Victoria Developer Chris Le Fevre Says the Challenge is What Matters

Often described as the lone wolf of Victoria developers, Chris Le Fevre stands behind his vision to create attainable housing that celebrates the city’s character.

Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

On a credenza in Chris Le Fevre’s airy office at Le Fevre & Company on Herald Street sits his immigration form, dated March 2, 1970. It reads: “Money in his possession: $50. Money to follow: Nil.”

Le Fevre, who recently framed the document, says he thinks about its significance often. After leaving London, U.K., and arriving in Toronto — to cold weather he “never could have imagined” — Le Fevre made his way to a rugby club (“rugby was my salvation”) to train and met someone who needed a car driven out to Vancouver. He said yes.

“I got a job there as a clerk in a real estate office and it’s as simple as that,” Le Fevre says. “From there, I became a real estate salesman, made a few bucks and found my way into development and construction.”

As effortless as he makes it sound, he’s created something of a legacy in the city of Victoria, where he’s been based for the last 40 years. From the Morley Soda Water Factory and historic Leiser Building to the recently restored Lum Sam and Lee Cheong buildings, he’s brought sections of Old Town back to life.

“Chris is a real visionary,” says retired City heritage planner Steve Barber. “He can see the potential in these buildings that not too many other developers could. He’s really done a tremendous service to the city and Old Town in terms of giving these old buildings new life.

Barber believes increasing the residential population in Old Town has given the area’s streets a sense of life and vibrancy.

I think Chris has been a big contributor to that, he says. You go back in time and start to add them together, [then]you realize this is one man and one developer who has accomplished so much in a fairly small area in Victoria’s Old Town.

To Barber’s mind, the number of heritage projects that Le Fevre has completed makes him deserving of a significant heritage award.

“I hope that some of the societies, such as Heritage BC, will eventually acknowledge that and give Chris the recognition he deserves,” Barber says.

For Le Fevre, recognition isn’t the motivating factor.

“Many of the things in my life are driven by the challenge, he admits. Challenge is the big word for me. It’s what motivates me.”

Le Fevre & Co. converted the Morley Soda Water Factory, originally built in 1884, into nine modern residential suites.

For a lot of your projects, affordability seems to be key. Why is that?
There are a few reasons. First, I’m from a very humble background. I started off with nothing, so I’ve always been a bit of an underdog. Once I got rolling in the development business, I didn’t want to just build for a chosen few. I wanted to respect those who were setting out in life without much, which was my case. But the “affordable” word is a very delicate word, for the obvious reasons. I would say that I build to make housing attainable for a broad variety of people and will continue to do so whenever I can. What I tend to do is build to a price point, so I know that if you go beyond a certain price point, a young person or couple simply cannot afford it, so I don’t put it out there. You have to bring it down to a point where you can deliver something for a certain price. It may be a modest place, but it doesn’t matter if they can afford to buy it; it’s better than being in the rental market. In some of my projects, you’ll see relatively small units; they’re not shoe boxes, but they’re built to a price point. And as a result of that, I’ve built through the recessions and the downturns.

In an interview for Douglas in 2007, you were worried that the City of Victoria lacked in urban planning and vision — has it evolved since then?
It definitely has. What’s happened most significantly is that there’s been an in-migration, largely due to what I would call a tidal wave of Vancouver finding its way through to the veins of Victoria, and that in itself has brought more sophistication to the marketplace, more demand, more money and more energy. With those ingredients, you’ve got to have some planning associated with it, otherwise you end up with chaos. That having been said, I’m not a planner myself. I respect community plans and things of that nature because you have to have a document that deals with the future. Do I see major screw-ups in the Capital Regional District? Absolutely not. Is there too much traffic coming in from Langford? Yes, there is, but outside of that, the growth that has taken place here is remarkably acceptable.

What are the challenges facing Victoria with respect to construction and development?
The workforce is stressed from the top of the Island to the bottom. And that’s a cycle I’ve seen before and it takes time to work it’s way through. If ever there were something that is going to slow the growth down, it’s workforce. And associated with that, you always get an increase in costs. That can affect viability too.

