From time to time CityHallWatch looks at the major entities that are building the physical and social structure of Vancouver.
This time we have a look at Westbank Projects Corp., the company. While its brand and projects have had a high profile and carefully managed promotions, little data is publicly available regarding the governance of the company itself.
If you are an entity considering entering into business deals or contractual arrangements lasting decades or generations into the future, the requirement of due diligence would call upon you to know fully about your potential partner.
However, no data is publicly available on Westbank in terms of who owns the company, who are the major shareholders, who are the officers and directors and major funders. Likewise, when it comes to matters of corporate social responsibility (CSR), the promotional materials and glitzy media coverage talk about sustainability, but data is limited.
Granted, Westbank is a privately-held company, so it is not required by law to publish this kind of information. But how does it look in terms of corporate social responsibility, transparency, accountability, governance? Is it up to par with the best practices and expectations that society has for corporations today?
|1. Provided corporate governance information publicly on website or other (ownership, shareholders, directors, corporate subsidiaries and affiliates, decision-making systems, policies, etc.)?||No|
|2. Renounced corruption in all its forms, including extortion and bribery?||No|
|3. Published a corporate social responsibility (CSR) report?||No|
Leading companies of the world today publish CSR or integrated reports following well-established guidelines (e.g., see Global Reporting Initiative). https://www.globalreporting.org/Pages/default.aspx
For a multi-billion dollar company with so much influence on city planning, it would be reassuring to see a public commitment to the UN Global Compact, which is billed as “the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative” and calls upon companies to align strategies and operations with universal principles on human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption, and take actions that advance societal goals. Many signatories are in the construction industry. (https://www.unglobalcompact.org/).
As an example of proactive corporate disclosure in this industry, consider Concert Properties (http://www.concertproperties.com/about) which is in roughly the same league as Westbank in terms of size. Granted, Concert Properties is not a privately-held corporation, but it is informative to see high level of corporate transparency: shareholders (Canadian union and management pension plans), directors, and executives, and more. It publishes a Sustainability Framework (2019 edition is 44 pages), and provides lots of information about community involvement.
ESG (environment, sustainability, governance) is a key term in terms of corporate sustainability today. Concert Properties covers all of these in its reporting.
The lack of publicly available information about Westbank leaves room for questions in the public mind regarding how it does business. We know the company is influencing decision-makers, but how that happens is opaque. Lobbyist registries exist at the provincial and federal levels, and Toronto has a robust one at the municipal level. None yet exist in Metro Vancouver.
What governance structures are in place at Westbank? The founder and CEO is now about sixty years old. What will the company be like over the potential life of a multi-decade or multi-generational contract?
For further reading, below is additional material on Westbank Projects Corp., examined from various angles.
1. Community relations
Westbank has not earned a lot of love by neighbourhoods and community groups. Many Westbank projects over the years have faced opposition due to neighbourhood concerns about respect for and negative impacts on the community. There have also been complaints about the means in which developers (this one included) have organized support at rezoning public hearings. In many cases, community members have gotten the sense the project was a “done deal” long before the public received first notice.
Our “Scrutinize this” post from 31-Oct-2012 lists many Westbank projects, and involvement in power games with political parties.
The CityHallWatch post “Westbank Shangri-La ‘done deal’? Oakridge Centre, First Baptist Church, B.I.G. Telus Garden and more” on 11-Jun-2013 provides some back story to Westbank’s major developments up to that point, suggesting that officials made special deals and concessions for Westbank. https://cityhallwatch.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/westbank-shangri-la-done-deal-oakridge-centre-first-baptist-church-b-i-g-telus-garden-and-more/
Here is one excerpt from the tower loving SkyScraper Page, describing what Gillespie told a group of architects at an event hosted by SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, on January 17, 2013: “We learned that, according to gillespie, vancouver’s planning process is actually pretty free-wheeling, and that there’s a LOT of room for negotiation. he said that he’d never once built a project in vancouver that fit within existing zoning – a huge laugh line for the sf audience – and he described a somewhat astonishing development process for the shangri-la, which basically consisted of a few lunches with beasley [Larry Beasley, then Vancouver’s Director of Planning] and getting height and lot coverage settled before even acquiring the land. then approaching the land owner, a reluctant seller, and finishing up a co-venture deal with him within an hour, on the back of “a tim horton’s napkin.”
