An Open Letter from the Red Gate to Mayor Gregor Robertson and the Vancouver City Council:
The former “Trocadero Building” at 152-156 West Hastings has been an ad-hoc, unofficial, community driven cultural space for more than 30 years. Operating since 2004 as the Red Gate “cultural wildlife refuge”, it has provided affordable studio, rehearsal, and exhibition space for a diverse community of artists, musicians, film/video artists, etc, including JC/DC Studios, home of the New Pornographers, Destroyer, and other internationally recognized recording artists.
At a meeting on Monday at City Hall with three levels of officials from the Building Inspections Branch our landlord received an "Order To Cease Occupancy" letter, effective September 26. This represents the "final" extension of a 30-day "Order to Vacate" letter received on May 24, citing "unsafe and hazardous conditions," based on an informal inspection in January 2011.
Please note that we were not previously informed of the results of the January inspection, despite assurances at that time that we would be subject to a complete and formal inspection, and the order of May 24 was not phrased as 'these are the safety issues which need to be addressed in order to continue occupying the building,' but rather 'these are the safety issues that require the building to be vacated.' After a spontaneous letter-writing campaign on behalf of our many members and supporters, we were granted a 60-day extension, in which we were given the opportunity to deal with cited deficiencies in the fire safety of the building, but with the additional condition that the owner submit a full Development and Building Permit application "as appropriate for the intended use of the building" (ie. artist studios) by August 23. This was not in any way a negotiated settlement, but rather an ultimatum unilaterally imposed by the City.
Of course we understand that "the City" is not a monolithic entity but is comprised of a number of different departments with differing and sometimes conflicting mandates, and that these departments are likewise composed of diverse individuals with a wide range of preferences, priorities and opinions. We appreciate this because we have been dealing with multiple levels and departments of City staff since 2007.
Throughout this time almost all of their verbal communications with us have been more-or-less positive and supportive of what we have achieved here, and what we are trying to achieve. This contrasts sharply with the written communications we have received, which seem designed to exaggerate the "imminent life safety issues" and cast the building owner and occupants as entirely negligent and non-compliant.
For example, the original order to vacate states that "a recent inspection [ie. in January 2011] revealed that although the required permits have not been obtained and the necessary repairs have not been carried out, the building has now been re-occupied on all 3 floors ... as an artist studio." While not technically false, this is extremely disingenuous as we had been dealing with City officials for more than three years before this notice (please see the Work Order dated December 18, 2007 signed by then Chief Inspector Ed Nuefeld,) during which time we had completed all of the fire safety and other necessary repairs that had been cited, so it was by no means the case that our presence in the building was suddenly discovered, nor that we had failed to comply with any request made by the City throughout that time. It's extremely frustrating that despite our engagement with the City, this ongoing relationship was "disappeared" in this way.
What's also very frustrating is that despite the repeated assurances that the Order to Vacate is based entirely on "immediate life safety issues" with the building, it is the further, non-negotiable condition that the owner submit "full development plans" for the building that is the actual reason that we are being ordered to vacate. This is especially galling in light of the City's multi-year and multi-departmental "regulatory review process" for artist-run spaces, which we have been dutifully participating in since its inception, the recommendations for which were passed in Council last February. Of particular interest to us is the "interim program", intended to bridge the adoption of the recommendations and their actual implementation as changes to the appropriate City By-Laws, which "allows venues and staff to collaboratively address regulatory issues within a reasonable timeline without threat of enforcement action. This allows the venue to continue operation, unless imminent life safety issues exist (which would need to be addressed without delay)."
The point is, we have spent the summer dealing with these issues, "without delay" to the limit of our abilities and finances, but these have only ever been a condition of the temporary extension (now expired) and are rendered entirely moot by the further condition of a full development application. Indeed the precise distinction between what presents an "imminent life safety issue" and a mere by-law infraction has never been made clear to us, nor is it, apparently, entirely clear to the inspections staff themselves, as the exact specifications we have been ordered to comply with have presented a moving target over the last several months.
For example, the original Order to Vacate cited "smoke alarms ... covered with tape and plastic" [sic; among the dozen or so functioning smoke alarms only one was found in such a condition, a full four months earlier, which was immediately corrected at that time.] The interim agreement signed by the owner on June 20 states that "all smoke alarms [be] installed and operational", whereas the development and building permit required for this work states that they be "installed, interconnected and operational". It was only at the point at which the work was being inspected that we were informed that the smoke alarms needed to be hard-wired to the AC power in the building, and independently to each other, and not via the wirelessly interconnected battery powered alarms that we had installed.
