Waldorf woes a symptom of broader failure to protect Vancouver's cultural venues

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Much of the recent uproar over the Waldorf Hotel has revolved around the future of the nightclub, art gallery, tiki bar, and whether or not 60 workers will retain their jobs.

Waldorf Productions has frequently referred to the East Hastings Street hotel as a “cultural institution” because it has been a popular venue for artists, independent musicians, and nonprofit groups. Meanwhile, the Solterra Group of Companies has announced that it will take possession of the property later this year, raising questions about the Waldorf’s future as a haven of culture.

According to former city-council candidate Sandy Garossino, this controversy is symptomatic of a broader challenge facing the city. In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Garossino said that Waldorf Productions’ woes must be seen within the context of the demise of the Pantages Theatre, Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company, Ridge Theatre, and Granville 7 theatres, as well as the financial problems plaguing the W2 Community Media Arts Society and MusicFest Vancouver.

Garossino, a cofounder of a community group called Vancouver Loves the Waldorf, maintained that city councillors should be “using every lever they have” to support the retention of cultural facilities and organizations.

“At a certain point when enough bodies pile up, you have to start asking, ‘Do you have a serial killer?’ ” she said. “I think the environment itself has become starkly problematic.”

She cited a recent Economist report revealing that Canada has the highest ratio of real-estate prices to rent in the developed world. And she suggested that Vancouver probably has the highest ratio within the country.

“What that means is every commercial tenant is in competition with developers for the landlord’s favour,” Garossino stated.

In other words, property owners are often better off selling their land for housing rather than carrying tenants, including arts groups, that can’t afford to pay high leasing costs.

“I don’t really want to get into the particulars of the Waldorf case except to say that it’s not unusual for an enterprise to experience difficulty during the runway period,” she added.

Waldorf Productions began programming arts and culture at the hotel in the fall of 2010. One the principals, Ernesto Gomez, told the Straight by phone that the family that owns the hotel forgave six months’ rent. His company is on a week-to-week lease and plans to vacate the hotel on Sunday (January 20).

Garossino said that every business startup goes through an “underwater phase” in the first 24 to 36 months as it gets established. “That’s why the Waldorf had a 15-year lease,” she stated.

Meanwhile, former Vancouver planning director Brent Toderian has also spoken out about the future of the city’s arts venues.

“I do think it would be worthwhile to identify ahead of time the cultural assets that the city considers important and vulnerable,” Toderian, a principal in Toderian UrbanWORKS, said.

He likened this to how the city mapped affordable existing rental areas, and included them in a rate-of-change bylaw. “What that did was set the expectations for any property owner,” he added. “It would make it very clear to them what would be expected of them if they buy land that has existing rental housing on it. I think a similar policy would work for cultural assets.”

Toderian explained that because there is no policy now, the public and any prospective purchaser, including the Solterra Group, have no idea in advance if the city is willing to protect important arts venues. “I even saw that in the context of the discussions about the Waldorf,” he said. “Is a private-sector hotel, for example, a cultural asset? The community certainly says it is. Perhaps the purchaser didn’t necessarily understand that.”

The Waldorf is on land zoned MC-2, which allows social housing but not market condos adjacent to heavy industrial areas. Former city planner Trish French has written to the mayor and council asking why they’re not making greater efforts to inform the public about the rationale for this policy, which she wrote.

She noted that the city has an “unhappy experience of market housing being built in and next to similar industrial areas”, such as the Port of Vancouver. “In the absence of such public statements from the Mayor and Council, it appears that the developer has already had encouragement for condominiums from the City, either from politicians or staff,” French concluded in her letter.

Comments (7) Add New Comment
East Van Arts
The loss of the Pantages Theatre at Hastings x Main was an unforgivable and unnecessary tragedy.

101 years old, and the oldest such theatre in Western Canada, it would have been an extraordinary asset. The Pantages seated 650, had a fabulous acoustic, and was unique in Vancouver.

A non-profit society, and developer Marc Williams, tried for four years to save it. More than 2000 people toured the theatre. They were even going to build 130 units of public housing next door.

They tried, and the City said "no". Twice. After every effort had been exhausted, they gave up. A drug addict then set a small fire on the roof, and it was demolished months later.

For four years, the City made the wrong decisions at every step. And the people lost a great theatre as a result. Inexcusable.
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the Uliwon
Slight subject change...why didn't the Waldorf productions crew not negotiate some free rents for all the lease-hold improvements they did? If you are going to reno a place like that, generally the landlord gives something.
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Finally
Someone citing these as all part of something that needs to be addressed. So many public relations efforts are saying "in spite of these things, the arts community is thriving". It is like someone saying "I'm getting better" on their deathbed.

The Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company is a company that was created in response to and by request of The City. Could not believe they would let the company that inhabits THEIR building go under. But they did.
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Save Vancouver
"Vision" Vancouver has presided over a mass extinction of cultural and heritage sites in this city since Robertson led them to power. And yet I bet most readers of the Straight who bothered to vote, voted for them. Reap what you sow.
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Christina
Seeing that butcher's list of lost venues goes to show how little support or even thought is given to Vancouver's arts and culture, which to me is the heartbeat of a city. Pretty soon Vancouver won't even have a pulse.
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T
Without naming it, I'll cite another nightclub space that this situation reminds me of. It got sold unexpectedly ... with an announcement coming on the Wednesday or Thursday, immediately before their final weekend. I had some hopes that whatever took its place would be supportive of great music and touring acts coming to Vancouver.

After being boarded up and heavily renovated, this was starting to look like an improvement, but now the operators of the space cater to the same puking, fighting, party limo Jersey Shore wannabe crowd that the city and business community has fostered along Granville.

For Solterra to make vague claims that they're going to maintain the Waldorf and it'll be "business as usual" after January 20, only convinces me that Granville has a new Eastern extension in the works.
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Nelson1000
Vision's developer alliance has gone too far. The wanton destruction of Vancouver's heart and soul for condos no one can even sell anymore makes me sadder than I can express. We really have to stop voting in civic parties that are nothing more than an extension of the local development community (including those who seem to exist only to put a green progressive spin on it all). Have we really lost the Ridge, the Yale, Pantages, Park Cinema, Maxine's, St John's church, and now the Waldorf in the short time these people have been in charge? Shame.
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