are also not eligible for government aid in the event of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina.

As far as tax issues go…the US and Canada do have a tax treaty, which means whatever taxes you will be paying there, you can deduct from taxes you pay here. However there are other state by state issues (e.g., in California you must declare world income), you must file annual income tax statements and you should get independent accounting advice….before you buy.

Q: We are thinking of buying a vacation home in Scottsdale and rent it out until we retire in 7 years. The prices have come down and the dollar is par. Do you think the market has bottomed?

A: Lots of questions on ‘Has the market bottomed’. If I had a dollar for every question I been asked in my lifetime on whether the market has bottomed, I would … wait a minute, I do have a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that question. Unfortunately, the only time you will know whether any market has bottomed is six months after it has. More important are these questions:

How much research have you done and are you doing on an ongoing basis to allow you an intelligent assessment of what is available and whether it is a good deal?

Do you have a good realtor? You need a ‘Canadian oriented’ realtor that understands your problems. Do you have money lined up? Financing is very, very tough to get down there.

Have you converted your likely down payment now when our dollar stands at over par? Invest $200,000 and if the dollar is down to 95 cents that will cost you $10,000.

Do you know you are not allowed to collect rent, repair or even paint your rental unit yourself? Do you have a property manager?

Do you have a good area (A and B type only)? Most foreclosures are on tough areas.

Finally, if you wait for the magic ‘bottom’ is it likely the good deals you want are still there, or have the banks and tough luck owner divested themselves now. Take a few days, go there, subscribe to the local paper, get daily listings and price reductions…get your (mortgage, property management) ducks in a row. Then – stay in touch …and make offers. In life you do not get what you deserve – you get what you negotiate.

Q: Do you think investing in a condo for homeownership in the West end – one block from the ocean is a good investment? Please call me and leave a message.

A: Not going to happen. First of all, I have no time to call people, but even if I would have the time and inclination, how would I answer it? How much, how big, how old, co-op or strata is the unit you are contemplating?

Q: I am investing in Edmonton condos right now – but there have been a lot of conversions from apartment rentals to condos. Do you think this created an oversupply in the condo market and are condo conversions a good bet or should I steer clear of these?

A: Conversions are as good as the developer/converter whether in Edmonton (which now is oversupplied – listings up 400 per cent) or elsewhere. I convert rental buildings. My buyers see engineer’s reports, inspections, by-law requirements, etc. They can also see what else I have done and how recent. Check out your developer thoroughly. Ask questions. Actually that is no different than what you should do in a new project. The ones in trouble today are less experienced developers.

Q: I am concerned to spend $880,000 on a fully renovated, very beautiful condo in the West end. Can our values go possibly higher? My husband says that since we have a lot of foreign buyers here, we don’t have to worry about affordability.

A: Well, affordability now at 72 per cent is totally out of whack and while we may have more foreigners bringing their cash here, they represent probably less than 5 per cent of the market. In the meantime we are dragging tomorrow’s buyer into today’s market by offering zero down mortgages over 40 years. When tomorrow comes they may not be here. Markets are the stories people tell about them. And the stories are turning all negative. When the numbers come out this week…there will be a lot more. (We expect volume in Vancouver to come in at least 40 per cent lower with listings rising sharply.) So, no need to run… you have time to look, assess. However, long term, we will see much higher prices…as we live in the most unreported inflationary period of all times. I have talked and warned about it for 10 years…it is now here. We are increasing our money supply (M3) at 17 per cent…that means all hard assets will continue to rise. However, Vancouver will take a breather now.

Q: Hey Ozzie. A buddy and I are in our early 20s and have stable jobs in the field that we want to stay in for a career. We are thinking of going halfers and getting a house around $400,000. It would be an investment into the future for the both of us… also makes sense as right now we live at different locations and are paying rent which does nothing for the future. My questions:

1. Do you thinking going halfers with a close friend is a good idea?

2. What area in the Fraser valley is going to be the best bet to purchase a house in?

3. Should we wait to buy a bit later?

A: Hey you, I salute you for thinking about this early. I think it is a feather in your cap. If you buy any real estate with a friend – particularly a good friend – you want to make sure you stay friends. That means you have to have a joint venture agreement – in writing – spelling out the expectations you have. What happens if the market goes against us? Who pays repairs? If one wants to sell and the other does not, what happens? When do we sell? (Always have an exit strategy.) Who cleans what and what if he doesn’t? Can we sublet?