2. Fight for beauty?
While Westbank uses carefully crafted and glitzy advertising as evidenced in its #fightforbeauty branding campaign, community groups have challenged the gentrification and negative community impacts in a #fightforrealbeauty counter campaign and protests.
3. Promises versus delivery
Community watcher “Eye on Norquay” in Vancouver has reported for years in graphic detail how what Westbank promised before approval of a three-story project at 2220 Kingsway was very different from what was delivered. Hint: The community did not get what was promised.
4. Exploitation of community groups?
In “Triumph of the Technocrat” (27-Feb-2015) in The Source (a bilingual multicultural newspaper) Don Richardson describes various aspects of the 22-storey “The Lauren” tower constructed by Westbank after demolishing the 30-year old St. John’s Church. He writes: “There are many ironies in the art and the building project itself. On The Lauren website the building is described as embodying the principles of gesamtkunstwerk, a harmonious blend of design that takes into account the building, its grounds, the environment, artwork, the local community, etc. To some extent this has been achieved – but it ignores the fact that there was much controversy during development of the project over community consultation, the height of the building and its consequent shadowing. There were also promises of community use in the building, but no agreement was reached.”
That last point refers to the fact that two community groups were played off against each other with promises to get their own space in the proposed building. They supported the rezoning at the public hearing, but never did get their space.
5. Corruption risk in Canada?
Public Safety Canada has reported on risks in its “Organized Crime Research Brief No. 27: Commercial Construction and Organized Crime.” Excerpt: This report is based on a literature review, interviews and a descriptive analysis of economic data from the commercial construction sector in British Columbia and Quebec. … While the presence of organized criminal groups in the sector remains unknown, however, based upon an analysis of the broader political, economic and regulatory environment, the authors conclude that the commercial construction sector is at a moderate to high risk of corruption and organized criminal activity.
Transparency International Canada looked at this topic in “Corruption in the Construction Industry: A Quebec Perspective” (21-Jun-2016).
Excerpt of presentation by Jacques Duchesneau:
Corruption in the construction industry is a complex and sensitive issue that is a threat to governments, economic growth, and the population at large. There are many reasons that make the construction industry an easy target for corruption, including the scale of projects (very large with few qualified or capable companies able to deliver, multiple phases making oversight difficult), the uniqueness of projects (permitting price inflation), government involvement (most infrastructure is government-owned requiring significant approval), the complexity of projects (many linkages making it a challenge to define accountability), and the underlying culture of secrecy that permeates an industry in which commercial confidentiality trumps public interest. These features also attract organized crime cartels that view the construction industry as a target-rich and profitable sector in which to “invest”… There is still a lot of work to do as far as prevention, reduction and elimination of corruption is concerned. Efforts are often compounded by the involvement of powerful vested interests, including politicians and other high-ranking public officials. Although exposure to corruption cannot be avoided, it can be managed through effective planning and the enforcement of regulations accompanied by other public-private and community-driven initiatives.
Also, Westbank has several offices overseas and has marketing firms such as Hong Win, that pre-sell units to offshore buyers of Westbank’s luxury buildings in Vancouver. Offshore buyers must pay significant monies to Westbank, in order for Westbank to get financing for projects. Does Westbank have a process to verify the source of these offshore payments on presales and closing? If so, what is their process?
What concrete measures has Westbank taken to monitor and ensure that criminal elements stay away? Or to reduce the risk of money laundering through Westbank properties? Currently no information is publicly available as far as we can tell.
6. Hidden influence?
Westbank’s chief executive Ian Gillespie has inserted himself and his company into civic power games, mostly in ways invisible to the public.
