A Different Kind of Home-Buyer

My husband and I are house-hunting in one of the most expensive housing markets in North America – Vancouver. We moved here two and a half years ago from London, UK – where my husband grew up and where I had been living for the preceding 12 years.

The first 18 months or so in Vancouver we spent many of our weekends walking around neighbourhoods – exploring, acclimatizing, and learning about our new city. We have been on our house search, on and off, for a year. More recently we’ve started to widen our search to neighbouring suburbs and cities, Port Moody and New Westminster in particular, and have talked to local real estate agents. What they’ve advised us is insightful about the residential real estate market and the attitude of the “average buyer”. I’m paraphrasing, but here are some of things agents as well as friends are saying about the suburbs:

  • “New Westminster has poor amenities. It’s not close to stores like Costco, Walmart and retail parks. That’s bad for resale value.”
  • “If I were to choose between Port Moody and New Westminster, I’d choose Port Moody. It stands a better chance of growth in values. It’s a development hot spot and it’s going to get the new Skytrain line.”
  • “New Westminster’s problem is that it’s not Vancouver and it’s not Surrey. Cross the bridge and you get a significant drop in price in Surrey so people would rather buy in Surrey than in New West.”
  • “I’ve been in New Westminster for over thirty years. New Westminster is about community. For example, my eldest son’s oldest friends are people he met when he was three years old.”
  • “Port Moody has a strong artist community.”
  • “Port Moody isn’t planning to develop quickly. It’s being thoughtful about development and isn’t going to be crowded with a lot of high-rise towers.”
  • “Homes in Port Moody cost more (than homes in Coquitlam) because it’s closer to the water. There are places for people to park their boats.”

A Different Way of Looking at Home-Buying

To be honest, all of the real estate agents’ talk of resale value and potential rises in prices puts me off Port Moody and other similar areas. My husband and I didn’t move to Vancouver to make a buck on the housing market. We moved here because we wanted to build a life, enjoy the lifestyle, and make our livelihoods here (the three “Ls”, I call it). I like events and festivals that celebrate art, music, and food rather than shopping malls where the art, music, and food is mass-produced and mass consumed. I like neighbourhoods that feel safe enough to walk through at night from the Skytrain station or bus stop to my front door rather than neighbourhoods divided by busy roads and motorways that are unwelcoming to pedestrians. I like walking through, running through and picnicking in parks and amongst nature over walking through or next to parking lots. My husband and I prefer farmers’ markets, vintage stores, and locally-owned shops over retail parks and big box stores.  I want good schools and community amenities over condos and construction sites.

If we buy a home somewhere in Metro Vancouver, we hope our house value doesn’t go down and we might be better off in the long-run if its value doesn’t go up. Rising house prices keep out the artists, teachers, key workers and other great people who could be great neighbours if only they could afford to live there. I’d be perfectly happy if my house price went up by the same percentage I’m paying in mortgage interest – if I ever sold my house, I will have essentially lived there for free. Even if my house price stayed the same as when I bought it, I’m perfectly happy paying something for my housing costs (essentially the interest cost on my mortgage, plus maintenance costs, property taxes, and the opportunity cost of the money locked up in the house) because I’m getting use value out of living in my house in the first (a place to call our own, safe and secure shelter, our little patch that can be decorated any which way we want).

Call me old-fashioned, but I’d like to live in a neighbourhood where there is culture and community. It’s not how much cash I can sell my house for sometime in the future, but the other “Cs” that will be the deciding factors in our house hunt.

RIP (Revitalization, Innovation, Progression) Waldorf Hotel

What an intense start to 2013.  My twitter feed is full of provocative, passionate comments – from #IdleNoMore to today’s news of Aaron Swartz‘s suicide.  But it was another change in our midst that motivated me to action – namely because it is something I have been passionate about, in various guises, all my life and is something I feel I can actually do something about.

On January 9, 2013, I learned that the Waldorf Hotel in Vancouver’s east end was closing in 12 days. I’m tired of cultural and community gathering places being threatened or lost in the wake of property development. It is, however, a complex issue. Housing is important. Thoughtful development of buildings and land to provide us with shelter and amenities in safe and sound conditions is important. But so is conservation of some of our heritage, history, community hubs, common areas, and public places. More importantly when a place exists, that is edgy, takes risks, and is an oasis in an otherwise forlorn part of town, we shouldn’t let it pass at the sight of the highest bidder.

