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‘It’s got bad karma’: Trump-branded hotel grand opening shunned by Vancouver officials

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/03/2017 Amy Brittain, Jonathan O'Connell

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Kerry Jang, a council member in this picturesque Canadian city, recalls being in the crowd nearly four years ago to welcome Donald Trump to announce plans for a striking new skyscraper that would bring a luxurious hotel and condo development to the heart of downtown. He still keeps the Trump umbrella, a memento handed out at the ceremony, in the trunk of his car.

But when Trump’s adult sons appear Tuesday for a lavish grand opening to fete the gleaming 69-story tower, Jang won’t be joining in the festivities. His children plan to be on the street outside, marching against Trump in one of several planned protests across the city. And Jang said he and other city leaders will stay far away from the property.

“None of us will be there,” Jang told The Washington Post during an interview Monday at City Hall. “It’s got bad karma, that place.”

The tensions here surrounding the new Trump International Hotel and Tower reflect the unavoidable connection between the Trump presidency and the family’s global real estate and branding empire.

While the Trumps have vowed to pursue no new foreign deals and to fully separate the management of the company from the Trump administration, Trump-branded properties around the world are nevertheless becoming symbols of the U.S. president — and, in some cases, staging areas for locals to express their feelings about his views on immigration, trade and other matters. Trump has retained his ownership stake in the company.

In Dubai this month, government officials joined Trump’s adult sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, for a red-carpet party toasting the opening of a glitzy new Trump-branded golf course.

But in Vancouver, where more than 40 percent of residents are immigrants, the Trump family is getting the cold shoulder.

Protesters are planning to march outside Tuesday’s party. Meanwhile, the mayor and others here are escalating their calls for the project’s developer, Joo Kim Tiah, the 37-year-old son of one of Malaysia’s wealthiest businessmen, to remove Trump’s name from the building.

“Quite frankly, he’d be a hero in this town if he just changed the name,” Jang said.

Although the Trump Organization does not own the Vancouver building, Trump has licensed his name to the tower, and his company will manage the hotel. Last May, the developer announced that all 214 condos had been sold.

Tiah, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has emerged as a staunch Trump defender, even as he has weathered backlash in Vancouver for taking such a stance. He told the Vancouver Sun in November that members of the press seemed to have a “vendetta” against Trump.

“Everything that you have heard about the Trump brand not doing well is either misleading or greatly exaggerated by the media,” he told the Sun. He also said that the Trump family was both “honorable” and “humble,” according to the report.

In the past, Tiah publicly said he feels a particular kinship with the eldest Trump child, Donald Jr., because they are both sons of high-powered businessmen. Tiah’s father, Tony Tiah Thee Kian, is also expected to attend the grand opening.

In January, the developer took to social media to share his prime access to events at the presidential inauguration. He posted a photo of a “Good Evening, Tiah” message on the TV screen in his room at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. And he shared pictures of his tickets to the west front of the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony, the Liberty Ball and a rooftop brunch with the Canadian ambassador.

In an interview this week with the Malaysian financial newspaper the Edge, Tiah said he was embracing the attention that comes with being business partners with the U.S. president.

“I think it’s good because all eyes are on us,” he was quoted as saying.

Resistance to the Trump brand may have reached peak levels in the past weeks, but Vancouver’s struggles are certainly not unique.

In Chicago, the 20-foot-high Trump sign the company plastered on the side of its tower in 2009 was deemed “tasteless” by Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) and prompted an examination of the city’s building codes for signage.

In D.C., the Trumps leased the second-tallest building in the city, the federally owned Old Post Office Pavilion, and turned it into a 263-room luxury hotel. When work began on the project in 2014, a bevy of elected D.C. leaders, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Muriel E. Bowser, then months from becoming mayor, flocked to the event, gripping ceremonial golden shovels and posing with the Trumps.

Two years later Norton, Bowser and members of the D.C. Council turned down invites to the grand opening celebration, held two weeks before the election. Since then, protests have become so frequent that the hotel’s management has blocked off all but one entrance with metal barricades and security guards. According to police reports, vandals defaced or damaged the property six times from Election Day through January.

For all the tumult outside Trump properties in left-leaning cities, however, there is mixed evidence as to whether the businesses inside have suffered. A study during the campaign last summer by Redfin found that Trump-branded condos were no longer attracting the price premiums they did in 2015. The hotel in D.C. — where Trump won 4 percent of the vote — lost more than $1.1 million in the period the hotel was open from September to October, according to government data released by congressional Democrats, though it is not unusual for new hotels to take time to turn a profit. Officials at the Trump Organization say the D.C. hotel business has exceeded expectations.

The fact that Trump often licenses the use of his name means his company is not always the one bearing the brunt of problems — as evidenced by his other Canadian project, the Trump International Hotel & Tower Toronto, which the Trump Organization manages. Condo sales performed so badly there that the developer defaulted on a bank loan and the property was placed into receivership by an Ontario court. Sales have halted altogether with ownership in flux.

Later Tuesday, several groups of protesters plan to gather in opposition to the Vancouver tower. The “Resist for Peace” gathering will be led by Nora Fadel, a 17-year-old Muslim who says she hopes Tiah will hear their voices.

“We want to have them reconsider the name on the building,” said Fadel, who spoke by phone during her study hour at school. “They could have picked millions of other names. Why pick one that has so much aggression, so much racism, so much hate?”

Some city officials now regret their decision to welcome Trump in 2013, when the project was announced.

City Councillor Geoff Meggs sat on the dais with Trump, Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump. Now, the photo is an image he would very much like to wipe clean from the Internet. His neighbor recently told him that the 2013 photo of the councillor smiling and standing near Trump was practically “going viral” across Canada.

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Brent Toderian, the former city planner for Vancouver, said he remembers feeling “embarrassed” upon hearing that the Trump name — then associated with what he called “bad reality television” — would be linked to such a landmark building in the city.

Years before, when Toderian still worked for the city, he was thrilled by the addition of the new tower. It was designed by revered Canadian architect Arthur Erickson and built to be the second-tallest skyscraper in the city.

“We talk about planning here like other cities talk about sports,” Toderian said before embarking on a brief walking tour of Georgia Street with a Washington Post reporter.

Toderian said the city’s model of urban planning is one based on inclusiveness, green spaces and sustainability. Nothing is by accident in Vancouver, he said, pointing out the immense controls that city planners have over the landscape. Rather, he said, the city’s skyline is carefully crafted by intricate design.

But for all of the controls, there was no solution, and no easy fix, for the Trump dilemma. Toderian pointed out that officials can control the size of the sign, but not what the sign says.

In 2015, after Trump launched his bid for the presidency, Toderian was one of the first local notable figures to raise concerns. Following Trump’s campaign promise to ban Muslims, Toderian called on Vancouver residents to reject Trump’s name on the tower.

“We’re Canadians,” Toderian said. “We don’t get angry very often. But we are offended.”

Toderian said he will never set foot in the building, at least as long as the Trump name is “Scotch-taped” on it. But he said even he cannot deny the striking vision of the twisting tower from a distance.

“When I look at it, my first thought is — still — it’s a beautiful building, and it’s earned its place in the skyline,” Toderian said. “My hope is that names will come and go, but that the building will stay.”

Alan Freeman contributed to this report.

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