"Art motel" founder breaks the rules to save the arts

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      David Duprey has a simple raison d’être: “If you follow the rules here you’re gonna fail, so don’t follow the rules.”

      Owner of the Narrow Group, Duprey is the mastermind behind Main Street’s “art motel.” Bedecked with vibrant paintings from the Vancouver Mural Festival (VMF), the City Centre Motor Hotel is a bright gem among the offices and industrial buildings of Main Street, north of Broadway. Once vacant and awaiting demolition, the building has come to life under Duprey’s landlordship: artists occupy every room of the newly dubbed City Centre Artist Lodge, with a calendar of cultural events rendering this place a year-round community hub.

      But if Duprey had played by the rules, none of this would have happened.

      Like many older buildings in Vancouver, the City Centre Motor Hotel has been earmarked for development—and when Duprey heard about this, he immediately jumped on the phone to call Nicola Wealth Management, the new owners.

      “I just cold-called them and asked if they were interested in leasing out the building,” says Duprey, “and they were super into it.” Having transformed other demolition-marked buildings into temporary art spaces, Duprey saw this as a fantastic opportunity, reaching out to VMF to wrap the 1950s motel in murals.

      His plan seems relatively simple: get a lease, put in artists, and voila! Beautiful cultural hub. But here’s the rub: that’s not how you’re supposed to do these things at all, as Duprey reveals.

      “I leased the place out, filled it with artists and then I went and told the city about it. They freaked out!”

      David Duprey says the city's development rules stifle new artistic spaces.
      David Duprey

      The issue, ultimately, is bureaucratic. According to Vancouver’s city ordinances, if a building is going to be used for anything other than its original purpose, that counts as development—specifically, a “change of use”—and as such, the landlord must obtain a development permit, even if no construction work is due to take place.

      This can result in a lengthy and costly process in which representatives from the city assess the space, after which they may require upgrades to the building before the permit can be issued—upgrades for which the landlord must foot the bill. In the meantime, if it’s a temporary lease, the landlord is also paying rent for the empty building. And that isn’t exactly an appealing prospect to anyone who wants to create an artistic space.

      Duprey sees this process as prohibitive to cultural development, because artistic endeavours just don’t generate the kind of revenue needed to cover change-of-use costs. “No-one’s gonna spend millions of dollars on a space for artists, so they can get two dollars per square foot for rent,” he says. “It’s not a viable business model.”

      Instead, buildings sit empty and unused while they await demolition. Unless someone like Duprey finds shortcuts by bending, or breaking, the rules.

      In the case of the City Centre Artist Lodge, Duprey only involved the city after he had obtained the lease, commissioned the murals, and rented out the rooms as artist studios.

      “When I told them, the city was like, ‘Oh my god, what did you do, that’s crazy!’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I did it, and I’m gonna continue to operate as a motel.’ ”

      This is how Duprey got around the change-of-use issue: for all intents and purposes, the motel is still a motel. “I sent them a business license that just had three lines. It said: ‘I’m opening a motel. It’s gonna do daily, weekly, and monthly rentals. I have a priority for LGBTQ people and POC.’ And they sent me a business permit.”

      Duprey is a proponent of the ask-for-forgiveness-not-permission method, which he firmly believes is the only way to get things done in Vancouver, especially when it comes to the creative community. This is why he discusses his maverick business practices so openly.

      “I want Vancouverites to take more risks and not wait for the city, because we’re gonna wait forever.”

      And Duprey speaks from experience—he’s been fighting to foster an alternative artistic culture in Vancouver for almost 20 years.

      Having spent 10 years in San Francisco, Duprey was disappointed when he returned to Vancouver in 2004. “It was ‘No Fun City’: there were no bars, the nightclubs all sucked, and the live music venues from when I was a kid had been crushed over time.”

      Yet, Duprey sensed opportunity in Vancouver’s blank slate, inspired by the risk-taking creatives he had been surrounded with in California.

      “Like in Golden Gate Park: people would set up a swing dance or a roller skating thing. When the city said, ‘Hey, you need a permit,’ they would just say, ‘What are you gonna do about it?’ They didn’t ask for permission, they just did it.”

      Duprey’s brand of entrepreneurship has been wildly successful in Vancouver. He’s the landlord behind alt-culture institutions like the Rickshaw Theatre, the Fox Cabaret, and the dive-bar-esque Narrow Lounge. And the City Centre Artist Lodge isn’t Duprey’s first foray into the art scene: his portfolio boasts 12 artists’ studios with over 250 tenants.

      Of course, breaking the rules isn’t an easy road. Not all of Duprey’s projects have come to pass, and he’s been caught out before. That was the case with the Rickshaw Theatre, which Duprey transformed into a live music venue in 2009. After the city refused his request for a liquor license,

      Duprey operated without one for three years. By the time he got found out, the Rickshaw was already popular, so Duprey’s second request for a license was granted right away.

      “At that point, if they shut the Rickshaw down, it would have been ridiculous,” he says with a chuckle.

      Even as Vancouver’s creative scene continues to grow, Duprey believes that the city’s rules and regulations are killing artistic endeavours in the cradle.

      “I’ve seen so many people rent out a warehouse for music and art, but the city says, ‘Here’s what you have to do’ and it’ll be millions of dollars. So they give up their lease and lose all their money.”

      The solution to bureaucratic roadblocks, Duprey insists, is to remove them entirely: “If you lift restrictions on the ability to create artistic spaces, arts and culture will flourish.” He decries the city’s approach, which is to “get involved with the minutia” in order to help artists. Duprey has a different tack: “I don’t believe I can help. How I help is giving people affordable spaces and allowing them to express themselves.”

      The City Centre Artist Lodge is, so far, a testament to Duprey’s subversive approach. A year on, Duprey says that the old motel has become “a really supportive community,” as artists are free to host their own events, sell their wares, or just use their spaces to quietly create whatever they want.

      It may not last forever, but Duprey thinks the Lodge’s temporary nature is motivating.

      “It knocks you out of complacency,” he suggests. “When you’ve got a deadline it makes you burn a little brighter.”

      As for the rest of Vancouver, Duprey urges the next generation of creators and entrepreneurs to just do what they want, and deal with the bureaucracy later. “That’s how the arts scene is gonna survive. It’s not about going to the city and asking them to help us. It’s about us just going out there and doing it.” 

      The City Centre Artist Lodge is located at 2111 Main St. The VMF is planning more events there for its summer programming.