One example is this paragraph buried in an article “Top parties look to entice Asian investors” (Vancouver Sun 26-Oct-2011) just prior to the 2011 civic election, which returned the Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver regime for their second majority on city council, generously funded by developer and union donations. Excerpt: “Robertson unveiled his plan at a noon fundraiser organized by developer Ian Gillespie at his Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel. The event was attended by many of the city’s influential developers, builders and architects, including Concord Pacific’s Terry Hui and architect Greg Henriquez. After the announcement, the media were removed from the room so Robertson could meet with his donors.”
Fast forward to another example reported by The Breaker News (24-Mar-2017). Exclusive video: Why did Vancouver’s mayor meet a party donor on a Saturday in May 2015? Excerpt: What was the Mayor of Vancouver doing at the office tower of a prominent developer and party donor on a Saturday afternoon in late May 2015? Saturday, May 23, 2015, to be precise. … Why were they meeting? What was discussed? What was the outcome? Nothing improper is implied, but those are the three simple questions that readers of theBreaker deserve to know… In November 2014, Robertson won his third term as mayor and Vision Vancouver retained its city council majority, with help from Gillespie. Winter and spring 2015 were especially busy on several fronts for Gillespie, downtown Vancouver’s titan of tall towers. …Were they discussing items on the agenda for the May 26, 2015 city council meeting? … Were they discussing the city council-granted neighourhood energy monopoly for Gillespie’s Creative Energy? …Were they talking about the rezoning of Gillespie’s property at 1754-1772 Pendrell Street for a 21-storey tower? … Were they talking about party fundraising? Gillespie was a Vision Vancouver bagman during the 2011 election and threw a big fundraising party on Oct. 25 that year at the Westbank-developed Fairmont Pacific Rim tower. That just so happened to be a week after city council approved in principle Telus Garden, the new headquarters for B.C.’s biggest private sector company.
More on lobbying…
Why is a former Vancouver councillor bringing developers to meet the mayor? Frequency of Raymond Louie’s visits in contrast to mayor’s call for lobbying rules for former city politicians and staff (by Mike Howell, Vancouver Courier, 7-May-2019). Excerpt: Former city councillor Raymond Louie has been advocating for some of the city’s high-profile developers and joining them in a series of private meetings at city hall with Mayor Kennedy Stewart. Louie participated in seven meetings in February and March in the mayor’s office, which included Ian Gillespie of Westbank Projects Corp., Bruno and Peter Wall of Wall Financial Corporation and Brian McCauley of Concert Properties. The frequency of Louie’s visits to city hall are in contrast to a major plank of Stewart’s election campaign in which he called for new conflict of interest and lobbying rules for elected officials and senior staff members.
7. Origin story
In closing this excerpt from 2002 provides a bit of Westbank’s origin story.
Originally printed in The Province on 30-June-2002
Excerpt: So how did a kid who grew up in Port Coquitlam and became a runner get into the hurly burly life of a developer?
After a brief stint on a track scholarship at Cal State — 800 metres was his distance — he got hurt and came home where he trained with Dr. Doug Clement, whom he describes as a friend and mentor. Leg surgery followed and he nearly made the Olympic team in 1984, coming third at trials. “Only two went,” he says.
Running career over, Gillespie turned to completing a business degree at the University of B.C. and then an MBA at the University of Toronto before learning the real-estate ropes at Schroeder Properties in Vancouver.
“I decided to strike out by myself in the early ’90s,” he said.
He struck up a relationship with Hok Meng Heah, a businessman running Abbey Woods Development Ltd. — the Canadian property arm of Asian business baron Robert Kuok. “Mr. Heah taught me a great deal about business,” he says.
Teaming with Heah and the Kuoks was fruitful and they went on to develop a series of high-profile and profitable projects in Greater Vancouver, including the $100-million Residences on Georgia, the $66-million twin tower Palisades downtown and the $32-million Ironwood Plaza in Richmond among others.
When the Kuoks shifted their business activities from property to high tech, Gillespie successfully engineered a buyout of Abbey Woods and took the firm private. “I don’t believe real-estate companies should be public,” he says.