We don’t know much about the real people behind the Château Laurier addition. And we likely never will.Larco Investments bought the historic property in 2013 through one of its many related companies, subsidiary Capital Hotel L.P., but continues to lease day-to-day operations to the Fairmont chain.Just what is Larco Investments? Something of a mystery — a private company owned by the intensely private Lalji family from Vancouver. They don’t give interviews, period, aren’t keen on photographs, but they have a track record in hotel ownership, real estate development, and offshore tax havens.And they’re wealthy, to the point that a Vancouver business magazine in 2018 put their net worth at $3.07 billion, fourth-highest in the province.According to a Globe and Mail investigation titled The Hermit Kings, the main family players are three brothers, Aminmohamed (often called Amin), Mansoor and Shiraz. Originally from Uganda, they fled in the 1970s when tyrant Idi Amin tossed 50,000 Asians out of the country.And didn’t they get busy, acquiring a staggering amount of real estate, starting in the Lower Mainland. According to a Larco website, they acquired the Vancouver Airport Marriott in 1998, the SkyDome Hotel in 1999 and now have about 10 hotel properties. That’s just a start. They have posh malls, office buildings, storage centres and lots more. (A Postmedia researcher ran their names through a property database in B.C. and came up with 476 parcels in that province alone.)This is not their first foray into big Ottawa real estate.
New Château Laurier renderings
In 2007, Amin Lalji, described as the “principal” at Larco, was photographed with the Harper-era Public Works minister, Michael Fortier, sealing a massive sale and leaseback deal of seven federal office buildings.Larco paid $1.64 billion for the seven, including two in Ottawa, in exchange for leasing the buildings back to the feds for at least 25 years.While politicians crowed about the wisdom of extracting billions out of bricks and mortar, an awkward perception developed in 2016 with the release of the so-called Panama Papers. Several media outlets reported that Larco — ironically now a landlord of the Canada Revenue Agency — had legally moved hundreds of millions of dollars into tax havens via the British Virgin Islands and private foundations in Liechtenstein.Michelle Travis is a researcher with Unite Here Canada, a union that represents more than 20,000 workers in the hotel and hospitality industry, including in some Larco properties. She produced a report, Hide and Seek, about Larco’s Panama-revealed financial dealings, including legally using offshore accounts as tax shelters.“We’ve just found them difficult to deal with” as an employer, she said. As a developer, the Vancouver resident says Larco does what’s best for Larco, goals that can be at odds with community wishes.“I think if you give them an inch, they’ll drive a tractor through it. ”The Lalji family, she said, is not particularly visible on their own hotel properties, nor did she have any success in reaching them for her report.“They don’t seem interested in engaging publicly at all.”They are not absentee developers, says Dennis Jacobs, the Ottawa consultant hired to manage the Château addition. He said Amin Lalji is updated daily on the progress on the file and word is he has visited the Château often. (Though Jacobs has yet to meet him.)“They are very much aware of what is going on.”Larco is aware of a “noisy minority” that doesn’t like the proposed design, said Jacobs, but has done everything city councillors and the planning department has required in the past three-and-a-half years, including using a top architect and making changes suggested by the city’s expert panels.For instance, he said the addition has shrunk from 12 storeys to seven, and from 214 rooms to 147, probably against Larco’s economic interests. The plan is to use only superior materials and craftsmanship in a $100-million build that will also add 361 parking spaces.“You’d have to give us a reason why we need to change,” said Jacobs, above the frequent sniping about the boxy design.“They know what the Château is and they want to ensure that what they’re producing is going to maintain that high standard.”He also said Larco is invested in Ottawa for the long-term and recognizes the Château as a jewel in its portfolio.The union’s Travis, meanwhile, has another suggestion.“I think it would be interesting if the city were to call Amin Lalji and say look, here are the concerns from the community, how are you going to respond to this? Are you going to make sure the community is heard.”Rest assured, history tells us, that ain’t happening. Glad-handing with commoners is not the work of Hermit Kings.To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896 or email email@example.com.Twitter.com/kellyegancolumnLISTEN TO THE DOWN TO BUSINESS PODCAST