It made me think of the long list of innovative, “at the bleeding edge” places I’ve been to in other cities or known about…

  • Florent, an inclusive restaurant, established in 1985 in the meat-packing district of New York before it got trendy. It closed its doors in 2008, when the landlord significantly raised its rent.
  • Kunsthaus Tacheles (Art House Tacheles), established in 1990 by a group of artists in Berlin.
  • Les Trois Garçons (2000), in a “no man’s land” part of East London that sat between Brick Lane and Shoreditch.
  • Bistrotheque (2004), in a desolate, industrial part of Bethnal Green in London.

Florent Morellet took over a 24-hour diner in New York’s meat-packing district in 1985, when it was still a meat-packing district and not the trendy haunt of restaurant goers, fashionistas, and celebrities. Florent, the restaurant, became more than that, it supported fringe artists – who worked there by day or by night, for business services in exchange for meals, and as a venue for performances. It became a community hub and campaign headquarters – Morellet chartered bus trips to Washington, DC to protest against war or for gay rights. As it grew in popularity, Florent attracted celebrities, tourists, and locals, but Morellet “created a reservation line just for neighbourhood locals (‘I didn’t care if famous people could get a table, but it was important that core people could get a table’)” as noted in this article in New York Magazine, which documents quite beautifully the story of Florent, the restaurant and cultural gathering place that he founded, their journey through gentrification, and ultimately the restaurant’s closing.

Friedrichsstadtpassagen was built in 1907-08 as a department store in Berlin. After many years of changes in use and occupants, parts of the building were demolished in 1980 and full demolition of the building was planned for 1990. It was then that a group of artists occupied it, to save it from demolition and formed Art House Tacheles. The building became occupied with studios, workshops, a nightclub, cinema, and garden. An eviction was scheduled in 2011 and all the occupants and artists left the building in 2012. Tacheles was described by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian as “a meeting place for the city’s artists and subversives that had the atmosphere of some legendary, mythic avant garde venue of the past… … It was an experiment in the power of imagination.” Jens Balzer wrote in the New York Times, “For Berlin’s inhabitants and visitors alike, then, its very existence stood for the idea that the newly unified city could and would provide space for creative experiments. The art center also stood for the harmonious relationship between the anarchic underground and the official culture of the capital.”

I remember suggesting a team dinner with my then-investment banking colleagues at Les Trois Garçons in 2003. It had been around for 3 years by then. Aside from an office building three blocks away that had been acquired and refurbished by a large London property development company in 2001 and warehouses which seemed unoccupied most of the time, there was not much else around in that neighbourhood. It was only a stone’s throw away from the City, London’s financial district, yet to get my colleagues to go north of Liverpool Street Station and into another postal code was unheard of. Change was afoot because later in 2003, the owners of Les Trois Garçons opened Lounge Lover, a decadent, kitsch cocktail bar. If fine French dining couldn’t lure the bankers into uncharted territory, gin and tonics and martini cocktails could. The quirky, slightly dodgy “no man’s land” that was not quite Brick Lane and not quite Shoreditch began its transformation. In 2007, Shoreditch House, part of the Soho House group, and Beach Blanket Babylon of West London’s Notting Hill both opened East London locations, followed by Terence Conran’s Boundary Hotel which opened on New Year’s Eve 2008. 2010 saw the expansion of the East London Line and a station connected to the London transit system opened, around the corner from Les Trois Garçons.

Quirky venues like Les Trois Garçons play an important role in the development of neighbourhoods. They have to exist in harmony with their community and in service of others – it is the only way they can survive when there is no other reason to go a neighbourhood devoid of any other entertainment or local amenity. They establish a culture, usually in a no-holds-barred kind of way. They don’t care if it fits your taste or not, they do care about delivering an experience, being memorable, and being remarkable so that you just might come back and tell your friends (but not your square friends, just your cool, edgy friends). Places like Les Trois Garçons take the first step, when no one else wants to. It involves people who lovingly revitalize disused buildings (in this case, an old Victorian public house built in 1880, that was first acquired in 1996 to be the owners’ home) and take risks.

