Blog by Mark Longpre

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Olympic Village: ghost town is on the brink of cool

For a couple of weeks now, the media have been crawling around the site of the Olympic athletes’ village, a.k.a. the most infamous condominium project in the world.

The Village on False Creek, as it’s been branded by über-real-estate marketer Bob Rennie, has provided the backdrop for stories looking back at the 2010 Winter Games on the occasion of their one-year anniversary. Attention has also been heightened by the stampede of buyers gobbling up condos as a result of a decision to slash prices by as much as 50 per cent. In the space of a few days, Mr. Rennie’s team sold 128 of the 230 units offered for sale under the first phase of a plan announced by the project’s receiver to recoup as much as possible of the $750-million Vancouver taxpayers invested in the development. 

In its look at the much-maligned complex, The New York Times got Liberal Senator Larry Campbell to disclose what he paid for the 600-square-foot unit he bought before the words “Olympic Village” became synonymous with political death. Mr. Campbell, it turns out, spent $580,000 on his pad just over three years ago – which is $100,000 more than what the same-size unit is going for today.

But he didn’t whine about it once. Which is more than can be said for other early investors who are furious about the cut-rate deals now available. I’d be upset, too, but that’s the real-estate racket for you.

Earlier this week, Mr. Rennie’s sales centre was packed with people picking up information on the units still available. Around the streets of the project, you could see real live human beings. Actually, what you could see, what you could feel, was a village coming to life.

It probably will be a while before the development is talked about in terms that don’t provoke disgust, resentment or betrayal. We likely won’t know for a few years how much the city will lose in the project, but the best guess right now is about $200-million. So taxpayers have every right to be angry. The project serves as a cautionary tale for any city thinking of getting into the development game.

The actions of three city councils spanning almost a decade can be blamed for the debacle. But the biggest culprit was the 2008 financial collapse that destroyed real-estate values around the world. The project was placed into receivership last year, with the city assuming responsibility for all its liabilities.

Since the Games ended, the village has had a ghost-town feel about it. It was like it was jinxed or had this really bad karma that people wanted to avoid. It’s the strangest thing: The development itself is a thing of beauty, with high-end finishings and other design elements that make it unique in the world. It sits on one of the most expensive pieces of real estate on the planet in a city that was voted again this week by The Economist as the most livable anywhere.

And yet, for much of the past year, wind blew through the project’s deserted corridors, stirring up dust and bad memories and not much else.

That is all about to change. In a year’s time, maybe less, the village will be transformed – by people. And it won’t be long before the project is scrutinized for different reasons: the new standards it sets for urban living and design, its hipness factor.

While it certainly came at a cost, the entire village has a LEED Platinum rating, the highest environmental badge of honour that a real-estate project can attain. A neighbourhood energy utility uses heat recovered from raw sewage to heat the buildings, something one may not want to envision but can certainly admire. Just like the entire project. Eventually, anyway.

For now, feelings remain raw. Fingers are still being pointed. The ghosts of decisions past continue to haunt. 

From Thursday's Globe and Mail