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Obituary: Developer David Butterfield gave heart, energy to projects

David Butterfield, the visionary developer who has been described as a warrior, rebel and force of nature, has died after a short battle with kidney cancer. He was 69.
Cheanuh Chief Russell Chipps, far left, and developer David Butterfield, right, get children to help them unveil the Spirit Bay development in East Sooke on Aug. 22, 2013.

David Butterfield, the visionary developer who has been described as a warrior, rebel and force of nature, has died after a short battle with kidney cancer. He was 69.

Butterfield’s family said he was diagnosed with late-stage kidney cancer in February and died on Saturday at his home surrounded by loved ones.

Butterfield, known by friends and colleagues as a man full of energy with a passion for creating communities, took a derelict industrial site in James Bay and turned it into the award-winning Shoal Point development.

“It is tragic. The guy was so full of life and tremendous drive and focus and energy. It’s a real loss,” said long-time friend and collaborator Doug Campbell, who first worked with Butterfield as the architect of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union headquarters on Douglas Street in the 1980s.

Campbell said the friendship and working relationship took off from there and included work on the Loreto Bay project in Mexico. It was designed with the ambition of being the largest resort community in North America committed to the principles of sustainable development. Butterfield’s company left the project in 2007 just ahead of a global recession.

Butterfield’s Trust for Sustainable Development set the wheels in motion by creating a master plan, selling lots and starting as many as 800 homes.

“He had tremendous vision and he was uncompromising. He wasn’t going to be swayed from his vision for economic or any other reason,” said Campbell. “The vindication is Loreto Bay is tremendously successful and it was his vision that brought that about.”

Architect Paul Merrick, who helped bring Shoal Point out of the ground, said Butterfield’s vision was one thing, but his ability to bring those visions to life made him special.

“This leaves you a little lost for words. None of us will live forever, but David was called rather too soon, and not fairly,” said Merrick, who said he always marvelled at Butterfield’s never-ending stream of ideas.

Merrick said Butterfield had a knack for appearing to be the most easy-going person, inclined to be agreeable, but it belied a determination to see through what he knew to be good projects.

He recalled that after Butterfield’s plans for a community at Bamberton were rejected, he soon started on Shoal Point. “He had come up against difficult communities in the past, and here he was going again,” Merrick said with a laugh. “But he had the foresight to see that location, an oil tank farm, as having potential that was quite unrealized. His ambition was probably a little aggressive, but I think as time goes on you’ll see it was entirely well founded.”

Merrick said that Butterfield’s work wasn’t just about creating things. “When creating a building, he didn’t just do a building,” he said. “It had dimensions of substance and content that was ahead of its time,” Merrick said. “He was dealing with environmental sustainability before it was topical, because he cared about it.”

Butterfield was born in New York and raised in Connecticut. He went to boarding school in New Jersey before studying briefly at Harvard University.

In 2002, he told a Times Colonist reporter: “I never graduated from anything,” though some of his company’s material at the time highlighted education at Harvard, the University of Bordeaux and the University of B.C.

Butterfield moved to Bordeaux in 1968 to study to become a French teacher, but was more involved in student protests that preoccupied France at the time. He was then drafted by the U.S. government to fight in Vietnam. But after several months training, he went absent without leave and fled to Montreal.

That was where he met Norma, his wife. After initially settling in Lund, north of Powell River, the couple came to Victoria in 1975.

He founded South Island Development, which built social housing and office buildings around Victoria in the 1980s, and then built the $45-million Coast Victoria Harbourside hotel and condominium complex.

He found success in his projects at Shoal Point and Spirit Bay — currently being developed near Metchosin. But Christmas Hill and Bamberton eluded him.

Campbell said Butterfield was never daunted by failure. “When you’re playing that kind of game you will have some successes and failures, but he was always about the big vision and how it could be world class and sustainable,” he said. “His projects were stepping stones and he would learn from one and take that to the next.”

JC Scott, who designed Butterfield’s penthouse condominium at Shoal Point and worked with him on other projects, recalled business legend Bob Wright once remarking: “Butterfield, yeah a bit of a baseball player — it’s either home runs or strike outs with that boy.”

Scott sees Butterfield as being in the same league as Wright, founder of Oak Bay Marine Group, and Michael Williams, whose foresight ensured Victoria’s Old Town held onto its character.

“He was one of the greatest influences on my recent life,” he said. “He was one of the most influential, powerful, visionary clients I had.”

Scott still marvels at Butterfield’s vision. “His greatest skill was in imagining things, seeing the possibility where other people didn’t,” he said.

Butterfield’s death brought out tributes on social media.

In a Facebook post, Darlene Tait called Butterfield a friend, teacher, boss and inspiration. “David was many wonderful things. His fundamental commitment was to create stunningly beautiful towns or communities that people could live connected lives in ... and then he fought for them to come to be. He fought for better lives to be lived in places even if it meant challenging the status quo which he often did,” she wrote.

Artist Derek Rowe, who was hired to create art for Shoal Point, wrote on Facebook that after hearing of Butterfield’s death, he was compelled to pull into Bamberton and walk around.