Is there a solution to the workforce problem?
There isn’t one and the reason is because there isn’t enough accommodation over here to house workers on an [economical] basis. If you’ve got some overflow from Alberta or the Prairies, where you’ve got a weaker economy, those people coming here have a very tough time finding accommodation. So, it’s a bit of a stalemate and it’s a bit of a concern.

What would you change about the current approach to growth?
I don’t see enough inspired architecture out there at the moment and that disappoints me. With growth of the nature that we’ve got going on, there is opportunity for inspired architecture and I haven’t seen that arrive here. But that’s just a personal point of view. I’m sure other developers think they’re inspired.

I go to Vancouver and I see guys really jamming it, and I don’t see it here.

Why doesn’t it happen here?
First of all, everyone here is fairly conservative, which can be a positive thing in certain ways. I think the nature of the domestic developer here is one of conservatism. As outside developers come in, the likelihood of getting more inspired architecture will prevail because they will bring architects that have operated in other urban areas that have got a little more excitement in them.

What is your attraction to heritage projects?
I started out in Gastown in the early 70s working for a developer working on older buildings and what they meant to the fabric of the city. When I moved to Victoria, I realized I had the opportunity to potentially work in that field. The pivotal thing was the fact that everything goes in cycles and the desire to have downtown living was creeping back in. I could see the upper floors of many of these older buildings had nothing but pigeons in them. I saw the potential to bring housing back into those old areas. That was the initial motivator. Then there was the fascination with these buildings. It’s pretty profound. As an office boy in London, I walked by big old powerful buildings on Regent Street. I know what heritage buildings do to the feel and ambiance of a city. I wanted to be involved in them. And then, once you get involved in the game, you tend to be the guy that gets the sniff first on some of these things. That’s how it all works.

What’s next?
I just completed the Lum Sam and Lee Cheong buildings in Chinatown. They are the most pure heritage restoration I’ve ever done because I’ve not created new uses for old buildings; I’ve gone back to their original uses and put them back in place. That’s exciting, to put housing back into buildings that were housing.

Another heritage project that’s on the ramp is the BC Hydro buildings in Rock Bay. The original Powerhouse and the administration building there. Those two incredible buildings will be redone for commercial/industrial use. The location is very fertile; there’s a scene down there on the edge of Old Town, and I’ll be part of it.

What different challenges does a modern project such as the Raincoast Commons in Ucluelet pose?
Anything out there poses challenges because you’ve got to get [supplies] out there and you’ve got to get it built. Raincoast Commons is a pocket neighbourhood and it’s a way to create attainable housing for young people in what is becoming a dynamic little community. Ucluelet is the Pemberton to Tofino, à la Whistler, so I’m very high on it. It’s a little town that’s found it’s way back from fishing and logging to be a very vital community of entrepreneurial young people driven into the hospitality industry.

How did you come by your approach?
I’m a person who learned by experience. I left school at 16 and have never been back. I may be dressed in a suit today, but many times I’ve been sitting on a bulldozer in my Carhartts and in some ways I’m just as happy there as I am here. Now, I’m not saying I’m working on the sites as a labourer — not anymore — but I sure as hell have, and I’m incredibly respectful of the people who work on these sites. Sometimes they are the forgotten soldiers.

What is your vision for Victoria?
If I had a vision, that would be conceited of me. I’m a strong guy, but I don’t have the compulsion to say I have a vision. I think it would be better to say that I have a hope. My hope would be that the city finds its way in the same way it’s done in the past, which is gradual and well considered. So, what does that mean? It means, don’t make any outlandish changes, such as granting permission to put the equivalent of a high-rise on the waterfront of the city or granting huge height variances in Old Town. You’d be changing the complexion and the character of the place. Victoria is what it is, and there is so much that is right about the place, as more and more people are becoming aware.