Robert Fung is the founder and president of the Salient Group. Fung started his career with Concord Pacific and was responsible for rezoning and development of the former Expo ’86 site in Vancouver. In 2000, Fung, a graduate from the University of Western and father of three daughters, founded the Salient Group with a focus on urban renewal through the renovation and adaptive re-use of heritage buildings. His progressive work in restoring and revitalizing Vancouver’s built heritage and playing a key role in the revitalization of Gastown with such projects as the Flack Block adjacent to Vancouver’s Victory Square, Paris Block and Taylor Building has earned him praise from colleagues, developers, historians and most recently the Museum of Vancouver's inaugural Emerging City Visionary Award. Breathing new life into decades-old, derelict properties, the visionary is heading further east for his biggest undertaking — to revitalize New Westminster and the “Golden Mile” along Columbia Street. Fung’s re-imagined 1899-built Trapp Block development is considered a key element to the revitalization of the Royal City.
Why is it so important to you that we restore some of the city’s oldest properties?
I truly believe that when we lose elements of our physical history, we lose a piece of our identity. And I also believe that including our past in the texture of the city is much more interesting than monochromatic town where everything seems from one era.
How has this effort revitalized some of the city’s neighbourhoods?
Our approach has been to rebuild the economy of Gastown through sensitive adaptive reuse of cool old buildings, and integrating new living and working space in beautifully designed modern architecture. This has helped to create an area that is truly interesting and that now has a component of high quality living and working space. It didn’t require discarding of the existing buildings or the existing community. An interesting area attracts interesting, creative people and businesses. This influx of creativity has quickly led to our most diverse, entrepreneurial, contradictory, creative, and inspirational district. That has become an area that visitors to our city love to see and experience, breathing new life into the attraction of this area to tourists and the tourism industry.
What have city planners done well?
Years ago, the city did a great job in creating a program with the objective of kick-starting the local economy through providing incentives to private investment in the sensitive redevelopment of our historic downtown districts; Gastown, Crosstown, Victory Square, Hastings. Without the incentives, none of the projects that now define the “fourth most stylish district in the world” (Gastown according to New York’s Complex Magazine) could have been financed and built. Without the lure of the city’s incentive program, property owners would not have been able to convince neither banks nor investors to support the developments that are now iconic, pivotal to the character of the area, and helping to define Vancouver’s creative economy.
What would you have done differently?
I wouldn’t have trusted the city to honour their incentive program. The city ultimately did not deliver what they promised. Once we completed the projects that we promised at our cost, the city has not been fair in administering their side of the commitment, impeding the ability for people to pay for the costs of developing the eastside buildings and economy. That has had a devastating impact on the people who’ve worked to restore historic buildings in Vancouver, as well as bringing an end to this type of sensitive area revitalization.
What is your definition of affordable housing?
It depends on who you talk to. For many people in the industry, affordable housing is another word for social, which is housing subsidized by taxpayers in its capital cost as well as its operating costs. Beyond social housing, I believe affordable housing is dependent on a formula: housing that people can afford to purchase based on their ability to find jobs that can support the cost of their home.
Can home ownership be achieved in Vancouver?
Of course. Vancouver is full of homeowners. However, it is tough to make a living here that can support the cost of owning a home. For those homeowners that earn their income in our region, strong economic growth leading to increased jobs and income levels is the key to creating sustainable home ownership potential.
What is your advice to potential first time homeowners?
My advice is to buy smart. Do your homework. Consider your lifestyle and what you want from a home, and narrow your search to those homes/buildings that work for you. If buying a presale or new home, look into the developer and the contractor. High cost doesn’t always mean high quality. Balance your options of cost against location, style, space, and quality. Emerging areas have great long-term value. For people there, it can also bring the sense that one is part of an exciting time in the evolution of their community.
What is your vision of Vancouver?
I see a city that continues to benefit from its natural gifts, but is a community that has embraced its cultural diversity and has come to realize that our economic and social position in the global community is uniquely enhanced by that diversity. I see a city that fosters its creative and entrepreneurial spirit into a position of global economic leadership; one in which a person has access to a diversity of jobs and income levels with a corresponding diversity of housing options and costs.
What will Vancouver look like in ten years?
I don’t know. From a distance I expect there will be an increasing forest of glistening towers; likely quite beautiful. But at the street level I’m concerned. Vancouver is a “mixed use” town, where most of the new downtown buildings are residential. We sleep in those buildings, but life occurs on the streets. For me, the most important part of any building is the first 20-feet up as it defines how it interacts with the community. The rest of the building needs to work and be properly designed, but it is all in support of the street and the front door. I hope that we will be a city where interesting streets, stores, restaurants, services, texture, character, and space, are sensitively designed for and can exist in the new buildings that are yet to come.
Project/development you are most proud of?
All of them! I won’t do a project that I wouldn’t be proud to tell my kids that I had done. I often get told that I shouldn’t get emotionally attached to my projects, but I am. I am because I strive to do where the people who end up living and working in them are proud of them too.
What has been the biggest impact of your initiative?
Though an initiative undertaken by many groups, including Salient, the economic revitalization of Gastown, Crosstown, Hastings and Victory Square have been significant in changing attitudes towards these areas. Ten years ago international travel guides warned people to steer clear of Gastown because it was uninteresting and unsafe. Today the area is regarded as our city’s most popular destination for visitors and residents alike.
Initially, convincing lenders and investors that these projects were financially viable based on the city’s commitment to their incentive program. Then, convincing homebuyers and tenants that our commitment to quality and to the mix of modern design and historic character would create great spaces to live and work that would also be a good investment.
The city’s failure to administer the compensation side of their incentive program in a fair and open manner; actually turning the incentive into a severe financial penalty on the developers that completed their rehabilitation commitments.
Walking through Gastown with my kids and hearing that they would like to live there someday.
What does success look like?
The vibrancy at the intersection of Water and Carrall Streets at 8 pm on a summer’s evening.
One lesson you’d love to give others?
Do what you love. When things get tough, it sucks to be stuck solving problems in something you don’t care about.
A talent you possess that many are not aware of?
I do a mean moonwalk!
Last $20 bucks to your name, how would you spend it?
Share it with someone who needs it just as badly.