The Oakridge area is arguably the biggest hub of development in Vancouver, with developers big and small wanting to get in on the action as the neighbourhood undergoes a large-scale makeover, centered around the Oakridge Centre redevelopment.
One such developer is Gryphon Development, founded by Jason Hsu in 2017. Development is in Hsu's blood, as his father is the founder of Jin Ray, one of the biggest developers in Taichung, Taiwan, with a history that spans 30 years and 80 projects, almost all of which are high-end residential.
Gryphon Development's now has its its fifth development underway — Marco Polo, which is planned for 533 W 49th Avenue, across the street from the Canada Line SkyTrain's Langara-49th Avenue Station, just south of the Oakridge Centre redevelopment. Once complete, Marco Polo will rise 11 storeys with retail and office space on the first eight floors and 49 market strata units above.
The project stands out a bit due to it primarily being office, whereas much of the development proposals in the area have been focused on residential. Also noteworthy is that the office space has been marketed to the medical industry, with Gryphon hosting a discussion panel in November — moderated by Vancouver City Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung — that was filled with private medical practitioners — Dr. Monica Li from Vancouver Skin MD, Dr. Faraj Edher of Transcend Specialized Dentistry, and Jennifer Hollinshead, Founder of Peak Resilience — along with Councillor Mike Klassen, who was formerly the Vice President of Public Affairs for the BC Care Providers Association.
In an interview with STOREYS, Founder and CEO of Gryphon Development Jason Hsu discusses the founding of the company, why the Marco Polo project has been geared towards medical use, and some of the concepts from Taiwan and Asia that he wants to bring to Vancouver.
STOREYS: Can you tell me a bit about the founding of the company and its ties to Taiwan?
Jason Hsu: Six and a half years ago, in 2017, my father and I figured that we shouldn't put all of our eggs in one basket, particularly with the uncertainty around relations with China. We wanted to venture out with another company, while staying in real estate development. We looked at Seattle, Manila, and Xiamen, but we ultimately chose Vancouver.
One of the biggest things was population growth. In [Metro] Vancouver, we're talking about a population growth of about 100,000 people a year, and a majority of those immigrating are between the ages of 25 and 45. Between Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, Canada is the most welcoming when it comes to new immigrants. That's what we saw at the time and why it appealed to us.
In Taichung, we are not necessarily the biggest developer, but we are one of the bigger ones in terms of land holdings, and we are viewed as a high-end developer, in part because of the locations where we choose to build. That's given us 30 years of success.
In Vancouver, particularly the west side, we see a lot of that kind of clientele that understand the principles that we're trying to bring from Taiwan and Asia to Vancouver. We're a very west-side-focused developer. We're not a massive-scale developer. We focus on services and this kind of boutique project where each is around 50 to 80 homes. That range has always been our sweet spot.
S: When did you realize you wanted to get into the development business?
JH: My parents divorced when I was six. Because of that, my father was a single dad for some moments in time, and so after school I'd be at my father's office doing my homework, seeing him in meetings, selling homes, and how projects come into being. It has always been part of my childhood and it's hard to ignore real estate being a member of my family.
My father and I, I want to say 100% our conversations are about work. I think we're lucky to have that, because oftentimes parents and their children don't have things to talk about. He's been my mentor and has passed along a lot of knowledge and wisdom, and I'm grateful to have my father as my father.
S: With Marco Polo, the office component of the project has been marketed directly at the medical industry. Why?
JH: As you probably know, many of the medical buildings we have in Metro Vancouver are on the older side. One example is the Fairmont Medical Building. If you look the Google Reviews, the ones about the medical services are all fantastic, but any that are about the bones of the building — the lack of parking, accessibility — are one or two stars.
We wondered if this was just a lone example, so we looked at a total of seven buildings. Of the seven, two around the Oakridge area are now gone due to redevelopment, and the remaining four are all around 50 to 70 years old. Peterson [which owns the Fairmont Medical Building] spent a lot of money on renovating the building and tenant improvements, but there are a lot of things that just cannot be changed.
