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‘Megamansions’ and flips: Vancouver Canucks’ owner embroiled in L.A. house wars

Three years ago, Francesco Aquilini bought a 1.86-hectare property in Bel Air, an affluent Los Angeles neighbourhood. The home, which had belonged to Canadian-born TV host Art Linkletter, was pulled down and the property flipped to Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz, reportedly for US$34.5 million.

SuppliedThree years ago, Francesco Aquilini bought a 1.86-hectare property in Bel Air, an affluent Los Angeles neighbourhood. The home, which had belonged to Canadian-born TV host Art Linkletter, was pulled down and the property flipped to Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz, reportedly for US$34.5 million.
  • Debbie Weiss lives with her partner and four children in Beverly Hills, on a narrow, tranquil street with spectacular views. An art dealer who likes hockey, she claims a soft spot for Canadians. “I think Canadians are nice,” she says. Even Justin Bieber, who rented a house on her street last winter.

There were “no issues at all” with the notorious Biebs, says Weiss.

She can’t say the same of another Canadian, Francesco Aquilini, a wealthy Vancouver-based businessman and developer.

With his two younger brothers, Aquilini manages his family’s vast real estate holdings and a “global conglomerate portfolio” that includes the Vancouver Canucks hockey team. Aquilini is the club’s chairman and a National Hockey League governor.

 

His family is reportedly worth billions. As one might expect, Aquilini lives large. He owns a mansion on Vancouver’s affluent west side and recently bought a $4.5-million abode in Phoenix, according to reports there.

McClean Design
McClean DesignArtist's renderings of a house being built at on the Bel Air property that Francesco Aquilini purchased and then flipped.

He also has property in Beverly Hills, a two-acre lot on Loma Linda Drive, right next to Weiss’s home, in fact. After buying the spread for a reported US$7.2-million, he had the 60-year-old, 3,700 square-foot residence pulled down.

Last year, he announced plans to build a 26,000 sq.-ft. house on the property, partially cantilevered over a steep hillside and featuring an indoor basketball court, bowling alley, two bars, two swimming pools and underground parking for 10 cars. And, according to the Beverly Hills Courier newspaper, “moat-like water features protruding over” downslope homes and a pre-school.

Weiss and other residents were appalled. Aquilini’s proposed “megamansion” was too big for the neighbourhood, they agreed. The average house size on Loma Linda Drive is 6,200 sq. ft., according to city documents. Aquilini’s proposal was more than four times larger.

Weiss hired a lawyer and helped spearhead a protest; with other Loma Linda residents, she brought myriad local concerns — including privacy issues, construction disruption and potential landslides — to Beverly Hills and its planning department. In response, Aquilini modified his house design, eliminating the basketball court, adjusting some other features, and reducing the building’s footprint to 21,000 sq. ft.

Still too large, the neighbours said. The revised dwelling would be “one of the most inappropriate and outrageous homes in the City of Beverly Hills,” an aggrieved neighbour complained in a letter to city planners in June.

It “resembles a hotel or a casino,” another neighbour wrote. “Its massive scale is completely out of character with the neighbourhood,” wrote another. More letters were sent; every opinion was sour: “a flagrantly wrong proposal,” “offensively excessive,” “an abomination.”

Aquilini wasn’t spared, either; one disgruntled resident referred to his “Machiavellian manoeuvring.” A few weeks ago, protest banners appeared along Loma Linda Drive. “Save Our Neighbourhood!” they read. “Stop Aquilini.”

The city scheduled a public hearing for mid-August, when the latest Aquilini proposal would be discussed or defended, and grievances aired. Two days before the scheduled meeting, Weiss happened on Aquilini, sitting in a car on Loma Linda Drive.

“He claimed he didn’t know we were upset” about his proposal, she recalls. “He claimed he hadn’t been paying attention.”

She gave him an earful. Aquilini withdrew his proposal the next day. The public hearing was cancelled.

Aquilini declined to speak with the National Post this week. Through a public relations firm, he issued a statement.

Jason Payne/Postmedia News
Jason Payne/Postmedia NewsFrancesco Aquilini outside his childhood home in Vancouver in 2013.

“For the past two years I have been following the recommendations of the Beverly Hills Planning Department to ensure the design and construction of my home on Loma Linda Drive met all of the building codes and bylaws,” the statement reads.

“My neighbours have raised a number of issues about the development, so, as a good neighbour, I have retracted my proposal so that I can sit down with them to redesign my home in a way that best addresses their concerns.”

Weiss is somewhat relieved. She still thinks Canadians are nice, at least most of them. But two “Stop Aquilini” banners remain posted outside her home.

She wonders if Aquilini really intends to be her neighbour at all.

“He has told us he plans to live in the house that he builds. He told me he intends it to be his dream home,” Weiss says. But, she adds, look at what happened in Bel Air, an affluent Los Angeles neighbourhood beside Beverly Hills.

Three years ago, Aquilini bought a stunning 4.6-acre property and historic mid-century home on Bel Air Road. The estate had belonged for decades to Art Linkletter, the Canadian-born TV host. Designed by acclaimed local architect Philmer Ellerbroek, the house — and verdant grounds — were once featured in Architectural Digest magazine.

After Linkletter’s death in 2010, his heirs decided to sell. They assumed buyers would want to to tear down the residence and start afresh.

“The house had unique architectural features that you just don’t see anymore,” says Linkletter’s granddaughter, Stacy Wray, who spoke to the Post Wednesday from Tennessee. “But it was falling apart.”

Aquilini showed up one day and inspected the property, Wray recalls.

Supplied
SuppliedFrancesco Aquilini denies demolishing the home that sat on this Bel Air property.

“He mentioned that he loved the mid-century design, and mentioned that he would love to protect the house’s architectural integrity,” she says. “We were really pleased. We definitely had the impression that he was going to fix up the house and live there.”

Word spread around town. “Miracle on Bel Air Road! Saved!” a Los Angeles historian and architecture buff proclaimed on his blog, Paradise Leased.

Joy turned to despair after Aquilini paid something close to US$11-million for the property. The house sat empty for about a year, then it disappeared.

“The entire house and landscape is gone with the exception of 1 decorative block facade,” a commenter wrote on Paradise Leased in April 2013. “Even the pool was destroyed. Very, very sad.”

“We did not demolish the home,” Aquilini told the Post in another statement this week. “We did, however, do an extensive renovation to build the best possible home.”

Extensive indeed. A much larger, modern version of the Linkletter house is now under construction. A “gigantic, glass-walled mansion,” according to Variety magazine. When it’s completed, Aquilini won’t be living there. He flipped the entire property to Daryl Katz, an Edmonton businessman who, like Aquilini, is an NHL big wheel — he owns the Edmonton Oilers.

Katz reportedly paid US$34.5-million for the property. Short term at least, the Canucks beat the Oilers on that deal.

Asked to comment on the deal, a spokesman for Katz said, “We don’t comment on private matters.”

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