Monster home drives debate in West Vancouver
Businessman's 26,000 square-foot home becomes flashpoint for simmering real estate issue
High-priced, ultra-desirable and scenic beyond belief: West Vancouver's real estate scene is about a lot of things. Humility isn't one of them.
A drive through one of Canada's richest postal codes reveals a landscape teeming with newly minted faux-French châteaus and glass-heavy modernist mansions. All built under the watchful and nervous eyes of neighbours who have long complained lax bylaws are ceding the community's rustic charm to monster homes.
But one house in particular has proved to be a flashpoint for the long-simmering debate. Businessman Ge Chen's new 26,000-square-foot home is under construction across the road from a high school.
Size-wise, it's hard to tell which is which.
'The most blatant egregious example'
"It's just the most blatant, egregious example of what we don't want to happen," says West Vancouver Counc. Nora Gambioli.
"It has become worse and worse. Everyone — developers, owners, builders, real estate agents — are pushing the envelope."
Poor Chen has done nothing wrong, except perhaps, to offend the sensibilities of neighbours who say his giant estate will be at odds with the older single-family dwellings which make up the bulk of homes just up the hill from Ambleside.
He's consolidating two properties and building to bylaw specifications.
Sounding slightly baffled on the phone, Chen says the new home will house nine or 10 family members.
"It's quite huge," he admits. But Chen says he thinks "new buildings will improve the community."
"We're just following the bylaw," he says. "That's the square-footage that we could build. And the lot value is quite high as well."
West Vancouver's council isn't the only one to grapple with the monster home issue.
Developers say the cost of real estate means their customers have to squeeze every inch out of overpriced property. Many existing homeowners fear hastily introduced limits would make them paupers in a community of princes should they ever decide to sell.
And then there's the touchy issue of race in a market where questions about foreign ownership dominate headlines.
Lululemon billionaire founder Chip Wilson's Kitsilano home was recently appraised at $63.8 million, B.C.'s most valuable. His 30,600 square foot mansion isn't exactly subtle, but no one's trying to make an example of him.
Packed public meetings from Port Moody to White Rock have devolved into shouting matches over the details of proposed solutions to the monster home crisis.
At one such West Vancouver meeting last February, Gambioli argued in favour of a temporary bylaw limiting sizes of new homes.
To make her point, she warned about rumours of the consolidation which would ultimately result in Chen's property. She underestimated the size by 10,000 square feet, but was otherwise right on the money.
Gambioli was loudly shouted down as the crowd clapped in unison: "No!"
"This is life on council in West Van," she laughs. "You're afraid you're going to get pushed into the bushes by a developer."
'We want to take a phased approach'
The proposal was voted down by a margin of five to two. A month later, Gambioli says, the city issued Chen the permit.
Gambioli's fellow councillor — and friend — Mary-Ann Booth voted against the motion. She says it was too broad, and would have negatively affected single-family homes, not just consolidated lots.
She's not a fan of Chen's plans, which she says are at odds with the "more modest homes" which have historically made up the community.
But given Gambioli's previous warning, it's hard to take seriously Booth's assertion "that one in particular really took us by surprise."
Council is now looking at a new bylaw dealing specifically with a 6,300 square-foot size limit on consolidated lots, the clear-cutting of vegetation on building sites, boulevards and fencing.
Questions about height, setbacks and retaining walls on single-lot monster homes will have to wait for another day.
"We want to take a phased approach," Booth says. "We want to go for the biggest bang to start."
That may be, but a casual drive around West Vancouver's many gaping construction sites suggests the horse has already left the ornate, mock-Tudor barn.