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.