In fact, every single inspection has found new “hazardous conditions” not cited previously (see further examples below.) This also appears to violate both the spirit and the letter of the "interim program" which states as its proposed aims "to enable staff to approach by-law infractions in a coordinated manner in order to … ensure messaging is consistent and clear".
The current "final" Order to Cease Occupancy lists a number of "basic life safety issues still outstanding", which deserve a point-by-point response:
• "Exit signs are still not working in some areas and missing in others." As far as we are aware there are exit signs installed in every location that we have been asked to put them, which have been tested and tagged within the last several months by a certified fire safety professional.
• "Emergency lighting is still deficient in numerous areas throughout the building." Two locations on the main floor were identified as requiring additional emergency lighting; these have since been installed. We are unaware of any other location at which these are required.
• "Doors in the fire separations between floors do not have self closing devices nor do they latch upon closing." This at least is partly true; however this is the first mention of this issue, it appears nowhere in any of our previous correspondence with the City nor in any previous discussions of "imminent life safety issues."
• "Rear exit stairs (interior) - handrails and emergency lighting requirements have not been installed..." This staircase has emergency lighting, installed, tested, and tagged by a certified fire safety professional in June. The missing handrail was installed in July by a licensed contractor engaged by the owner, however at the most recent inspection it was determined that this railing was 3 feet too short; this has also been corrected.
This document further states that there is "no acceptable fire protection system." Assuming this refers to fire alarms and/or sprinkler systems, this is true but was not included in the list of "imminent life safety issues" cited by the City as a condition of our 60-day extension.
Again, the point is that this extension has now expired, and so it makes no difference if we go to the effort and expense to meet this or that "life safety" requirement or not, in the absence of a "complete Development and Building Permit application" submitted on behalf of the owner. It is our position that the issue of basic life safety and the issue of long-term development plans for the building are two separate issues, and they have been presented together in such a way as to create a great deal of confusion and uncertainty.
The mass exodus of artists and musicians from the building that has already occurred (R.I.P. JC/DC) has not been on the basis of life safety issues, but rather in the knowledge of the City's long-term development requirements. The building owner has stated that he would not be submitting such an application; we the tenants, renting month-to month under imminent threat of eviction at the hands of the City and the owner for years, have had neither the opportunity, the expertise, nor the finances for such an undertaking, nor even the right to do so.
The fact is, with this requirement, we are doomed either way. If the owner does not submit the application, the building will be vacated and we'll be on the street, but even if he does submit the application, we'll be on the street anyway; a complete renovation of the building will render it unusable for a considerable period, and upon completion the rental rates will be at least 2 to 3 times what we are paying now, and there is no chance that the current, low-income artists working here will be able to afford it.
So, just to sum up, despite recommendations passed by City Council that "cultural venues" be given notice and timelines for code violations "without enforcement action", the Building and Inspections Branch chose not to inform us of "numerous life safety issues" for over four months before serving us with an Order to Vacate based on these issues.
While publicly, and personally, assuring that they want us to stay open, and that they are supportive of artist run-spaces and the "cultural values of the downtown eastside" and so on, and that it is merely the issue of imminent life safety which requires immediate enforcement action, this is contradicted by the additional requirement, buried amongst these life safety issues, for a complete development plan as a condition of continued occupancy.
The implications of a "full development plan" are significant. The very first requirement of this process is a Use Change application, to modify the building's current official use as "Office" space to "Studio". Changing the use of a building immediately invalidates any "grandfathered" variances to building codes & by-laws, and initiates a cascade of required upgrades consistent with current building codes. As the building has seen no major renovations for over 50 years, it's clear that this represents a broad, comprehensive and above all expensive renovation process, including but not limited to seismic re-inforcement, sprinkler systems, complete replacement of plumbing and wiring, and so on.
The current designation as office seemed mysterious to us, as we know that the building has been artist studios since 1981, and prior to this period was in operation as a social club, and that at no time has it ever been office space. Going through the City's archives on the building it was discovered that in 1988 the building was purchased for the purpose of converting it into an office building, and a use change was approved for this purpose, but due to the same sort of building code upgrade requirements that we now face, none of the work which would have been required for this use was actually carried out. (The last communication from the frustrated developer contains the ominous statement "If any additional improvement is required, I may not be able to proceed. The upstairs two stories will be vacant for the next 30 years.")
Of course, this has no direct bearing on the current situation, but it illustrates well enough the Kafka-like nature of our dilemma: the first hurdle we face is to change the official use of the building from something it has never been to something that it has always been. Bureaucracy trumps reality. How high is this hurdle really? Unfortunately no one knows.
