Robert Fung – Character Builder
By Trevor Boddy
It isn’t easy turning funky old buildings in sketchy neighbourhoods into fashionable condos. Just ask developer Robert Fung.
Robert Fung has become Vancouver’s condo developer of the future by concentrating on the past.
As his fellow real estate tycoons paid ever-higher prices for land to build condo towers downtown and at SkyTrain hubs, Fung followed another path – riskier in someways, more rewarding in others. Confounding conventional wisdom, he purchased historic buildings all around Canada’s poorest and most drug-plagued urban neighbourhood.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t know how to crank out high-rise condos. He had spent a decade working for other developers, mostly Concord Pacific. Vancouver’s largest developer had hired Fung straight from a B.A. in Anthropology at Western in 1990, though he admits there was a little family influence involved – father Robert Fung Sr. is a prominent Liberal and former CEO of Toronto’s Waterfront Development Corporation. Etobicoke-raised Fung learned how to put together skinny-tower-on-townhouse-base projects, get them approved at city hall, then preset those invisible, yet-to-be-constructed boxes in the air that are Vancouver’s condos-to-come. Eventually, though, this development formula became rote and the land price stakes too high for independent new players like him.
From his perch at Concord Pacific, watching the brick warehouses of Yaletown get developed, Fung concluded that “Gastown could become what Yaletown did not want to be.” Now, walking around Vancouver’s rapidly changing Downtown Eastside, he is delighted with signs of renewal, such as Sean Heather and Scott Hawthorn’s Salt wine bar located next to a string of his properties along what used to be one of the city’s most troubled alleys. Admiring an old cornice here, sculpted window surrounds there, Fung has a story about nearly every building. He revels in the urban textures of the area. Given the success of his heritage building developments, he is obviously not alone.
Some of Fung’s competitors grouse that he must have some pipeline to deep pockets in Toronto or Asia, but he demurs, explaining he had to sell his own house for seed capital when Salient Development started in 2000. By the start of this decade, Gastown’s harbourview cream along Water and Alexander Streets had been skimmed off by other developers, with the east-of-Main Edge project through to the Landing at Richards Street picked up by others or priced out of his reach.
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