Who killed the Waldorf?
Anyone who has played the board game Clue knows there are six murder suspects: Col. Mustard, Miss Scarlett, Mrs. White, Rev. Green, Mrs. Peacock, and Prof. Plum. The crime takes place in one of nine rooms, and the weapons include a dagger, a rope, a revolver, a candlestick, a lead pipe, and a wrench.
Things aren't quite so straightforward at the Waldorf Hotel at 1489 East Hastings Street. The family that owns the building says it will remain open after Waldorf Productions leaves next week. So some will maintain that nothing nefarious has occurred there.
But no doubt, members of the arts community see the departure of the company headed by Thomas Anselmi and Ernesto Gomez as a heinous crime against culture in East Vancouver. That's because since October 2010, Waldorf Productions has provided a treasured and eclectic venue for top local acts and artists, including Black Mountain, Douglas Coupland, Rodney Graham, Japandroids, Michael Turner, and Paul Wong.
So in the spirit of a game of Clue, here's a thumbnail sketch of the suspects responsible for what has transpired this month:
1. Vancouver city council The Waldorf Hotel is on land zoned MC-2, which means no market housing. As former planner Trish French has pointed out, city council is under no obligation to rezone this property, which is close to the Vancouver port's heavy industrial operations.
If market condos are built on the site, the new owners will undoubtedly complain about the port, resulting in more conflict. There was an easy solution once the developers started eyeing the site: Mayor Gregor Robertson could have held a news conference to announce that the Vision Vancouver–controlled council will not rezone this land for market condos.
If that had happened, Solterra may not have bought the site.
However, Waldorf Productions was given an indication last year that council would rezone the land. That's one reason why it tried to find a buyer who might be interested in saving the hotel and the business. Developers know that this city council is eager to create additional density through CD-1 rezonings, sometimes in return for retaining aspects of heritage. It happened at Woodward's, the Evergreen Building, the York Theatre, and numerous other locations. So why not the Waldorf?
Council does this even though holders of existing heritage density can't find buyers.
In addition, council has never instructed the planning department to compile an inventory of the city's pubic-sector and private-sector cultural assets, which could be the basis for developing policies to ensure that valuable venues are retained.
2. The Puhuarich family The family that owns the hotel could have required a buyer to keep Waldorf Productions at the hotel. This could have been made a condition of sale to Solterra. The family will likely walk away with millions of dollars—thanks in part to Waldorf Productions making the area seem more desirable—with no guarantee that arts will continue to be a priority at the hotel.
3. Solterra The condo developer held a long meeting with a top city official last weekend, where it declared that Waldorf Productions will not remain at the hotel. As a result, Solterra is being bombarded with messages from the production company's supporters,which are being transmitted by Gen Why Media. Solterra's sister company, Viaggo Hospitality Group, is an experienced hotel and bar operator, so we shouldn't be surprised if it ends up with the Waldorf's four liquor licences.
4. Gavin Crickmore Waldorf Productions says its relationship with the Puharich family deteriorated after the owner retained Vancouver litigator Gavin Crickmore. Last year, a four-month lease was renegotiated and previous rent shortfalls were forgiven. Waldorf Productions claimed that if it met the terms, it would get a long-term lease in 2013. Instead, the company was put on a week-to-week lease in January—arranged by Crickmore—after being told that Solterra had bought the property.
Meanwhile, Crickmore waged an effective media-relations campaign, undermining claims by Waldorf Productions that the hotel would imminently close and that all 60 employees would lose their jobs.
5. Waldorf Productions The principals will be appalled at any suggestion that Waldorf Productions committed suicide. But they probably didn't help matters by including following quote in one news release: "The irony that the Waldorf was taken over by a condo developer in the very area we helped reinvigorate is obvious to anyone. The Waldorf filled a void. People responded because they needed it. We tried to stand for something authentic and real in a city with thousands of empty condominiums and a community starved for cultural spaces."
This framed the story as the little culture hub against the big bad condo developer. After the Puharich family revealed that Waldorf Productions had been seeking a condo developer to redevelop the property and save the business, it engendered cynicism.
The production company's gonzo public-relations blitz could also have hardened Solterra's resolve not to bring it on as the hotel operator.
6. Charlie Smith Yes, I'm the sixth suspect on the list. Just as the public was rallying on behalf of Waldorf Productions, I wrote an online article quoting Marko Puharich—in which he revealed that the production company had met a major developer last summer about getting the site rezoned. Waldorf Productions insisted that the hotel owner was fully aware of its efforts. It maintained that it would be sheer lunacy for a tenant to find a developer without discussions with the landlord, and they weren't lunatics.
Puharich, on the other hand, claimed that he wasn't aware of this before receiving an email from Gomez on August 15. Puharich also said that he forgave more than $300,000 in rent during the startup phase, making him seem like the real benefactor of the arts community.
Other media picked up on this story. This could have resulted in less public pressure on Solterra and Vancouver city council to ensure that the production company would get a long-term lease. (By the time the article appeared, Solterra had already told the city that Waldorf Productions wasn't welcome in the hotel.)
7. Scott Primrose The Puharich family's long-time real-estate adviser refused to say if the Puharich family knew in advance that Waldorf Productions was seeking a developer to try to rezone the property. If the family knew of these efforts, the leaseholder wouldn't have been acting in an underhanded manner. Primrose likely could have confirmed or denied whether Puharich was being truthful, but he chose to keep his mouth shut.
8. Westbank Projects The developer of the Woodward's, Shangri-La, and Telus Garden projects met with Waldorf Productions last summer, but didn't put together a bid that appealed to the Puharich family. Had the head of Westbank, Ian Gillespie, trumped Solterra's offer, Waldorf Productions might still be at the hotel next month.
9. Other arts-related businesses When Corinne Lea was fighting for the survival of the Rio Theatre last year, she was supported by other entrepreneurs, including Ken Charko of the Dunbar Theatre and Leonard Schein, who heads Festival Cinemas, as well as the local MLA, Jenny Kwan. Waldorf Productions, on the other hand, didn't get high-profile support from arts-related businesses or provincial politicians. The nightclub industry didn't come to its defence in any meaningful way.
There were lots of artists and arts administrators praising the Waldorf, and the union offered supportive words. There was also a vigorous community effort. Had there been a broader business-backed effort, the outcome could have been different.
In closing, I'll pass along a quote from Gomez, which appeared in the company's initial news release announcing its pending departure:
"We would like to extend our sincere gratitude to all the people who supported the Waldorf since we reopened our doors. We're extremely proud of all the artists and events that we've hosted over last two and a half years. We're extremely proud of our incredible staff who helped to execute world class events."