Do all that and you’ll have a great time. We like all of the Fraser Valley…markets are really slowing and we expect the rest of the year to have higher than usual listings and fewer sales. Great time to do your research.

That brings me to the end this week. I have received a lot of questions on inflation and why I keep saying that it is unreported or underreported. Next week my reasons why long term all prices of everything will be higher, and also why we must go through a valley of uncertainty first. Why in my point of view inflation really runs at 12 per cent when we measure ourselves against Ronald Reagan’s 1980 ‘basket’. Why I refuse to believe that all prices, wheat, corn, gas, oil, have risen by 40 per cent to 100 per cent in nine months by accident…and why they actually did. Next week I’ll tell you why…and why you ain’t seen anything yet in terms of hard asset price explosion.

Ozzie Jurock

Jurock’s Real Estate Insider

web: www.jurock.com

email: [email protected]

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

Zocalo aims to duplicate top Mexican fare

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

As if 20 types of tequilas isn’t enough, restaurant will aim for dishes adapted from the traditional with local ingredients

Linda Bates
Sun

Zocalo chef and owner Tanya Shklanka has spent a lot of time in Mexico and has incorporated that culture into her restaurant. Photograph by : Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun

ZOCALO

Overall: 3 1/2

Food: 3 1/2

Ambience: 3 1/2

Service: 4

Price: $$

2515 Main St., 604-677-3521

www.zocalorestaurant.ca

Open Tuesday to Sunday at 5:30 p.m.

Restaurant visits are conducted anonymously and interviews are done by phone. Restaurants are rated out of five stars.

- – -

Zocalo chef and owner Tanya Shklanka isn’t Mexican — you might have guessed that from her name — but she’s a passionate traveller who spent time in Mexico and says she came back to Vancouver wishing she could find a restaurant here like the ones in the cities there.

“The culture of Mexico is so diverse,” she says. “I wanted to put something together and just show people there’s so much more than burritos and pinatas.”

There are no burritos at Zocalo, but there are more than 20 types of tequila and three types of tequila’s lesser-known cousin mezcal. On monthly tequila nights patrons can sample and learn about the liquor, which in Vancouver, as Rodney Dangerfield would say, don’t get no respect. (Shklanka sometimes has to explain that quality tequila should be sipped, like scotch, not thrown back like a shooter.)

The tequila quality comes through in the margaritas, made not from a mix but with fresh organic juices.

In the food, too, Shklanka aims for fresh, local ingredients, which means that dishes are adapted from the traditional to make use of B.C. products.

Over several visits we were impressed, especially with the appetizers and desserts. The plump, juicy Saltspring Island mussels with chorizo were possibly the best mussels I’ve ever had. And the ceviche consisted of large chunks of tender white fish in a perfect balance of lime, cilantro and chiles.

The extensive appetizer menu would easily make a tapas meal for a group.

Less spectacular but still good were the mains — chicken mole poblano with Mexican rice; puerco con chile ancho (pork with chiles) and a very un-Mexican-sounding coho salmon steak.

Mole, that savoury chocolate-based sauce that always sounds weird until you’ve tried it, is made with chilies and spices and isn’t at all sweet. This dish consisted of a lean chicken breast baked in mole atop a mound of rice — a change from stew-type moles I’ve had in the past. It’s often hard to keep lean chicken moist, and here the breast was somewhat dry.

The pork dish was like a stew, tender and flavourful and served with tortillas for dipping.

Anytime Shklanka wants to move into my house and cook desserts all day long, she’s welcome. I’ll weigh 400 pounds but be happy. The coconut flan, pastel tres leches (a traditional Mexican cake topped with Mexican chocolate) and helado (homemade ice cream), were delicious.

Zocalo has live music, too, and in keeping with the theme of breaking through the stereotypes, there are no mariachi bands, but rather (on various nights) a DJ spinning Latin alternative, a Colombian singer and guitarist, a Mexican jazz ensemble and, on Fridays, a Guatemalan salsa band. For the latter she got a special licence from the city so patrons would be free to get up and dance — which, she assures me, they do.

