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Game Changer

Posted on 12 April 2012

Investor Rod McLeod and realtor Clint Dahl unveil plans for the condo/hotel unit.

 

Mayor Shari Green calls it “a dream come true.”

MLAs Pat Bell and Shirley Bond say it’s the day Prince George came of age and the beginning of a renaissance, respectively.

Elsewhere, anonymous commenters suggest the developers must be smoking pot.

That’s early reaction to a $40 million hotel/condo unit expected to move in around the corner from where I work downtown.

Here are some of the facts, as provided from a news release distributed at the event:

There will also be 150 hotel rooms, an in-house restaurant, shops, spa, gym, and underground parking. Construction could begin as early as this summer. It’s going up across from the Prince George Public Library, in the old RCMP building site.

To understand the full scope of this, understand: this is unheard of Prince George. For years, housing has been centre stage of many discussions about how to fix an at-best flawed downtown. In a 2009 article about revitalization projects across the province, Tyee writer Christine McLaren explained the situation thusly:

“A typical resource town, like many in B.C., Prince George grew rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s with the opening of several pulp mills. The city doubled in size each decade, and responded to the growth by spreading out rather than up. It was a decision that Dan Milburn, Manager of Long Range Planning for the City of Prince George says shaped the face of the downtown core from there on in.

‘A large suburban type land use pattern developed, and hence the desire for the creation of suburban malls, which initially tried to almost mirror the downtown in look and function,” Milburn explains. “Since that time, we’ve seen more growth in commercial space outside the downtown than in the downtown.’

Not only that, but while the housing market exploded through the rest of the province, land in Prince George remained cheap and plentiful, making single family homes financially obtainable for most residents. With little demand for cheaper apartments or townhouses, almost zero housing exists in the downtown core today.”

This is true. So much so that for the most part, discussion around getting people to live downtown has focused on cheap places for students or building seniors homes in the vicinity. This is something else altogether.

The Price of Luxury

$800,000. That’s the price for a twelfth-storey suite. You’ll get a view of the city (including, I’m told, the river), access to a pool, gym and spa, and private parking. So would you buy?

Immediate Twitter reaction:

“Bahahaaa no….”

“nope! Sounds to expensive for PG”

“Who is going to pay $800k to live downtown, or even $300k?”

Too bad. It’s already sold.

So what if you have eight-hundred grand and are looking for property of equal value? I just put a search in for residential properties in Prince George priced $800,000 and above. Unless you’re looking for a multi-acre property including a barn out in the country, there’s nothing. At seven-hundred grand, you get three multi-storey properties on the outskirts of the city, the cheapest of which has six beds, four baths, and what looks to be three garages. At $350,000 (the cheapest condo price), you’re still looking at at least three beds and three baths, often more, with (random grab) 2620 square feet of floor space, not to mention the yards.

These are not low-income seniors populating these condos. These are not students.

These are going to people who could live anywhere in the city. They could be in the country, in the Crescents, College Heights– heck, they could probably buy my top five choices for houses when I was looking, all in one go. In other words, these are not people who have to live downtown, they’re going to be people who want to live downtown.

Sift through comments on this story and you’ll find there are plenty of people who don’t believe those sorts of people even exist.

The Ghost of Ghia

Maybe it’s because they’ve been down this road before. Jason Morris brought up the subject of the last time something of this magnitude was proposed. In the fall of 2005 architect Yves Ghia announced the Metropolis Project. From the archives of Opinion250:

“He calls it Metropolis “3” and he plans to build it  on the parking lot that stretches from Quebec Street to Dominion  along Second Avenue.  Yes, it is the stretch that runs along the back of the Columbus Hotel…

His  vision has  student oriented apartments (65 of them)  on the second floor above 30,000 square feet of retail space.  Parking for the units will be provided by the City  through the use of the parkade.”

You can still find the model for this project, along with a photo-op with ex-mayor Colin Kinsley in the “news” section of Ghia’s site, but as the commenters on Opinion250 today will point out, this hasn’t exactly panned out.

So there are ghosts to get past for this project. The idea of high-end living downtown has been a point of discussion, studies, and proposals for decades, with little to actually show for it. A couple of blocks away, a well-intentioned model for more modest condominiums on Seventh Avenue have been spinning their wheels for at least two years. On the more ambitious end of things, in 1967 it was fully expected that downtown highrises would be serviced by monorail.

Something to Prove

So there’s something to prove with this project. Though it may not be as ambitious as Centrum Prince George or Metropolis 3, it is ambitious nonetheless. This is not an all-encompassing project aimed at transforming downtown in one swoop. It’s an early piece in a checkerboard of properties and proposals being juggled by the city, the province, and private enterprise. A Wood Innovation Centre was announced when Gordon Campbell was still a popular premier, but today there’s little to show for it except the destruction of the PG Hotel (announcements, as always, are imminent). The Ramada and the Keg have made big bets on George Street, but a chorus of people are declaring the return of pay parking downtown will undo any and all progress that’s been made in recent years. But this latest proposal is something else.

Units are being sold. Sold fast, even. Construction should start in a matter of months. If all goes well, visitors could be staying in the hotel when they come for the 2015 Games. So, for now, this is no pie-in-the-sky project. This is something with buyers, timelines, and firm(ish) completion dates.

This will be a game changer. If it succeeds, it will prove something in the city has shifted. That people are willing to live in or near downtown Prince George, and what’s more, they’re willing to pay top dollar to do so. If demand is high, maybe it will kickstart other projects. Property values surrounding could see increases, too.

There’s pitfalls. The VLA, Prince George’s “poor” neighbourhood is close. Will it see benefits? Will the low-income people in nearby units be forced out into other neighbourhoods? Will the single-family houses with yards and fences currently inhabited by most of the middle class be drained inwards, leaving ghost neighbourhoods in their wake?

Will the shops and restaurant in the unit steal customers away from those small businesses doing OK along 3rd and 4th? Or if more business is attracted in, will the locals be forced out as higher-end retailers come along with a better offer?

What about roads? Every morning I see the closest thing to a traffic jam this city has smack-dab beside where this building with over 100 employees, 30 permanent residents, and 150 hotel guests will now be placed. How will traffic flow be adjusted to accomodate this? Can transit step up to the plate?

Those are questions beyond my capability to answer and, I should say, I don’t really expect anyone, from the developers to planners to council to answer them. This is the nature of cities. You never know how big projects will play out.

The bigger question, I think, is what if it fails? This is the opening shot. If this succeeds, others may follow suit. If it falls on its face, how many will back away?

So this will be a game-changer. Succeed or fail, the stage is being set.

What are you willing to bet?

Filed under: Best Of, Prince George

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