Vancouver builders follow the lure of culture

Special to The Globe and Mail

The Waldorf Hotel, targetted for redevelopment. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

Vancouver is suffering growing pains as the landmarks and small beloved icons come down to make way for condo and mixed-use developments.

The recent selling of the Waldorf Hotel to a condo developer felt like the nail in the coffin for many Vancouverites, after the recent loss of the old Pantages theatre on Hastings and the Ridge movie theatre on Arbutus Street. Before them, we saw music venues Richard’s on Richards and the Starfish Room get razed for condos. If I were to go further back, the list would take up this entire column.

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The Waldorf isn’t just one of North America’s original, lovingly restored tiki lounges, but a unique cultural complex that is the antithesis of generic.

“We were smote by the sword we forged,” says Waldorf Productions operator Tom Anselmi, who’ll be forced out Jan. 20. “Isn’t that the typical Vancouver story?”

Lately, it has been.

Looking ahead, it’s not difficult to see the next targets. The popularity of the east side’s Main Street has placed that neighbourhood in the crosshairs of redevelopment. The location of hipster hangout the Rumpus Room, at 2689 Main St., has been approved for

development of a four-storey commercial residential building with three retail stores on the ground floor and 15 dwelling units above. Nobody has applied for the building permit yet. Kingsgate Mall is also potentially slated for redevelopment that would include condos, and the developer-leaseholder has said he’d like to start the process this year, if possible.

Like the Waldorf, the cool hangouts along Main Street are the victims of their own success. It’s nothing new, and Vancouver is certainly not the worst for it. The most famous case might be the former artist neighbourhood of Soho, in Manhattan, in the 1970s. The starving artists are long gone.

Most developers know that where potential development is concerned, it’s safe to follow the creative types. They brought life to neighbourhoods such as Main Street, the downtown eastside, Gastown, Railtown, Commercial Drive – all of which have become draws for redevelopment. Chinatown is next in line, with a condo project slated for the heart of Chinatown at Main and Keefer. It’s a Solterra Group project, the same developer that purchased the Waldorf.

However, it’s too simplistic to blame developers and marketers for the transformation. Everyone had long complained that the area around the Woodward’s Building was a ghost town, with its boarded-up storefronts and empty sidewalks at night. Now that it’s thriving with home décor shops and restored heritage facades, some are complaining that it’s become too pricey, too elitist, too gentrified. In order to infuse life into a neighbourhood that’s bleak or forgotten, it requires people not being scared to go out at night. That means more people, and more residential development.

And it can be done in a way without pushing out existing residents and small businesses that give the neighbourhood its characteristic charm – the very charm that made it enticing to begin with.

“You suddenly bring lots of people into the area who have purchasing power and you can predict with certainty the desirability of the area is going to go up, and we kept saying we wanted the area to be more vital,” says city planning consultant, Michael Goldberg. “Well, we’ve done that with the downtown eastside, and now people are saying, ‘we didn’t really mean it.’

“The Waldorf is similar … No question. Some of the city’s biggest developers have bought property at least that far east of Main Street.”

Mr. Goldberg is a former University of B.C. business professor who’s now a consultant and board member of the Surrey City Council Corporation. He’s also from New York, so he knows about city transformation.

“In my view, Main Street is the most interesting street in the city right now. And it has all kinds of funky restaurants and shops, and different ones. You walk down there and you don’t see chains.”

That’s the thing about the Waldorf, as it exists. If developer Solterra were to convert the building into a place for a chain restaurant, for example, all charm would go out the window.

As far as solutions go, it’s probably too late to save the Waldorf as the thriving cultural hub it’s been the last two years. But the city could look ahead to preserve other such icons, says former city planning director, Brent Toderian, who now runs UrbanWorks. They could institute something similar to the city’s “rate of change” policy that protects old rental housing stock, he says. “It would be a proactive approach, rather than reacting to crises when a theatre, hotel, or any cultural asset is threatened,” he says. “It wouldn’t be easy, but as a city that wants to expand our ‘cultural infrastructure,’ we need to do a better job identifying and protecting what we already have.”

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