This restaurant provides a sophisticated but warm atmosphere and and excellent value. Our meal of two margaritas, two glasses of wine and two appetizers, mains and desserts came to just $90, including tax.

Hasta luego (until next time), Zocalo.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

Boulevard of refried beans

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

Glorious food and piercing questions from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe

Mark Laba
Province

Elizabeth Hernandez (left) with the green enchiladas and Maria Rodrigues with Tampiquena at Salsa & Agave. Photograph by : Arlen Redekop, The Province

Salsa & Agave Mexican Grill

Where: 1223 Pacific Blvd., Vancouver

Payment/reservations: Major credit cards, 604-408-4228

Drinks: Soft drinks, Jarritos, horchata.

Hours: 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Tues.-Sun., closed Mon.

I was never popular in my school days. I was a geek, but without even the geek capabilities like computer savvy. No — I was just Dumb and Dumber Part 3.

All that changed with the arrival of our twins. Not the dumb part but the popularity. Now it seems I can’t go three steps without someone stopping me to goggle and coo over the little imps. Of course I’m not foolish enough to believe I’m the popular part of this equation but I glom onto a little of the emotional effluvia that runs off and bask in the saccharine-sweet glow that encounters with their drooling visages result in.

Twins have always had a strange allure throughout history. Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus, Heckle and Jeckle, the Olsen Twins. Our dynamic duo is no different.

Which leads me to this dining adventure that Peaches, the wee ones and I experienced at this somewhat new and very excellent Mexican restaurant where the twins, for a small moment, even out-celebritied a celebrity.

First, though, is this wonderful restaurant, a small affair with only three or four tables inside, a few tables out front, dark wood furniture set against yellow walls and the luminous hues of Jarritos fruit drinks in a glass display case.

The kitchen is run by Elizabeth Hernandez and Maria Rodriguez while Juan Contreras, Hernandez’s husband, manages the front room. All three are co-owners in the business. The food is built from scratch using the freshest of ingredients, the cooking is homey and authentic and the flavours will transport you to a timeless taquería by the side of a rutted dusty road, stray dogs nuzzling iguanas rendered senseless by the midday heat.

Complimentary salsa and chips are your introduction to this shindig and the homemade salsa is fantastic. A greenish-yellow hue, it appears innocent as a daffodil in June, but beneath its surface lurks a heat that builds like a tropical day shifting from morning to noon.

I tried the Carne Tampiquena ($13), a great combo plate that includes the classic Mexican thin-cut grilled top sirloin, wonderfully seasoned, plus a chicken enchilada basking in green tomatillo sauce.

Rice, beans and rajas con crema, a mix of sautéed poblano chilies, onion, corn and cream are along for the ride. Wrap this in the supplied warm tortillas and it’s like heaven and earth moving on a plate.

Peaches sampled the chicken burrito ($8) with great homemade guacamole but also check out the pork in red sauce or the sautéed shrimp versions. This place does it all, a dizzying array of food emerging from the tiny kitchen. Try the tacos from chorizo to carne asada, the sopes, the tortas, the gringa, the alambre with grilled beef, green peppers, onions, bacon, ham and tortillas or hit the chicken mole or the carne asada con chiliaquiles.

You won’t find anything over $13.

So while I juggled two babies, one in a Bjorn, the other in my arm slapping his sister’s head with great pleasure as a small crew of people walked into the place. An older woman, who still carried the punked-out look of her youth, strapped into too-tight jeans and Smokey and the Bandit-era hairdos, noticed the twins and fluttered some fingers their way. They smiled and drooled back. One shorter guy in this entourage looked our way, noticed the babies and asked, “Are they twins?”

“Yes,” I said. Peaches meanwhile hadn’t looked up from her burrito once.

“Identical?” he asked. It was then I realized I was talking to Michael Stipe of R.E.M.

“No, fraternal,” I replied. “Boy and a girl.” I was playing it cool. I might have been slightly hyperventilating but I wisely passed it off as bronchitis.

“Yes, yes of course,” he said. Then he said, “Their earlobes are very different.” It was an enigmatic observation from this equally enigmatic singer and I nodded in agreement and muttered something about the Buddha’s earlobes and ears that stick out and who the hell knows what else.

