fear & loathing in Lotusland

Month: April, 2012

Sunset on Sunrise

by Zbigniew

An organization that includes “Hastings North” in its title is bound to produce initiatives of marginal imagination: Hello? Hastings is north.

The Hastings North Business Improvement Association is re-branding Hastings-Sunrise as “The East Village”. Slow of wit, but fleet of foot: before you have a chance to look perplexed or mutter “huh?”, its done.  The new banners were installed along East Hastings over the course of the April 1st weekend –no joke.

“The commercial district is easy to access connecting to the main routes leading in and out of the City, and offers many unique, independent retail stores and services that appeal to local residents as well as to those exploring Vancouver. The commercial area is an eclectic vibrant area that is ready to be discovered and enjoyed.” (Emphasis added.)

Here we go: the fine grain of delis, bakeries, cobblers, grocery stores, tobacconists, acupuncturists, barbers, and greasy spoons that have quietly served us well and survived the heretofore modest incursions of franchises and condominiums are about to face the literal blockbuster: a massive London Drugs/condo monstrosity. Storefronts have already shuttered and we are not long for the inevitable increase in traffic, property taxes, rents, dog salons, high-end baby stores, and other indications of civilization in decline.

The building plan is in place and real estate agents are salivating. But to attract punters to those new dwelling-style investment units necessitates abandoning the stigma attached to “East Hastings”. A process similar to naming an Abbotsford condo complex “Brooklyn“, but on a grander scale and with a distinctly retroactive component.

It’s standard operating procedure around here. Take, for just one example, Union Street in the 1920s. The relentless whoring, swilling and assorted carrying-on of yahoos on the western end threatened reduced property values (the ultimate in local sins) all along the line. In response, the residents east of Vernon St. lobbied for a name change, and they got it: Adanac –Get it? It’s “Canada” spelled backwards! Clever, those East-of-Vernonites.

It may be a misty, soft focused, vague, ever-shifting place, this city of ours. And while were all too quick to bury our history with a bulldozer, or a petition, or a branding strategy that celebrates a community’s “uniqueness” by naming it for another city’s neighbourhood, part of our past -the big shill for a quick buck- is alive and kicking and needs no banner.

Seen in Passing: Main & King Edward

by Zbigniew

Boom/Bust Town

by Zbigniew

“Unlike anywhere else I have ever known –even Alberta in the 1970s- this province has become a passive state run by and for real-estate developers.”

Trevor Boddy, “Vision Deficit”, Vancouver Review (Winter 2009/10)

From conception, property development was tightly woven into Vancouver’s DNA, engendering a depressingly regular pattern of rampant speculation, des/construction, boom and bust. The Terminal City as land of milk, honey and vinegar.

With the assistance Donald Gutstein’s Vancouver Ltd. and The Dependent Magazine, and others, let us part the mists of time and visit a place of constant change yet eerily similar to our own.

1886 to 1893: Birth by Fire

The selection of Granville (scratch: Vancouver) as the CPR terminus instigates a property boom. One-acre plots that sold for $1.00 in the 1870s fetch $1,100 by 1893.

Rudyard Kipling got in on the action: ” … 400 well-developed pines, a few thousand tons of granite scattered in blocks, and a sprinkling of earth. That’s a town lot in Vancouver.  You order your agent to hold a town lot until the property rises, then you sell out and buy more land further out of town …. I do not see how this helps the growth of the town … but it is the essence of speculation.”

This inaugural boom literally destroys the newly incorporated city. In 1886 CPR workers are burning brush to open up parcels west of the original Gastown core, when the winds picks up. A wall of flame quickly moves east; in less than an hour all but a handful of buildings are destroyed.

The conflagration forces City Council to meet in a tent.

In this iconic photograph includes seven Aldermen and Mayor Malcolm McLaren -parties directly involved in property development.

Within 24 hours new buildings begin to rise and the boom rolls on. Until 1893, when a depression takes hold and land values drop precipitously.