We saw an opportunity there and so I started talking to a lot of doctors, such as Dr. [Martin] Braun of Vancouver Laser [located in the Fairmont Medical Building]. I asked Dr. Braun about the issue of parking in medical buildings and whether he has talked to the City about it. He said that he had, and that it's important because he often has clients that want a certain level of privacy after getting a procedure done.
Dr. Braun said he spoke to then-Mayor Kennedy Stewart and asked him "Is there any possibility that we can increase the amount of parking in this area, because it's not just the Fairmont Medical Building, but the medical building next to us is facing a similar kind of issue where they don't have enough parking." He said Stewart said that Vancouver is trying to become a greener city, and said that the building will soon have access to a SkyTrain station [via the future Broadway Subway] nearby, or clients can take the bus. Dr. Braun was stunned at the suggestion of asking his clients, who drive Rolls Royces or Porsches, to take the bus.
Thus, if you look at Marco Polo, it's going to be 11 storeys, but it'll have four levels of underground parking, which is an unusual ratio and that's us trying to satisfy the requests we've heard from the medical market.
Our team looked at numerous medical buildings around Asia, including in Taipei, Taichung, Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, and we wanted to bring some of the concepts that we saw in those places to Vancouver. For example, we have two floors of amenity space on the fourth and fifth floor. Our units are not particularly big. What we've heard from clients is that they don't actually need huge spaces, what they need is amenity space.
S: Economic conditions have not been great over the past few years. How has Gryphon dealt with these challenges?
JH: I'll split my answer into two parts: sales/marketing and construction.
We do construction in-house. It's hard to sugarcoat it and say we're saving a lot of costs. We're not. We are fighting inflation everyday. But we made a promise two years ago during pre-sales [for Gryphon House] and we have to deliver that. We expect to complete construction in Q3 2024.
Our mother company in Taiwan is probably the fifth-largest developer in terms of [sales] volume in Taichung, which means we have a lot of buying power, so we have our mother company backing us.
In years past, we used to lump everything into one big subtrade, then they supply and provide the labour as well. But now we try to break down that one contract into six contracts. Because we do construction in-house, it's easier for us to do this, compared to developers who need to negotiate with your GC or CM [General Contractor or Construction Manager], who care about how much they make. But in our case, our in-house GC or CM don't need to worry too much about that and just have to worry about quality.
On the sales/marketing side, we're still offering a lot of things other big developers are not. For example, we have our Gryphon VIP car and driver. Let's say a client suddenly decided they want to come back to Vancouver for a short visit. We actually have an in-house driver and a Range Rover for them.
Also, for our Gryphon House clients, for example, they're getting their keys in Q3 2024, but starting from Q3 this year, they're getting calls from our customer care team to walk them through what's going to happen in the next year — expectations, help with mortgages, procedures. We do this in Taiwan and we're bringing that here. We want to make sure we're doing things responsibly for our clients.
S: I know that both Jin Ray and Gryphon really emphasize "beauty" and "art" in your projects. Why is that so important to you?
JH: I think in 2023, if you're a developer and you're just selling a concrete box, you're behind the times. I don't think that's us. I think the secret sauce of our 30-year legacy in Taiwan is that we're never happy to just sell a concrete box. We're proud that each of our individual projects have their own story.
Why does Marco Polo have two levels of amenity space? Why does Gryphon House have the amenities it has and a 24-hour concierge and is cladded with limestone, even on the rear lane side? We have a lot of things that we're very keen on. Obviously, it's not great when you look at the proforma and you see that you could be making more money, but these buildings will exist for 50 to 100 years.
As developers, we should be proud about what we do. I think there are some developers, here and in Taiwan, where they don't necessarily want to see the projects they've built. We're not like that. Everyday when I go home, I'll pass by Macdonald Street, because that's where our first project [Westbury] is, and remind myself of the great job we did and how happy the residents are.
If you can't give yourself some goosebumps like that, how are you going to move potential pre-sale buyers?
Portions of this interview were conducted in Mandarin, at Gryphon's request. No interpreters or translation software were used. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.