I was never cool in school but thanks to the twins I got to discuss earlobes with Michael Stipe, which perhaps is even cooler than getting the damned things pierced.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

Warming the hearts and minds of those in the northern climes.

RATINGS: Food: A- Service: A Atmosphere: B

© The Vancouver Province 2008

Cooling Housing Market – potential developers must be well financed to survive the cooling market

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Be on your mettle to thrive in cooling house market

Paul Luke
Province

Prepare for a continued slowing of the B.C. economy, David Podmore said in Vancouver yesterday. Photograph by : Nick Procaylo, The Province

B.C.’s development industry must be nimble, disciplined and well-financed to survive the cooling of the provincial market, a veteran developer says.

The Lower Mainland has yet to experience the full impact of the U.S. housing slowdown and the troubles sweeping interior B.C.’s forest sector, Concert Properties president David Podmore said yesterday in Vancouver.

“I do think you’re going to see a continued slowing of our economy as . . . what’s happening in the Interior and the U.S. spill over,” Podmore told a conference on the future of B.C.’s housing industry.

“You’re going to have to really sharpen your skills to be successful and to compete effectively.”

Podmore said developers should stop relying on pre-sales, which he called a phenomenon of the past eight to 10 years.

The market is heading into a period where projects may take half-a-year to sell out, he said.

Disciplined developers will pull the plug on projects if it becomes clear they can’t succeed, he said. There will be opportunities for well-financed developers to take over idled projects — but they must be fast on their feet, he said.

On the bright side, building materials prices should moderate, thanks to the housing slowdown in the U.S., he said.

That’s one reason B.C. Pavilion Corp. deferred replacing the roof at B.C. Place, said Podmore, who also is chairman of that organization.

The construction sector will continue to see a lot of work post-2010 but that demand will extend the industry’s current skills hunger, Podmore said.

Human Capital Strategies president Kerry Jothen said housing starts are projected to grow by 30 per cent to 49,400 in 2026 from 37,600 in 2008.

Construction-related trades and occupations will have about 29,900 new job openings between 2006 and 2026, with about the same number of replacement openings, Jothen said.

“The war for talent is here now. It is international,” Jothen said. “This will not change in the near future.”

© The Vancouver Province 2008

 

Housing market just gets uglier

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Stephanie Armour
USA Today

With home prices falling at their fastest pace in at least 20 years, economists warned Tuesday that further declines are likely yet to come.

Prices sank 14.1% in the first three months of this year compared with the first quarter of last year, according to S&P/Case-Shiller’s national index. That’s the sharpest drop in the history of the index, which was created in 1988.

Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors says he expects prices to continue falling.

“It’s ugly,” Naroff says. “In major metro areas, we had the big (price) run-ups, and that’s where we’re seeing the record declines. … Everything is working in the direction of more price declines.”

Other economists agree. “We do think prices will drop a lot more,” says Patrick Newport of Global Insight. “We forecast another 10% drop from current levels and bottoming out in 2009.”

What’s sending prices tumbling:

Tighter lending standards. Though Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-chartered mortgage finance giants, are injecting more cash into the marketplace, cautious lenders have made it harder for buyers to get loans. The result: a swelling supply of homes for sale and a smaller pool of qualified buyers.

“Tight credit is keeping sales down,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Economy.com. “Property values are falling, so (banks are) nervous. Prices have fallen so much, and they expect them to fall even more. They’re skittish.”

•Foreclosures. Mounting foreclosures are driving down home values because lenders that have taken over those properties are slashing their asking prices to try to free themselves of the homes. Competing sellers, as a result, must often lower their prices further to attract buyers.

Wary buyers. Many potential home buyers are saddled with a house they must sell first, which can be tough in this weak market. Other would-be buyers, convinced that prices will drop further, have decided it’s in their best interest to stay on the sidelines a little longer.

“Buyers don’t feel a whole lot of urgency, and that creates a problem,” says Ken Baris of Jordan Baris Realtors in West Orange, N.J. “We’re seeing many real estate businesses have closed, and many agents have left the business.”

Sales of new homes, meanwhile, inched up 3.3% in April compared with March, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. But the March sales pace was revised sharply downward, and economists say the rising supply of homes will depress new-home sales and prices in months ahead. Sales in April were off 42% from April 2007 — the steepest such fall since 1981.

