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Overlooking Greater Vancouver and the Gulf Islands, the British Properties are painted with history on scroll far from finished.
One of Canada’s most historic neighbourhoods, the British Properties, is painted like a story above West Vancouver on a scroll that is still unfurling. Face north from Stanley Park with me, and read this scroll as if it were in Chinese, told from right to left.
The story of the British Properties begins in the United Kingdom, spans the Guinness family’s vast estates, the Lions’ Gate Bridge, Park Royal Shopping Centre and, now, the swath of homes that look out across British Columbia. The British Properties, one of Canada’s most exclusive enclaves of luxury real estate, is woven with history. The mountainside acreage was purchased from the City of West Vancouver during the Great Depression by the Guinness family who developed it slowly over the years by keeping thoughtfulness at the top of mind and prices at the top of the market.
The neighbourhood’s upper border lies at 1200 feet of elevation (the height above which the City of West Vancouver forbids building). Its bottom border is the Upper Levels Highway. To the right, bending into a canyon, are the original Capilano Estates designed by the Olmsted Brothers of landscape design, famous for New York City’s Central Park. If you drive up Taylor Way from Park Royal Shopping Centre, you’ll know you’re there by the trees. The original owners’ contracts did not specify the need to maintain views so firs, hemlocks and cedars grew to mature heights, giving the neighbourhood the feeling of a forested Beverly Hills. Original owners of the Capilano Estates, now advanced in age, never minded that their views were being quietly colored in by chlorophyll.
“The beauty of BC was more taken for granted back in the 50s,” says Mike Courtney, who joined British Pacific Properties (or BPP) in 1999 when the scroll was unfurled only part of the way west across the mountain. Whitby Estates is the portion he helped develope after the Olmsted-designed area, then Canterbury and Chartwell, were complete. By then, no one took BC’s beauty for granted and new homeowners agreed that their landscaping would remain lower than 25 feet.
“What was important to us was the view and being near the forest,” says Jess Ketchum, President of Ketchum Communications, Chair of the BC Cancer Association and Chair of the West Vancouver Community Centre. Mr. Ketchum and his wife Ramona are part of the “new” British Properties. On the scroll, they live to the left of the place in the story where BPP became a home builder in addition to landowner.
By 2010, the developer had refined the neighborhood’s look into West Coast craftsman and West Coast modern. Ribbons of stone walls wind up and down the streets. Songbirds flit through colorful landscaping that borders walkways and native forest. BPP’s homes use timber milled in-house using lumber harvested nearby. Environmental friendliness comes standard and BPP’s architects create looks that belong in this cool, coastal forest, not Versailles, even though client budgets would allow.
“These are great homes,” Mr. Ketchum says, “I think you’re going to get good people living in them—that’s our experience.”
“Everyone knows that when you’re in a BPP home, they’re your next door neighbours.” When the Ketchums needed help to repair their garage door, they called the people at BPP.
“They found me the repairman and he was here that day,” Mrs. Ketchum said. “This is six years later, mind you, after we bought our house from them. There’s nothing that says they have to do that.”
Before we peek at the the future, the part still furled up, let’s scroll backwards in time to when the British Properties were only a dream.
“In the summer of 1930,” says the archives of the Capilano Golf and Country Club, built by BPP and now one the most prestigious clubs in Canada, “the Canadian A. J. T. Taylor, brought a wealthy London financier to Vancouver’s North Shore. The Englishman was thoroughly sold on the merits of property investment there, including for the Guinness family of brewing fame.” As soon as the men returned to London, the British Pacific Properties company was incorporated.
Then came the campaign to build the Lions’ Gate Bridge, named after the twin mountain peaks overlooking Vancouver from the northwest. The bridge, a prerequisite if their property investment was to realize its full potential, was funded entirely by the Guinness family and employed hundreds of Vancouverites during the Great Depression.
Ed Richardson, a West Vancouver engineer, worked for A. J. T. Taylor and Lord Iveagh Guinness during the early days when BPP struggled to break even. Its first executives asked Richardson to transform the Lions’ Gate Bridge from two lanes into three and to design the middle lane changeover procedure. Beginning in 1940, Ed engineered work on the bridge, the building of Park Royal Shopping Centre—the first of its kind in Canada—and “absolutely everything else for the Properties,” he says cheerfully. “They’re the best people I’ve ever worked for.” Did they know just how desirable their land would one day be?
“Everybody hoped but nobody knew. I didn’t know or I’d have bought more!” Ed bought his hillside parcel that overlooks English Bay in 1950 for 300 dollars.
By 2007, those parcels were going for far more. Seventy years after first breaking ground, only about half of the 4,700 acres owned by British Pacific Properties had become neighborhood and a community committee was at work to determine how the next 195 acres would join it. The Rodgers Creek Area Plan was soon struck. By then, the words “diversity,” “density” and “sustainability” had taken on entirely new meaning in common speech, including in the corridors of the empire.
The Rodgers Creek plan is pinned up in BPP’s West Vancouver office on a paper scroll—in English, of course. But the direction of its construction will unfurl the real thing onto the hillside like a story told from right to left, as if in Chinese.
Fitting, since these days the modern chapter of this story is being retold in Chinese more than any other language. Earlier this year, the Ketchums answered a knock on their door to find someone standing there with an offer to buy their home. They accepted—for a price above market value. The happy new owners, like many moving into the British Properties, are from China and the feeling around the neighborhood is one of curiosity and anticipation to find out what new contributions and unique friendships will be made in one of Canada’s most significant neighbourhoods as it unfurls into the future.
Photos courtesy of District of West Vancouver and Capilano Golf and Country Club / Photos courtesy of District of West Vancouver, British Pacific Properties. Mr. Richardson’s portrait by Milos Tosic / Photo courtesy of British Pacific Properties. Mr. and Mrs. Ketchum and their home by Hugh Zhao / Photos courtesy of British Pacific Properties and the West Vancouver Archives, 0038.WVA.DOC