Waldorf Hotel operator seeks meeting with purchaser as city evaluates heritage value
Waldorf Productions and its supporters have done a remarkable job of keeping the issue of the hotel's future in the public eye with its campaign for a long-term lease.
A group called Vancouver Loves the Waldorf has already lined up a bevy of high-profile endorsers—including musicians like Dan Mangan and Joe Keithley, leading arts administrators like Jim Wright and Kathleen Bartels, and top-flight visual artists like Paul Wong and Ian Wallace.
A relentless media-relations campaign has pushed Mayor Gregor Robertson to order the city manager to bring a report to tomorrow's council meeting. It will outline options for "protecting" the building.
Meanwhile, Coun. Heather Deal has declared that the hotel will be a part of the city's future. This comes amid reports that the building and surrounding parking-lot space have been bought by the Solterra Group of Companies.
Hordes of people showed up at the hotel yesterday to show their support, and 15,000 people have signed an online petition to "save the Waldorf".
All of this has been accomplished with the help of daily news releases from the company, ensuring that this story doesn't disappear from the media.
Today's bulletin from Waldorf Productions is headlined: "The Solterra Group is attempting to demolish a cultural institution, not only a building."
"As everyone is now aware, the Solterra Group, a Delta-based condominium developer, has refused to meet with the Waldorf's creative team," the news release declares. "Waldorf Productions is currently on a week-to-week lease and the property must be delivered vacant on September 1 to Solterra. This forces them to vacate the premises on Sunday, January 20 as the business requires commitments to artists, organizations, and entertainers months in advance."
Solterra stated on January 10 that it has no intention "at this point" of demolishing the East Hastings Street hotel.
Waldorf Productions partner Thomas Anselmi wants people in the city to hear his rebuttal.
"This is not only about the heritage preservation of an important Vancouver landmark but the destruction of a cultural institution in a city of vanishing arts spaces," he states in the news release. "This company is showing no respect for the community they're supposedly marketing to. Despite the fact that 60 people have lost their jobs, countless artists, musicians, and independent entrepreneurs are being displaced and the city is losing one of its most beloved institutions, Solterra won't even grace us with a meeting."
Solterra has not responded to calls from the Georgia Straight. It remains to be seen if any of the Waldorf Productions employees will be retained by the landlord, Waldorf Hotel Ltd., if the leaseholder follows through on its pledge to vacate the hotel on January 20. The hotel owner, Marko Puharich, has indicated to the Straight that he has no intention of shuttering the building after the leaseholder leaves.
Next in the news release, Anselmi turned his guns on the media. I presume in the following comment, he's referring to an article I wrote last night.
"Leaked, out-of-context emails and confusing half-truths in the press are a distraction from the real issue," Anselmi says. "Yesterday, we made a great effort to dispel the myth of our financial insolvency in a press release. We have vastly increased the bottom line for everyone who is attacking our good name."
He points out that media outlets have not reported that "any residential development between Clark and McLean, on the north side of [East Hastings] street, will be extremely difficult given the current circumstances".
"City Hall has stated a commitment to preserving commercial and industrial zoning and any zoning changes need community support which is clearly not there," Anselmi states in the news release.
(There's no mention that last summer, his business partner, Ernesto Gomez, wrote an email to the landlord suggesting that the zoning could be changed.)
The Waldorf is zoned MC-2, which refers to mixed uses. The MC-2 designation limits housing in areas adjacent to heavy-impact industrial zones.
This section of East Hastings Street is not considered part of the region's industrial-land base under the jurisdiction of Metro Vancouver's Regional Growth Strategy, according to former Vancouver planning director Brent Toderian. So this means council can rezone for housing without running it past the Metro Vancouver board.
The principal in Toderian UrbanWORKS tells the Straight by phone that he expects council to add the Waldorf Hotel to the heritage registry.
"They're talking about establishing a statement of significance," he says. "I'm sure they'll find heritage merit in there."
However, Toderian maintains that if it's included in the registry, this merely means that the building is "important" and it's added to a city list.
"It doesn't give it any kind of legal status," he emphasizes. "The thing that gives it a legal status is to designate it. People often get placement on the heritage registry and designation mixed up."
Buildings can be designated A, B, or C.
Under provincial heritage legislation, he explains, the city must compensate a property owner for the effects of designation if council does this without the owner's consent.
"Usually the effects of the designation is a significant decrease in development potential," Toderian says. "So imagine the city having to write cheques for every heritage building being designated. The city does have the power to protect buildings, but it comes with a big price tag associated with it because of the provincial legislation."
He notes the city can use other tools, such density bonusing and the heritage density bank, to pay owners for compensation and rehabilitation without turning over cash.
If council doesn't designate a property as heritage, the owner is free to demolish it even if it's listed on the heritage registry.
"Technically the city can't prevent demolition [without designation]," Toderian says. "It can only delay demolition. So if you get into that kind of a back-and-forth, heritage usually loses. What I used to say when I was chief planner was we have a lot more authority around what goes up than what comes down."
On January 13, community activist Ned Jacobs told the Straight outside the Waldorf Hotel that he thinks any new owner will be happy to take a huge amount of heritage density in return for the building being designated heritage.
That's because this additional density could be sold to another developer or landed on the same site, allowing for more housing units.
"Basically the pattern I see here is similar to the York Theatre," Jacobs said. "You purchase an old building that is an important cultural venue for the community that people love. And then you hold it for ransom."
He said that through this process, the existing use becomes the amenity for more density. This ensures a "landfall profit" falling to the owners.
"I think first of all, council has to realize...they have set in motion policies that play into the hands of this type of destructiveness," Jacobs said.
Bill McCreery, a former NPA council candidate, was standing beside Jacobs outside the Waldorf. McCreery claimed that council has created the possibility of losing the Waldorf as a cultural facility because of its propensity for allowing spot rezonings.
"The developers have been told, effectively, 'Anything goes. Come to us. Tell us how much you want. And we'll make a deal,' " McCreery said. "That's crazy. You just can't continue to do that."