The Record: Trapp Block: “If You Build It, They Will Come”

April 26th, 2008


“If you build it, they will come”
Developer sees Columbia as one of the great city centre streets in the Lower Mainland

Theresa McManus
The Record
Saturday, April 26, 2008

Columbia Street is on its way to reliving its glory days.

Robert Fung, president of the Salient Group, is working on plans to restore the façades of the historic Trapp Block and the Windjammer Hotel and to build a new tower behind those buildings. He believes in the “if you build it, they will come” adage.

“It’s a great street,” he said. “It has always been a great street. It’s like every great street that was the original city centre.”

Many of those streets are undergoing a resurgence, Fung said, because they have so much innate historical, cultural and social values.

“New Westminster has the greatest historical downtown in the Lower Mainland apart from Gastown,” he said. “Gastown has a condensed inventory of historical buildings. For the most part they have been maintained fairly well.”

Fung is well acquainted with the historical buildings of Gastown, having done several projects in that area. He said his approach hasn’t been to do a “plop and run” development but to contribute to the area’s economic energy.

“We are creating a critical mass and creating an energy that will influence investment,” he said. “I see potential for others. This one project has a critical mass.”

Fung said the proposed project in New Westminster is roughly the same buildable area as a three-phased project his company is doing on Water Street in Gastown.

The New Westminster project involves the consolidation of three properties: the Trapp Block, a six-storey building built in 1899 and enlarged in 1913; the Windjammer Hotel, a three-storey building built in 1899 and enlarged in 1913; and the property to the west of the Trapp Block that includes a 1952 one-storey building on Columbia Street and the two-storey Army & Navy annex that faces

Columbia and Front streets. Fung purchased the Trapp Block in 2005.

“It’s probably one of the most fantastic façades we have in the Lower Mainland,” he said. “It is a special façade. It’s a very stately façade.”

The Trapp Block, which was constructed in a series of phases in the last 100 years, hasn’t been occupied in years.

“It is not in great shape. The design has withstood the test of time,” Fung said. “What initially attracted me to the building was the romance of the historic façade. It has been vacant for 40 years for a reason.”

Fung said the south side of the building has sunk half a metre and the building kinks to the west. While he’s a big fan of using original material, inspections of the building showed that its interior has “sagged and cranked” over time.

“There wasn’t a single straight column in the building,” he noted. “They were different (measurements) on the floor than they were on top.”

Fung said at some point you cross a breaking point where it’s no longer sustainable to rehabilitate a building.

According to Fung, one of his company’s restoration projects in Vancouver is likely to be the most expensive office building renovation in Vancouver’s history. That building, located near Hastings and Cambie streets, will cost $20 million to restore.

“It was level,” he said about that building’s foundation. “That building is a small building.”

Fung said retention of the Trapp Block would require constructing an entirely new building within the confines of the existing building. He said a better solution is to keep the character of the building on the street by preserving the façade, and attaching the restored façade to a new building that includes modern conveniences such as parking.

Some of the building’s raw materials may be used within the new building.

“Absolutely, but I don’t know what. There is is a tremendous amount of great brick. There is tremendous timber,” Fung said. “We want to use them in relevant ways.”

The terracotta that is located on the outside of the Trapp Block will be removed, refurbished and pinned to a new structure. Terracotta is affixed to the structure by metal pins – pins that rot over time.

A similar process will be used on the Windjammer’s masonry façade, with pieces being removed, catalogued, refurbished and attached to a new structure.

“The goal is to bring the time clock on these buildings back to zero,” Fung said. “We want them to last another 100 years.”


© The Record (New Westminster) 2008