And then in 2004 came Bistrotheque – further east and deeper in the dark corners of East London. Bistrotheque’s warehouse location made Les Trois Garçons feel like the high street. Blink and you miss it as no signs help you find the pub, cabaret theatre, and French bistro. The pub itself is decorated with an old wood bar, reclaimed from another pub that was decommissioned, and dark velvet curtains that block out any sign of its industrial surroundings. Upstairs the bistro is bright and minimalist. Lively cabaret shows that were inclusive and celebrated the local LGBT community, entertained late night guests . The proprietors of Bistrotheque went on to create three limited-time pop-up restaurants, one in the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, the second in a gallery room in the Royal Academy of Arts, and the third on the roof of a new shopping centre overlooking the London Olympic Park as it was being developed. For the Royal Academy of Arts pop-up, artists were commissioned to create limited edition dinnerware, which were later sold to customers when the pop-up reached its end.

What all of these places have in common is that they existed in neighbourhoods or spaces in which few other people saw value. The neighbourhoods were industrial or the buildings empty and under-utilized. The places were re-animated, often through food and drink, but also with performance, theatre, art, and drama. The spaces were unusual juxtapositions, sometimes over-the-top, eclectic, kitsch, or quirky. They were a breath of fresh air, off the beaten track of clone town high streets and cookie cutter chain stores and restaurants. They were not for the faint of heart.

It can feel like an adventure, seeking out and going to such places, but also like refuge. Despite the hipster stereotype, there is no pre-tense, everyone is welcomed, and no one is judged. The food, drink, and entertainment draw a diverse crowd and as the venues become increasingly popular, they perhaps draw a more affluent crowd. This can enable the venue operators or hosts to be economically viable and continue to self-finance interesting, culturally diverse, create programming and events.

When I first moved to Vancouver in 2011, my husband and I wondered where the Florent or Tacheles or Bistrotheque of Vancouver was. Lo and behold, we found it in the East End of the City, just as we had in London. You can argue whether the Waldorf Hotel is an icon or not or a cultural institution or not. Undeniably, it is part of Vancouver’s culture. It is more than just a bar or an entertainment venue. It is more than the old roadside hotel in which it is housed. It is housed in a part of the city’s heritage, lovingly restored. It is most importantly a place where people gather, meet, and connect. This aspect of being a community hub and public house is a highly under-valued, under-recognized piece of cultural and social placemaking, on which it is so difficult to place a price. It’s not about re-locating and finding another venue. Location, situation, and circumstance are just as important and go hand in hand with the people, the community, the events, and the content.

There is a lot which we do not know about the Waldorf – its financial situation, the exact terms of its lease, and its relationship with the previous and new owners. We do not know the full circumstances and intentions of the previous and new owners.

However, it is not as simple as saying that it is just a hipster hang-out, that it can’t have required a lot of research, that it must be easy to just pay your rent, to shut up, stop complaining and stay. It is also not as simple as keeping the building from being demolished and operating the hotel under different management. It is about making room in ever-growing urban cities for community hubs, the new form of public house, and open places for alternative art, culture, and expression.

Sure, the Waldorf Hotel, its contents, and programming might not be as alternative as say, the Oubliette Arthouse in London (dispatched) or 59 Rivoli in Paris (building purchased by the city of Paris, renovated, and the artists were legally permitted to stay under a 3-year renewable contract), but it is part of Vancouver’s fringe culture. If it moves on from East Hastings, where will it go? Where will we go?