1905 to 1913: Global Capital, v. 1

An influx of British, German and US capital fuels the property market; the Dominion Trust Co. lends to locals according to their real estate collateral. The City’s population triples in a decade. Prices skyrocket: a 52-foot Hastings St. frontage that sells for $26,000 in 1904 reaches $175,000 just four years on.

But its a rickety edifice, ungrounded by local economic realities. With the withdrawal of foreign investment in 1913, it collapses. Like a domino, Dominion Trust crashes a year later, the victim of financial tomfoolery that leaves 5,000 clients high and dry. The City’s population declines 25% by 1916.

1925 to 1929: Irrational Exuberance

The Roaring ‘20s sees a massive build out of downtown’s iconic structures: the Georgia Hotel, the Medical Dental Building, the (third) Hotel Vancouver, and the Marine Building. But you can’t eat bricks and stone: following the stock market crash and into the Great Depression property becomes virtually worthless. A 1935 east end lot can be had for $50, down from its $1,500 peak just a few years earlier.

1946 to 1955: Moving on Out

Servicemen return, the Baby Boom is on and demand for single-family homes opens-up of the suburbs, culminating in the construction of the Second Narrows Crossing and the Oak Street Bridge.

1967 to 1976: Moving on Downtown

Fighting the decline in downtown peninsula property values, the development community -aided and abetted by the Planning Department- drives forward a series of massive redevelopment projects: west end apartment construction, new clusterfucks of office and shopping complexes, highways through Strathcona and Chinatown. The public resists, but there are casualties: requiem in pace Hogan’s Alley.

The Modern Era: Scaling Up

In terms of relative highs and lows, the ’46 to ’55 and ’67 to ’76 booms were not on the scale of earlier iterations. Our more recent history, however, is a return to form. It’s nicely encapsulated by the following, produced by UBC’s Sauder School of Business and based on inflation-adjusted data collected by Royal LePage and calculated by the UBC Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate:

The speculation on the speculation has yet to yield implosion. But consider: the current boom incorporates all the characteristics of previous eras – global capital influx, urban and suburban theatres, irrational expectations, even bridge construction- as well as a significant new innovation: condominiums, a form of ownership unknown in previous years. After a decade of property value increases, an undying faith in the limitless value of this most liveable city in the world, neighbourhoods hollowed-out by speculation, stifled economic development, the exodus of the squeezed-out, and interest rates so low that you can’t afford not to buy, the CBC reported, just last week and without much fanfare, that the “average home price in Vancouver finally saw a decline in March [2012] at $730,998 from $823,749 in February ….”

If history is our guide, this is going to get ugly -again.

The Rizing Tide

by Zbigniew

Rize Alliance presents Captures, a exhibit of photos collected from Mount Pleasant residents “of the things they think make their neighbourhood great … what really makes a community.”

Rize certainly seems to have captured the wallets and minds of Council’s brave burghurs. But nothing says “community” like a 19 story glass shard stuck into the city’s creative heart; so, we humbly offer an alternative label, something more in keeping with the trophy habits of the pathologically bloodthirsty: Pre-mortem.

Rennie Time

by Zbigniew

A couple of technoschlubs, all we could rustle-up between us were a pair of dumbphones. We stopped at the Public Library’s main branch, found a terminal and booked an appointment.

The stench of constraint quickly descended on the day, the free flow of the drift impinged by the machinery of externally imposed schedules. With too little and too much time to kill, we wandered off in the general direction of Chinatown.

The day was sharp-focus bright, but still mired in winter: long shadows and windy, with a cold that penetrated my overcoat and tightly wound scarf. A day made for coffee shops. And galleries.

We stopped, here and there, to turn over a few rocks.

Suddenly we were running late; we picked-up the pace. “Looks like we’re on Rennie Time,” I suggested, annoyed. David stopped dead in his tracks. I thought I could detect steam rising off him. “Fuck it,” he said, and I couldn’t argue with his impeccable logic. We sought refuge from the cold and the colder hand of The Man’s appointment software.


The local boy that made good by selling off his hometown in 550 sq ft parcels, Bob Rennie isn’t so much a manager of Marketing Systems than their physical manifestation: a living, breathing, skinny-jean-and-cardigan-sweater-wearing confluence of aspiration and subterfuge; a sales pitch for five-year building envelop waranteed concrete and glass lifestyle fantasies made flesh. The Condo King.

