There was a great sense of possibility in the packed basement room of the St. James Community Square last Sunday (November 17) as the Save the Hollywood Theatre Coalition rallied the Kitsilano community to rescue the historic movie house. Meeting chair Mel Lehan listed numerous successes in the neighbourhood’s tilts with developers and city hall.
Will the Hollywood become one more?
So much is arrayed against them, beginning with the weak and cumbersome tools the city has to protect both heritage buildings and the sort of lived history that gives any neighbourhood its soul.
At City Hall a week earlier, when council passed a 75-day delay in approving building owner Dino Bonnis’s application to gut the interior of the theatre to create a fitness centre, it looked as though city councillors were already jockeying to apportion the blame elsewhere for the Hollywood’s demise.
Andrea Reimer pointed to provincial rules requiring that cities “fully compensate a private owner” for constraining development rights. Geoff Meggs, who worried often about potential costs to the city, asked speakers from the two-week-old coalition why they hadn’t acted sooner to develop a plan to preserve the theatre, given that it was widely reported to be at risk after it changed hands in 2011. Heather Deal said property owners shouldn’t be unduly restricted: “That’s how they support their families.”
Advocates for the Hollywood, including Lehan, explained that the community has tried to engage the owner and that the current tenant, the Church at the Hollywood, wants to purchase the theatre, which was built and operated by the Fairleigh family for 78 years until they sold it to Bonnis for $2.85 million. Although a report is due to the city in December or early January on how to better protect vulnerable heritage cultural facilities, some speakers wondered why there has been so little effort by the city in the past to strengthen its tool kit.
Bonnis declined by email to speak to the Straight, through his brother Kerry Bonnis. Bonnis Properties’ downtown holdings include five sites along Granville, such as the Future Shop / Winners building and the Commodore Ballroom. Individually, the family owns many properties along Broadway. Dino Bonnis did tell the Province newspaper that no one “stepped up” to operate the Hollywood as a theatre. Others have argued that no one stepped up at the rent he was seeking.
Senior heritage planner Marco D’Agostini told council that Bonnis and the city have been discussing major renovations to the building for two years and that the current application preserves more of the structure—including the façade, which has Vancouver’s first permanently affixed neon sign—than any previous proposal. He added that Bonnis is entitled to revert to a less attractive proposal if this one fails.
All this negativity hasn’t fazed Mel Lehan, a veteran COPE council candidate and Point Grey NDP provincial election stalwart. When Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director Bramwell Tovey told the crowd of 300 at the community meeting that he’s embarrassed as a world traveller by our inability to protect our history but “remains confident that we can turn the city into an entirely glass mausoleum”, Lehan didn’t blink. “There’s so many people that want to partner with us, it’s exciting,” Lehan later told the crowd.
Maybe there will be a Hollywood ending to this movie, where the plucky community wins the heart of Bonnis, whose Greek family history on Broadway also runs deep. Maybe the theatre won’t be taken over by an American fitness chain after all. It will be just like Local Hero.
Lehan knows, though, that he must reach Bonnis mainly through his wallet—with a solid business plan that draws on every resource at his disposal. Otherwise, this movie ends badly, with almost everyone a few years late and a few million dollars short.
The Church at the Hollywood will screen You Can’t Take It With You Wednesday to Friday (November 20 to 22) at 7:30 p.m., with a suggested donation of $5. Tickets are available online at Eventbrite.