Canada's Expo fair site headed for a new look. Keen competition expected for rights to develop fairground properties

``One of the best properties in the world as far as development is concerned.'' Grace M. McCarthy, British Columbia's minister of economic development, sounded like a salesperson. She was speaking of the former site of Expo '86 on the edge of downtown Vancouver.

Only a few buildings remain on the location where 54 nations displayed their commerce and culture to millions of visitors. As planned, most pavilions have been torn down. The 160 or so acres up for sale look desolate. Seven of the 10 monorail trains have been sold to an amusement park in London. Fair rides stand motionless, awaiting a decision on their sale.

Mrs. McCarthy envisions a mixed commercial and residential development on the site. It will, she says, be ``an expression of the best the world can offer. The opportunity is great.''

Some 20 firms expressed a formal interest in the site last month. Four to six of these companies will be asked early in the new year to submit detailed plans of what is expected to be a $1 billion to $2 billion (Canadian; US$760 million to $1.52 billion) development that could take a decade to complete. The provincial government cabinet is expected to make a final choice by spring.

``It is going to be a very keen contest,'' says McCarthy.

Three parties have publicly expressed an interest in the property: BCE Development Corporation, which is part of Montreal-based Bell Canada Enterprises; Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing; and Toronto-based Bramalea Ltd. The Hong Kong developer has talked of paying as much as C$295 million (US$224) for the land. Such an amount would cover the C$120 million cost to the province of the land and needed services. In a sense, it would also go a long way towards eliminating the final deficit on Expo of C$336.7 million.

City planners will be watching the development proposals closely. They would like the final plan to provide for more public access to the waterfront and more parkland. The property skirts the shore of False Creek, an inlet from the ocean.

Until an election last year, the Vancouver city government was dominated by members of the left-of-center New Democratic Party. The new mayor, Gordon Campbell, is of the same Social Credit Party as the provincial government, pro-development, and a former executive in a major real estate company.

``I believe we are going to have remarkable cooperation from them,'' says McCarthy.

The Expo site was once an industrial area that housed, among other things, a sawmill, a cooperage, and a coal gasification plant. Some three-quarters of the Expo site was once the commercial railhead for Canadian Pacific Ltd.

Kelly Gesner, an official with British Columbia Enterprise Corporation, the present holder of the property, notes that preparing the site for development is proving extremely complex, involving 34 different legal entities, surveying, rezoning, restrictive covenants and encumbrances, right-of-ways, and so on.

McCarthy is keen for construction to get underway in order to provide jobs. Unemployment in the province remains above 10 percent.

``All of us feel very emotional about this land,'' she adds. ``We want to see something exciting on it.''

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