No interview on the city’s development prospects passes without a reference to an exciting and new luxury waterfront development; or, perhaps a sub-luxury option in New West, something more attuned to the audience demographic’s leveraging capacity.

Didn’t he say he’s an avid supporter of the arts? He will. And he is, for every artist in his portfolio –sorry: collection.

“I think that the Conservatives right now are being selfish and opportunistic,” Bob told the Georgia Straight recently. He was referring to the province’s newly reanimated party of the farther right splitting the establishment vote and thereby facilitating a (gasp) NDP government.

It’s touching to find the King humbled by fear of the future and the insensitivity of others. Perhaps he’s not so different from those of us anticipating the advancing pressure wave of construction cranes and franchised outlets, the inevitable disruption and disorientation of losing one’s frame of reference.

Don’t worry, Bob, everything is going to be alright. Just take the elevator to the roof of the Wing Sung, a deep breath, and bathe in the calm, warm, reassuring neon glow. No appointment necessary.


An Open Letter to Bob Rennie

No Gold, But Lots of Brass

by Zbigniew

“… Dolby was busy creating a market out of thin air. This he did by wash-trading –buying and selling shares to himself. Dolby called it ‘Hungarian magic.’ Using twenty-six different accounts in eight different firms, all in different names, he eased the stock up from two cents a share to nine cents over a week, where he kept it hovering for ten days until several days of legitimate trading by speculators pushed it to thirteen cents. Dolby then floated it to just over twenty cents …. As it went up Dolby unloaded a portion of his own shares. With a little legerdemain Dolby turned a company he put together for less than $200,000 into one with a market capitalization of more than $1 million. And he was just getting started.”

Vancouver: A Novel, David Cruise & Alison Griffiths


I got the call from out of the blue. Someone I knew from high school but hadn’t seen much of in the two years since. We weren’t friends exactly, although we shared a certain degree of trust. He did, for example, include me in the small circle that served as his “having a coffee at Bino’s” alibi while others (friends?) were prepping his Fiat Spider for an ICBC paintjob in the adjacent parkade.

The usual banal exchanges quickly led to his new line of work: stock promotion. He … let’s call him Jeff, which is his real name. Jeff was calling with a tip about a new gold exploration stock. A great investment: great. Guaranteed to make me some cash: guaranteed. He rattled off the names of our mutual acquaintances that were already on board. Think about it.

Of course, I did my due diligence: yes, everybody else had anted-up. Bolstered by their confidence, and not wanting to miss out on the big haul, I withdrew $300 (1985 dollars, mind) from my anemic European backpack fund.

I drove to an office in a downtown lowrise. Small, bland and stuffed with filing cabinets, it could have been the set for Skip Tracer. With a fresh shirt, smart tie and an early Tom Cruise haircut, Jeff reminded me of a recently mowed lawn. His boss wore a sandy-coloured sport coat, with matching hair and mustache. Apparently $300 bought just enough interest for him to reach across his desk and give me a cold fish handshake.

Jeff up-talked the stock some. His boss nodded disinterestedly and mumbled. I looked at the envelope in my hand; I handed it to Jeff.

On a regular basis the mail produced large manila envelopes stuffed with maps, detailed exploratory findings and lots of other material that I didn’t read.

I did follow the VSE listings in the Sun, though. Seven or eight months later I was up. Way up.

I called My Broker: “sell”, I said unto him. I hung up still in possession.

The stock tumbled, Jeff went into construction, and I never heard from him again. Not a bad investment, all things considered.

I heard the boss had his life threatened. I’m sure they had his full attention.


“Rumored to be a laundry vehicle for mobsters and undesirables such as Ferdinand Marcos, the VSE is piously defended by its members and local politicians. They say it is a vital source of seed money for intrepid investors seeking to transform their brainchildren into the next Xerox. Usually, the brainchildren are born brain dead, and the next Xerox turns out to be the last Hydrodouche.”

