Amid a forest of concrete condos, eclectic eateries, and high-end shopping in Vancouver's vibrant West End neighbourhood is a multimillion-dollar real estate mystery that spans two continents and four decades.
Heritage consultant Donald Luxton says a large lot on the corner of Robson and Broughton streets — across from the Empire Landmark Hotel — has been inexplicably empty since he moved downtown in 1985.
"I grew up in Vancouver. I can't say I remember anything specifically at that location, but I have a very strong memory of it for many, many years as a vacant lot," he said.
"It's always like, 'Huh? What's going on there?' because we just don't see empty lots in Vancouver."
But 1401 Robson St. wasn't always a barren enigma — occupied only by the occasional smoker sitting on a green wooden bench beneath a leafy old tree.
In the early 1900s, when new streetcars were fuelling intense growth in the neighbourhood, Luxton says it's believed there was a house built on the site. Then, around 1911, it was renovated into an apartment building.
"It was a three-storey apartment — a fairly sizeable building, sort of typical of those wood frame apartments going up in the West End at the time, with commercial use at the ground level."
But the last business that occupied that space, according to City of Vancouver records, was Broughton Grocery in the mid-1970s.
"It did get demolished and certainly my memory from the 1970s on, it's just been a vacant lot," said Luxton.
"I think it's very interesting that somebody would hold a property in the West End, because obviously they're paying taxes on it. Obviously it's a highly desirable property. Obviously you could develop it quite easily."
Lot owned by Hong Kong company
The latest property assessment shows the 17,300-square-foot lot is valued at about $8,405,000.
Records show it is owned — and has been for some time — by a company in Hong Kong called Melford Estates Limited, which was registered in B.C. in 1973.
CBC News attempted to contact the company's directors, but has not received a response.
A Vancouver-based lawyer associated with the company said in an email he could not comment without his client's approval, adding that he does not expect "to receive instruction to do so."
Zoned for commercial use
There's no shortage of potential uses for the site, which is zoned for residential and commercial use — from a bowling alley to a daycare facility to a restaurant or retail space.
However, the city says it has not received a development permit or rezoning application and it cannot force landowners to build on their properties.
When asked if the city has ever tried working with the owners to, at the very least, allow for community gardens or a park to be built on the site, the city said it was not aware of any such discussions.
Real estate consultant Bob Rennie says, in a city where housing prices are soaring and rental vacancy rates are plummeting, more needs to be done to encourage landowners to make better use of their properties.
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"We all have to find a solution. Should [the City of Vancouver] force someone to develop? No. Could they incentivize someone to develop? Yes," he said.
"We identify sites for height. We identify sites that are by transit that can have more density. One day, will we look at sites that aren't utilizing their full potential and incentivize [owners] to develop? Maybe."
But for now, as Luxton says, 1401 Robson St. remains "one of the true curiosities of the West End."
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