BC Business: A Striking Nature

September 1st, 2006

Bowman Show Suite 1

BC Business: A Striking Nature
The salient group’s unique brand of urban revitalization begins with a plan for a healthy community

Consider Gastown, its cobbled streets, 100-year-old hotels, banks and office buildings – one of the last bastions of Vancouver’s architectural past, a once luxurious neighbourhood now relegated to social housing and tourism, its recent retail life fueled by maple syrup and t-shirts. 

Robert Fung, founder and president of The Salient Group of companies, has a vision for Gastown, a vision that applies equally to any urban neighbourhood where grand old buildings are threatened by neglect and obsolescence. “As a company, Salient acquires, develops and manages residential and commercial properties,” says Fung. “These goals run congruent to our passion, which is urban infill, and the rejuvenation and reinterpretation of our dwindling architectural heritage. We believe that building on a neighbourhood’s existing characteristics enhances the health of a community.” 

”What Robert identified is the concept of critical mass of redevelopment,” explains Gair Williamson, principle of Gair Williamson Architects. “If you can change three, five or six buildings, you begin to change the neighbourhood. It’s a very smart strategy.” According to Mark Ostry of Acton Ostry Architects, the Salient Group strategically picks inner city neighbourhoods in established communities that are without a sense of overall “balance.” Fung, says Ostry, has been very successful in negotiating with city planning departments to add value to the company’s developments. “Philosophically, Salient is very interested in this form of community redevelopment,” says Ostry, “They really try to weave their projects into the existing urban fabric.”

Fung’s vision for Vancouver’s urban renewal has been gathering steam since he arrived from Toronto in 1990 to work for Concord Pacific, and later for the Narland Group. In late 2000, Fung inaugurated Salient, which completed its first project, Gastown’s Taylor Building (310 Water Street) in October 2003. Now home to 22 lofts and four retail spaces, the Taylor Building has retained much of its 95-year-old architecture and design, including the yellow brick façade, large heritage windows, 10 to 14-foot ceilings, brick or heritage-concrete walls, heavy timbered beams and original wood floors. A clean, crisp, contemporary style has been added, including integrated storage, natural light, stainless steel appliances and rooftop decks, all with painstaking attention to design. “Whether the development is residential, retail or office, we insist on a high level of design and project sensitivity” says Fung. “That provides very high quality and great value for the end users, and goes hand-in-hand with neighbourhood improvement.” 

 

Bowman Show Suite 1, pic 2

Salient has a strong ally in Roland Haebler, president of the Haebler Group, general contractors and construction managers, a family-run “boutique builder” in business since 1959. “Salient comes to us with very complex projects,” says Haebler. “Robert’s always pushing the envelope. He’s a very demanding client, which is one of the reasons we’re attracted to his company. Working with Salient keeps us interested.”

Salient’s second project, the Bowman Block, is located in the Beatty Heritage Block, south of the historic Sun Tower. The building, which is five years older than the Taylor Building, has also retained many of its original features. Inside, century-old timber beams accent fir floors as well as brick and concrete walls. The Bowman Block differentiates itself from typical downtown housing with a highly diverse suite mix, including single and two-level lofts, as well as contemporary flats with high ceilings and innovative outdoor living spaces. ”When you walk in to buy a suite, you don’t see the seismic upgrade or the 10 sandings it took to bring the floor back to life,” says Williamson. ”What you see is largely a function of the interior designer – and Salient uses really good interior designers.” 

Alda Pereira of Alda Pereira Design is presently working on the interior design of the Bowman Block and Varsity projects. “Robert’s attention to detail sets him apart from other developers,” says Pereira. “He considers every detail, down to the paint colour of the radiators. His sensitivity to cultural and design issues complements his understanding of the construction process, enabling his design teams to push the potential of building and interior.” 

David Nicolay, president of Evoke International Design, is applying his expertise to the interiors of Terminus and the upcoming Paris Block project, where Salient is aiming for “full integration” of the interior elements and the architecture of the space. “Fung really wants to challenge the general notion of a 700-square-foot condominium,” says Nicola) He and Fung spend a great deal of time designing lighting and millwork details, carefully ensuring their integral fit. “If you’re walking down a 15-foot hallway, we make sure you’re walking along 15 feet of storage as well. We don’t want to build small spaces with nothing in them.” Nicolay is currently at work on Salient’s third project, Terminus, which began when the old Terminus Hotel burnt to the ground. Utilizing the façades of the Terminus and Grand hotels, Terminus will be exceptionally chic and modern, while still sharing in its heritage and the fin-de-siècle pioneer ambience of Gastown. 