Storify of tweets from Saturday, January 12, 2013:
[View the story "Waldorf Hotel, the demise of \"just another bar\"?" on Storify]

Other blog posts and articles of interest about the Waldorf Hotel:

  1. http://pricetags.wordpress.com/2013/01/11/mixed-salad-thoughts-on-the-waldorf/ (I like that someone mentioned Lloyd Hotel in Amsterdam in the comments.  It’s also mentioned in BLAH CITY’s tumblr.  I’ve stayed at the Lloyd, which is a converted former prison.  It, too, is outside of Amsterdam’s core, near the docks.  I don’t know enough of its story and its programming, but worth including on the long list of “at the bleeding edge” cultural and community spaces that operate as a bar, hotel or restaurant for economic viability).
  2. Vancouver Loves the Waldorf is created http://www.vancouverobserver.com/city/vancouver-loves-waldorf-group-launches-support-team-waldorf
  3. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/mike-klassen/hotel-waldorf-vancouver-closes-solterra_b_2456900.html
  4. http://www.francesbula.com/uncategorized/news-of-waldorf-hotel-closure-sparks-a-small-neutron-bomb-of-outrage-anger-sadness-uncertainty/
  5. http://www.straight.com/news/342681/waldorf-hotel-owner-and-leaseholder-differ-over-recent-history-site
  6. http://www.biv.com/article/20130110/BIV0111/130119993/0/SEARCH/Developer-has-%E2%80%9Cno-intention-of-demolishing%E2%80%9D-Waldorf-Hotel
  7. http://www.mayorofvancouver.ca/waldorfmotion
  8. http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/michael-stewart/2013/01/waldorf-and-vancouvers-artistic-commonwealth
Gallery

Ode to Brutalism

This gallery contains 1 photos.

It’s not the prettiest architectural movement, but this collection of photos of buildings from the brutalist genre puts the spotlight on it – making utilitarianism an artform. http://fuckyeahbrutalism.tumblr.com/

Coffee, Tea or Meet

I end up visiting a lot of cafés and teahouses in Vancouver because I meet a lot of people – and I frequently meet with them in fun places that serve delicious drinks.  Here’s my list of cafés, coffee bars, and teahouses to meet and greet in the city:

  1. 49th Parallel, 2902 Main St. Vancouver, BC Canada V5T 3G3 – Opened summer 2012, beautiful décor and my iced decaf skinny latte was made perfectly every single time.  Electrical outlets next to the long table (on the right as you walk in) are handy.
  2. Mink Chocolate Café, 863 West Hastings Street  Vancouver, BC V6C 3N9 – Known for its super-cute and delicious mini chocolate bars, the rich drinking chocolate is an indulgence.  London Fog is quite nice too.
  3. Finch’s Tea & Coffee House, 353 West Pender Street  Vancouver, BC – On the corner of Pender and Homer, seating on the raised platforms by the windows are always popular.  Delicious masala chai (and their house salad with blue cheese, pear, walnuts, and white balsamic dressing is very yummy).
  4. Après-Midi Teahouse (changing its name to Gastown Tea Company), 1 Gaoler’s Mews, Vancouver, BC V6B 4K7 – Tucked away in a mews behind Carrall and Water Streets, this place serves the most amazing iced teas.  Enjoy the exposed brick walls, high-ceiling, and cute window-box seating and be helped by really friendly staff.
  5. Coffeebar, 10 Water Street  Vancouver, BC V6B 1A4 – Delicious coffee and open late.  The staff are friendly and accommodating here – I hosted a 12 person meeting here one evening.
  6. Nelson the Seagull, 315 Carrall Street, Vancovuer, BC V6A 0A7 – Cute country-kitchen décor, friendly staff, and deliciously yummy coffee and food.  Popular place with not a lot of seating – arrive early and stake your place.
  7. Revolver, 325 Cambie Street  Vancouver, BC V6B 1H7 – Awesome interior design with copper piping, wood tables, and flask-like drip coffee makers.  I feel bad asking for decaf at this place because I feel like they really take coffee seriously (but no actual need to feel bad, they do serve decaf!)  Not a lot of seating, arrive at the right time and nab a booth or a seat by the window and people-watch.
  8. Bean Around The World, 175 West Hastings Street Vancouver, BC V6B 1H4 – Kitty corner to Victory Square, gets great sunlight (when it’s sunny) in the afternoon.  Loungey seats by the corner window are fun.  Often have special coffee flavours.  Service always seem to be really slow, usually with only two staff (one on the till, one making coffee), but I like it here.  It has a friendly, neighbourhoody atmosphere.
  9. JJ Bean (Woodwards), 146 West Cordova Street  Vancouver, BC V6B 1E4 – Tucked inside the courtyard of the Woodwards complex, reliable coffee.  Fun, high-level seating and beautiful wood décor.  Busy in the mornings.
  10. Milano, 36 Powell Street  Vancouver, BC V6B 2J1 – Another place that feels very serious about their coffee.  Feels like they are at the eastern fringe of Gastown.  Sharp, slick décor.
  11. Chai Lounge / East is East, 4433 Main St – Hands down the best and only place to get real, spicy chai tea.
  12. Elysian Coffee, 590 West Broadway  Vancouver, BC V5Z 1E9
  13. Kafka, 2525 Main Street  Vancouver, BC V5T 3E5
  14. Caffe Artigiano
  15. Urban Tea Merchant
  16. Prado
  17. Turks
  18. Marché St. George
  19. Wilder Snail
  20. Everything Café

