Wednesday morning my curiosity got the better of me and so, once the sun had taken the chill out of the air, I hopped on my bike and set out to find Nelson Skalbania’s house on Point Grey Road.
That would be the north side of Point Grey Road, which is the most expensive stretch of real estate in the city. And that would be the Nelson Skalbania who once owned the WHA Indianapolis Racers and is best known because he signed up a 17-year-old kid named Wayne Gretzky.
But that’s not why I wanted to check out Skalbania’s house. You see, even though — you could say — the Mercedes had long ago left the garage, over the past two weeks Skalbania has been telling anyone who is willing to listen that he is seriously ticked off at what the city has done by closing off his street to through traffic and put in bike lanes as part of a redesign of the roadway from the south end of the Burrard Bridge, down Cornwall and along Point Grey out to Alma.
Don’t doubt that Skalbania does consider it “his” street. As he told CBC radio last week: “I paid for that road in front of me” by laying out $3,000 a month in property taxes. Then, in a letter to city council this week, Skalbania said that particular “absolutely stupid decision” by the city among a number of other “absolutely stupid” decisions mostly to do with bike lanes has, he says, “caused disruption to my lifestyle.”
(This, by the way, comes from a man who describes himself as an avid cyclist: “I have been coming downtown by bike for over 30 years.”)
And what a lifestyle it has been.
Before the Gretzky moment, Skalbania began his career as a consulting engineer who morphed into a major player in the North American real estate game.
Wikipedia notes that for one 10-year period from 1971 to 1981 he was turning over $500 million in deals every year. That all came to a crashing end when he filed for bankruptcy in 1982 after finding himself over $30 million in debt.
And it got worse. In 1998 he was convicted and went to jail for illegally using money from an investor to cover debts in his real estate firm.
But during those years of high rolling, he bought and sold sports teams at what seemed to be a furious pace. He was actually partners at one point with Peter Pocklington of the Edmonton Oilers. He was part of a consortium that picked up the Atlanta Flames, which became the Calgary Flames. He bought the ill-fated Montreal Alouettes and for a time he was also the guy paying the bills for the B.C. Lions and a soccer club.
And 25 years ago he bought his house at 3585 Point Grey Rd. Today, he says, it is worth 15 times what he paid for it then. But what isn’t in this town?
So it was that house I was looking at Wednesday.
From the street there is not much to see of the Spanish style beige pile. Typical of many of the houses here, it shouts out: “Mind your own business.” There’s a rather anonymous double garage door beyond a paved parking area bracketed by carefully pruned shrubbery. On the right there is a high wrought iron gate, designed to block prying eyes, that leads to the house.
But on the water side, now that is a different story. Four levels of mostly glass rise above the edge of a cliff and overlook the last natural bit of beach in the city, to Burrard Inlet, Stanley Park and the North Shore Mountains.
Hard to image a bike lane could ruin all that. But consider that on the 3500 block in front of his house car traffic can now only run one way, which is east. Bike lanes taking up the other half of the road run in both directions.
This leaves Skalbania fuming: “I belong to the Jericho Tennis Club which is about two blocks to the west. Now instead of driving there in the rain in two blocks, I now have to drive six blocks.”
And you think you have problems.