Despite verbal assurances from various City officials that the use change process will "probably not require elevators" etc, it is entirely unclear just what it will require, or how much it will cost. In any case the owner is convinced that committing to a development plan will cost at least $1 million or perhaps twice that. Again, it is not possible under this scenario that low-income artists of the neighborhood will be able to afford this newly-renovated "studio space", so there is probably no point in going through with the use change after all. Heads the developers win, tails the artists lose.
There is of course a concept, and a process, that is exerting an enormous influence on the situation in the Downtown Eastside, and in particular the 100 block of West Hastings - like a planet whose existence can be inferred from the distortions in the gravitational fields of nearby objects, it runs unstated beneath all of our discussions and communications with the City, steadily pulling in a constant direction: gentrification. And all the talk of "mixed use" and "social values" does not seem able to make headway against this tide.
For many decades, this block of Hastings has been home to many different artist-run centres, studios, and grass-roots cultural organizations, as has the downtown eastside in general. Long ago suburban flight rendered the warehouses and commercial spaces redundant, and these were quickly colonized as cultural production space, making up a comprehensive ecosystem which has been an integral component of the neighborhood. But like many wild ecosystems around the world, it has been reduced and fragmented to the point of exhaustion: a scarce handful of buildings remain providing affordable studio space to the emerging (ie. poor) artists of the neighborhood, three of them are on this block, and all three are in immediate peril.
The Asia Imports building at 151 W.Hastings (directly across the street from us) has been sold to a developer and the artists given 30 days to vacate; the Dynamo Studios building at 142 W.Hastings (3 doors down) has been sold to a developer and although they have not yet been evicted, there is a “for lease” sign on the front and it seems likely that this will happen sooner rather than later. In this context, it is ironic that it is the City, not the owner, that is insisting that our building be developed - if he is unable or unwilling to do this, he has no choice at this point but to sell the building to someone who will.
"As for really new ideas of any kind - no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be - there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings." (Jane Jacobs, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities", 1961.)
This is or should be Urban Planning 101 here - every aspect of the City's Cultural Facilities plan is pertinent to this building. Of the nine criteria for inclusion in the "artist studio regulatory review" process, any one of which would be sufficient, we qualify under six categories. The City's "great beginnings" facade restoration program even uses a picture of the Red Gate on its website to illustrate the program.
And the City's 125th anniversary "Summer Live" event in Stanley Park featured a whole spectrum of artists and musicians that have either recorded, practiced, or performed here on a regular basis, including Neko Case and the New Pornographers, Veda Hille, Sorcerers, Taal Mala, Michael Red, Third Eye Tribe, the Dusty Flowerpot Cabaret, the eatART collective, and more. And this only scratches the surface - this building means many things to many people, but mainly it's a place that is fertile with new ideas. We have taken a disused old building and through our own efforts created one of the most well-used and well-loved grass-roots cultural facilities in the city, without a single penny of public funds.
And yet none of this matters. The essential character of the neighborhood is about to vanish before our eyes, to be replaced by what one can only speculate.
But it's not too late to save the Red Gate! We don't see this as a battle to be fought but rather as a puzzle to be solved. We believe there's a creative solution, and although we're not sure that we've found it yet, we have some ideas that are worth pursuing. Above all we need a reasonable amount of time in which to attempt to develop an appropriate plan for how to break the impasse that has led to our impending eviction. The biggest obstacles at the moment are a lack of commitment on the part of the owner, and a lack of concrete assurances on the part of the City that a multi-million dollar renovation will not immediately be required if we proceed with the Use Change process.
We propose a one year moratorium on enforcement action on the part of the city, on mutual condition of a one year lease from the owner, to allow us to stabilize the situation on the basis of "basic life safety" and provide us with a minimal planning horizon. If at the end of this time we are unable to present a workable plan and timeline for the development of the building that is acceptable to all parties, we'll admit defeat and move on.
We think this is a modest, reasonable, and achievable objective. And we feel that the alternative is simply unacceptable, as it means nothing less than the complete extinction of a once-vital ecosystem. To see this building boarded up and empty, despite all the efforts and good will of so many people, including many City staff members, would be a great tragedy, defeating and demoralizing not only for the occupants (and former occupants), but the aforementioned City staff members as well, and most importantly, the young artists and musicians of the downtown eastside, who will see it as confirmation that they are simply not welcome in No Fun City.
The Red Gate Collective
September 21, 2011