S&P/Case-Shiller also reported that a home-price index it tracks of 20 major cities showed a drop of 14.4% in March compared with March 2007. Among those cities, Las Vegas was the weakest market, with a price drop of 26%. Next worst was Miami, with a 25% plunge, and Phoenix, where prices tumbled 23%.

Analysts warn that the slump will likely worsen before the outlook improves, with price declines extending into 2009 and possibly 2010. In large part, the sinking prices are a reflection of how far values had soared during the real estate boom that ended in 2006.

“We got prices up to levels that were so unaffordable — the prices needed to fall,” Naroff says. “If you’d asked 12 or 18 months ago if they needed to fall, I’d have said nationally 10% and in some areas 20% to 40%, and that’s what is happening. That’s curative.”

Zandi adds: “Inventories of unsold homes remain much too high. Prices will have to fall more to raise affordability sufficiently to work off this inventory.”

 

Roundhouse transforms

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Community centre will play host to concerts, public market

Frances Bula
Sun

Artist’s rendition of the improved turntable plaza that will transform the area into a performance space.

VANCOUVER - Staff at the Roundhouse Community Centre once looked glumly across the road at the Urban Fare grocery store, where people were merrily drinking coffee and hanging around in the sunshine.

Meanwhile, the large open plaza in front of their centre was a dead zone that no one used except as a garbage receptacle.

That is all destined to change, after the Vancouver park board approved an innovative new plan for what’s called the turntable plaza, which will transform the area into an outdoor performance space that can hold 500-750 people for everything from plays to concerts to public markets. The plaza, which is a historic relic of the old railyards and train-turning table that used to be on the site, will see a crane erected in the middle of it, from which cables will be suspended to support tent material, lights and lanterns.

“This is a big win for the arts community,” said park-board commissioner Spencer Herbert, who credited the community centre’s board for endorsing the unusual solution. “It’s visionary, it’s creative. It’s such a multi-functional design that it will be used heavily. It’s something the downtown needed.”

Herbert said that part or possibly all of the money for the project may come from Vanoc to create a legacy project.

“Hopefully, we will be able to get the whole thing donated so it can truly be an Olympic legacy.”

Margaret Watts, the centre’s supervisor of recreation services, said everyone hopes the new design will turn things around.

“Our biggest hopes for this site is that we will turn it into a welcoming public plaza.”

The design was well received by local residents, who live all around the circular plaza. Watts said any events put on there will aim to minimize noise and light that might bother them.

The design was created by Nick Milkovich Architects and Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg landscape consultants.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

 

Seawall extended to front of Olympic Village

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Jeff Lee
Sun

VANCOUVER – Some of the last vestiges of Vancouver‘s industrial history along False Creek will give way today to the opening of a new 600-metre seawall in front of the Olympic village.

For decades False Creek was part of an industrial district that featured heavy-metal industries, shipbuilders and even a barrel-maker.

Over the years, as condominium developments have moved in, much of the creek’s waterfront has been redeveloped to incorporate a seawall walkway that links the city’s west side with Stanley Park.

But until the Olympic village at the southeast end of the creek was created, pedestrians had to contend with traversing through an industrial wasteland between Cambie Bridge and Science World.

All that has now changed. The new seawall — which Mayor Sam Sullivan and Park Board chairwoman Korina Houghton will open today — is one of the last pieces in a 22-km waterfront pedestrian walkway and cycling lane that runs from Kitsilano Beach to Coal Harbour.

Only a few spots along Coal Harbour are still under development, and they will be ready in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Only a concrete plant on Granville Island still serves as a reminder of the creek’s once-strategic value to heavy industry.

Last year city council approved a $14-million budget to rebuild the waterfront at the southeast end and install the seawall.

In May 2007 it gave a $12.4 million contract to Wilco Landscape Contractors.

The latest section of the seawall includes two bridges, including a 40-metre steel truss and an eight-metre clear span.

It incorporates a man-made island and saltwater wetlands in an effort to bring sea life back to what was once one of the most polluted waters in the Lower Mainland.

The city also planted more than 200 trees and used natural features such as beach logs and boulders that were reclaimed from the site.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008