Walk Where Trains Used to Run

I am enamoured by railway parks after hearing of the high profile High Line in New York.  I have walked the Parkland Walk in North London and the Promenade Planteé.  I am pleased to see a tweet by Dave Meslin about the Railpath in my hometown of Toronto.  I grew up just 2.5 km from the start of the Railpath at Dupont near Dundas.  Looking forward to checking it out the next time I’m home for a visit.

Parkland Walk in London, December 2010 and Promenade Plantée in Paris, January 2011:

There is also a disused tramline in Vancouver called the Arbutus Corridor - not yet a park, but it would be great to see this regenerated into a public space that can be enjoyed by the local community.

Vancouver Ghost Sign and a Piece of Archaeology Erased

It’s been a long time since I posted to Look Up, Look Around, but I am so disappointed that the Vancouver ghost is gone that it has prompted me to write.

The application for development sign had been up on the buildings at the corner of Granville Street and Robson Street in the heart of the entertainment district of Vancouver for some time.  I walked past it everyday on my way to or from home since I moved here in April 2011.  The corner building, low-rise and a bit non-descript, had either lost much of its character or had kept it quiet.  Its neighbour is beautiful and ornate with an Egyptian-like art deco pattern – designated as heritage, its façade would be saved no matter the fate of the corner building.

By January 2012, the buildings were vacant and boarded up.  The scaffolding was erected and in February the walls started to come down.

And then we were rewarded beyond expectation.  The writing was on the wall – or rather the advertising was on the wall.  The demolition of the corner building, revealed the former outer wall of its prettier neighbour and there was a 1920s advertisement painted on it.

The discovery should have been treated like uncovering an archaeological find.  Demolition should have halted whilst historians and archaeologists figured out how to preserve it.  But sadly, the vintage advertisement was not recognized as an important part of Vancouver’s history and was brought down in the name of property development.  I’m all for greener buildings that serve our current and future purposes, but don’t forget that we are also our history.  We revel in vintage, antique, and archaeological treasures.  We marvel at where our ancestors came from, the technology that was available back then – they tell a story that is captivating, fascinating, and enlightening.

The wall from the 1920s should have or could have been preserved much like some of the roman walls and arches have been saved in London.  A hundred years or more from now, we’ll be non-existent to our descendants.  The story that will be recounted, will be a sad one of how a selfish, uncreative, unenlightened society reduced its history to rubble, all for the sake of an ugly, cookie-cutter building decorated with a “For Lease” sign.

Pecha Kucha Night Vancouver Vol. 17 – West Coast Modernism

I went to my first Pecha Kucha Night – first one ever.  In Vancouver at the Vogue Theatre.  How many people were in attendance??  The Vogue was packed!

The theme was West Coast Modernism, back to PKN’s architectural roots (I’m guessing PKNVan had morphed into a series of talks about other subject areas too such as social enterprise, sustainbility, and community.)

I loved it.  It was timely.  As a new arrival to Vancouver, it was a beautiful introduction to another face of Vancouver which is celebrated, but somewhat hidden by the attention given to heritage houses and conversation.  Whilst I have an appreciation for our history, I like to remember that Modernist buildings will be the heritage of the future.