PDF: “Scam Capital of the World”, Joe Queenan, Forbes (May 29, 1989)


In 1999 the Vancouver Stock Exchange was merged with the Canadian Venture Exchange (CDNX).

Playoff Opportunists

by Zbigniew

“Uh, anyone seen my car?”

As the 2012 NHL playoffs get underway, Vancouver Police are warning the public to be on the alert for fake tickets and orange reflective vest-wearing “parking attendants” collecting fees at the entrance to nominally unmanned lots.

By the by, the official franchise is enjoying the second highest average ticket prices in the league -yielding an average regular season take of approximately $1.5 million per game- and has politely declined public calls to contribute to playoff policing costs.

Go Canucks!

Refuge: Cherry Blossoms

by Zbigniew

A place of shelter, protection, or safety; any recourse for relief or escape.

The scams pile up so fast in Vancouver that keeping my spleen properly ventilated can be exhausting. That’s when I need to seek out a refuge. Perhaps its a quiet place overlooked by aspirational branding campaigns and other banal attention or wallet grabs -some place inherently pretty or beautiful just for being empty. It might be a poem, a bit of prose, a memory, a sound.

If you have a blog-friendly representation of such a refuge, send it along to and we’ll see about posting it here.


Spring is a walk down a sunny residential street lined with cherry blossoms: the delicate scent, the light dusting of white-pink petals.  Monday last I came across a clutch of trees in full bloom in an -thankfully- underused downtown park. (The precise location of which seems to have slipped my mind.)


by Zbigniew

I didn’t appreciate just which path of ugly BC Place was navigating until halfway through the renovation, when it dawned on me that the giant metal “Ls” placed around the stadium’s upper concrete rim were not temporary construction cranes but a permanent architectural feature.

While no fan of the previous incarnation –that fetish nightmare of concrete encased puffy white flesh in bondage restraints- at least it had the decency to keep a low profile. I could almost ignore it. But the upturned alien crab, with its legs clawing skywards, I can hear its death screech in my head –something very like an orchestra of nails dragging along a chalkboard.

Distance provides some relief, but night is no refuge. The constantly shifting colour scheme turns the thing into a giant Hydro-sucking mood ring: purple for Epilepsy Awareness Day (there’s an “epilepsy awareness” day?), “franchise blue” for FC matches, and “greenest city green” for the Home & Garden Show. (In fairness, the new roof is apparently 25% more energy efficient than the original and the estimated annual savings of about $350,000 a year will no doubt help defray the cost of the lighting bill. Unfortunately, it won’t help the servicing of the retractable roof’s intricate mechanics: rain seepage has –supposedly- ceased, but six months after opening grease leaks are threatening repair bills of anywhere from $1 million to $10 million, depending on whether you get your news from a fabulous BC Place business partner or some other source.)

And it stinks, too: a US gambling operation, with a former BC Lottery Corp CEO and a former mayor as exclusive shareholders; a “no new roof, no casino” business model; 100% public funding; 300% cost overruns; resources siphoned from arts and community groups; limited public consultation (foiled by  Vancouver Not Vegas); skyrocketing maintenance costs; etc etc etc.

But it’s out of this steaming pile of corruption and decay, this undying commitment of a few serving a select fewer and the ambitious scale of waste, that the real beauty of the new stadium arises. Pure in form and function, the construction crane encrusted machine of Rube Goldberg complexity is nothing less that a publicly funded conceptual art piece built by, and dedicated to, the local development dynamic.

The scam as monument to the Scam.

Groupon Condos

by Zbigniew

Local real estate industry ad agency GlobalTV News recently ran this piece on a groupon-style sales promotion for a Surrey condo development:

This scam, perpetrated by property snakeoil salesman Cam Good, is nicely dissected by the Vancouver Real Estate Anecdote Archive.

According to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Code of Ethics (Article 3 – Authenticity), “Electronic journalists will not present news that is rehearsed or re-enacted without informing the audience. Newsrooms should take steps to ensure the authenticity of all video and audio, including news material acquired from the public, freelancers and other sources before disseminating/broadcasting it. Editorials and commentary will be identified as such.”

Complaints can be directed here.