While Salient completes the Bowman Block, and continues construction at Terminus, the company is slated to begin construction on Varsity, 19 residential flats at the old Varsity Theatre on upper 10th Avenue, and office spaces at the Flack Block (163 W Hastings) and the Lumbermen’s Building (509 Richards). Salient also recently purchased the Trapp Block in New Westminster, a residential heritage redevelopment project on Columbia Street in Old Town, and the residential Paris Block (53 W Hastings). 

In Gastown, Salient is undertaking a comprehensive three-phase redevelopment project comprised of five heritage properties, including The Alhambra, Gastown’s oldest building (2-8 Water Street), the Garage (12 Water Street), Cordage (18-20 Water Street) and the Grand and Terminus hotels (24-36 Water Street). The project also includes the redevelopment of Gaoler’s Mews. Once completed, this retail, office and condominium project will add to Salient’s critical mass in Gastown. 

There’s been a great deal of investment in this neighbourhood over the last three years,” says Bob Carbonneau, Salient’s vice-president of finance. “By and large, our Gastown projects are helping to redress the imbalance of social housing with a balance of market housing. Its much the same for our Trapp project in New Westminster.” Carbonneau says today’s developers face several challenges. ”In the ’80s, builders worried about interest rate volatility and a softening economy. Nowadays the volatility is in construction costs. If your costs increase after you’ve pre-sold your project, you simply can’t cover project, but actual sub-trade contracts prior to selling.” 

At the Varsity project, unprecedented construction cost increases resulted in costs exceeding budget prior to the start of construction. As a result, Fung personally contacted pre-sale purchasers and returned their money with additional interest. The project is now expected to move ahead with fixed construction contracts, and the original purchasers will have first choice of the soon-to-be built suites.

Salient goes to great lengths to establish meaningful contact with its various clients. “Establishing personal relationships with our purchasers is key to our philosophy,” says Howard Kruschke, Salient’s director of sales and marketing. “In light of that, we advertise very sparingly: We prefer to build our company by word of mouth – the best way to hear about Salient is from a friend who has had a great experience. So far, our strategy is working'” he says. Salient also differentiates itself through customer service. On the company’s website (www.thesalientgroup.com) the user registration form simply asks: What’s on your mind? “We want to start a dialogue with our purchasers before we start asking personal questions,” says Kruschke. “It’s a very unique approach, and we’ve had a very positive response to it.” 

“We go to great lengths to create rapport between the purchaser and the company,” says Scott Pettipiece, coordinator, development, sales and marketing. “A lot of times people don’t feel much connection with the developer, but here they get to meet every member of the team. The strategies we choose are often different, because we’re building a unique product.” 

Helen Pettipiece (Scott’s mother) is a licensed realtor under contract to facilitate showings at Terminus and Bowman Block  “Personally,” she notes, “I have to believe in a product to sell it. These buildings are unique. Robert builds what he says he’s going to build, and the response is electric.”

Salient goes out of its way to avoid the sales-launch feeding frenzies that other developers tout as proof of their success. “We won’t line you up to view our properties, says Kruschke, “we’re going to give you an appointment. We don’t want to do business in a frenzied selling environment. Nor do we want to pressure people into buying. We’re not just building homes. We’re creating relationships.” This serves an additional purpose – it allows Salient to monitor the balance of investment buyers versus purchasers who wish to call the project home. “Our preference is to sell to end-users, because our goal is to create a community and a sense of pride within these buildings,” says Fung.

”We’re currently building close to $200 million in projects,” says Fung. “Our goal is to continue to grow, target emerging markets and introduce well-designed projects that have sufficient scale and critical mass, enabling them to contribute to the positive evolution of their neighbourhoods.” 

For Salient, with so many projects on the drawing board, the community building has just begun. “In 25 years, we want to show our kids these buildings and feel proud of what we’ve done. I believe we’re going to deliver on that.”

 

This promotional feature was prepared for The Salient Group by BCBusiness magazines Special Advertising Dept. For information contact John Cochrane at 604-299-7311.

 

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