Category Archives: Community

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. (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

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

Community Buy-Outs & Community Infrastructure as part of Sustainable Community Building

I came across this article which wondered about the possibility of a purchase of a 10% stake in Whistler Blackcomb Holdings by the community at the time of its initial public share offering in October 2010.   It opens up a discussion around community ownership and stewardship of businesses and assets, possibly even community buy-outs for businesses smaller than the $450 million market capitalisation of Whistler Blackcomb, and community infrastructure.

It’s not the first time I have thought about community buy-outs, but it is the first time I’ve thought about it for a ski resort and certainly the first time I’ve read about it for a business of that size.

I think it would have been interesting for the community to share in the economic and social wealth created through tourism, sport, and leisure, beyond simply employment opportunities at and use value of the resort.  However a 10% interest in a mature business would have been challenging to say the least.  Issues around the values and objectives of the community, which would hopefully include social and environmental factors, potentially in conflict with profit-seeking motives of other public shareholders could have been rife (although quickliy dealt with given the marginal 10% ownership).  Decisions amongst community owners themselves could have been contentious without the right structures and methods for dealing with collaboration and democratic governance.

But on a smaller scale, with the right attention paid to how collective community ownership and stewardship can be managed and executed, could be very interesting for enterprises and sustainable community development.  The issue of finance to support a community buy-out arises, but addressed by working with a values-based like minded credit union, financial institution, or social investor.

For mature assets such as Whistler Blackcomb and to ensure that communities are not burdened with an unreasonable task of driving revenue growth and brutally enforcing cost efficiency measures, buy-out targets that do take the form of community infrastructure might be better acquired with the help of a community infrastructure fund that is not driven by growth and high financial returns.

The community buy-out model is an interesting idea to entertain, for a revenue-generating asset or business.  Once proved out, perhaps it could be a model that could be rolled out for other community infrastructure assets such as libraries and community centres, alongside an income generation strategy.

How to Incorporate Historic Buildings into Contemporary Development

Eight Georgian cottages of yellow stock brick remain of an early residential development on Greenwich Peninsula. These are 70-84 River Walk, SE10. At the west end of the terrace is the Pilot Inn, Fuller’s public house and hotel. A painted stone tablet on no. 68 on the wall of the pub reads “CEYLON PLACE New East Greenwich 1801”. These homes were constructed for workers at the adjacent tidal mill and chemical works and “are a rare survival of late Georgian artisan housing.”

The cottages are grade-II and were added to English Heritage’s buildings-at-risk register in 2009. Although sitting idyllically amongst gardens to the north and south, it is flanked by strange roadways to the west and east. I wonder if someone decided to “preserve” these historic buildings by “protecting them” from further development with parks and roads. This planning strategy appears to have isolated these buildings, making them novel and a bit freakish. The pub is lovely (and has an amazing cheese selection), but eight homes and one pub does not a community make.

Rising to the east, on the riverside, separated from River Walk by the East Parkside road will be the closest residential development, a collection of over-priced urban walk-in closets being built by Bellway Homes (at £270,000 for a 489 square feet one-bedroom flat, this description is not far from the truth – that’s £552 per square foot. Cost per square foot is a measure I frequently use to compare the relative prices of housing.) To the south-east of River Walk is Greenwich Millennium Village with local amenities such as a chemist and small food shop. A saving grace is the adjacent Greenwich Ecology Park with its pondlife, boardwalk, pipistrelle bats, and bridge connecting it to the Greenwich Millennium Village homes. Overall, the housing developments lack cohesion with each other, separated by roads and separated in character.

My idea for River Walk would be to build housing and community amenities around and incorporating the existing cottages. Possibilities include additional terraced homes built using modern materials in a contemporary, but sensitive and complementary style across from the existing cottages. Or they could form a forecourt or courtyard of homes with multi-unit housing built behind it. The main premise being to include the historic homes as part of the new community that develops around them, saving them not only in a structural and physical sense, but also in a social sense.

Odhams Walk

I’m participating in a free online place-making course offered by the Homes & Communities Agency.  One of the case studies we looked at is Odhams Walk (have a look at this video).  I’ve walked past it several times, but hadn’t looked up nor looked around the development.

Images from Academy for Sustainable Communities

Odhams Walk is a development of housing situated over retail premises in the heart of Central London, in Covent Garden. It features an unusual design for its time which allowed for a variety of types of flats, some with outdoor patios and gardens. Housing is connected by walkways and the arrangement of flats permits interaction with other residents, but also sufficient levels of privacy. The design also enables natural surveillance of the estate. Security was further improved with additional lighting in the corridors and CCTV was installed.

The estate is managed by an ALMO, an arm’s length management organisation, with a Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) on-site. Having direct management on-site helps ensure that residents needs are met and the estate is well maintained. The TMO also helps manage any issues that may arise in the relationship amongst the shop-owners on the ground floor and the residents (for example, due to hours kept by the shops, noise, buskers in the neighbourhood).

Fifty percent of the original development became home to people from the local area with a housing need. After right-to-buy was introduced, many residents purchased their homes and some are now sublet. A careful mix of residents is needed because not all sub-tenants may have the same connection to and interest in the local community.

Good design, effective management, and consistent community help make Odhams Walk a sustainable community. Its creation was community-led from the start, generations are able to live and sustain there, residents feel safe, and they take an interest in their neighbours and their own neighbourhood. These aspects of good practice should be remembered and built upon when considering the future sustainable communities.

Measurement, Benchmarking, Monitoring – Are Promises Actually Kept?

I’ve been trawling the internet for information about the St. Clement’s Hospital Site in Mile End/ Bow and I keep coming across interesting planning documents, consultation papers, strategy papers published by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the London Development Agency, and the Olympic Delivery Authority (we are very close to the Olympic Park here in Bow).  I wonder if any of these strategies have actually been implemented and who has the job of ensuring that the original promises were kept.

Community Land Trusts and Affordable Housing

I have been wondering how to provide affordable sustainable housing for some time now. The cost of housing can be broken down into the land or site cost, the build cost, and the developers’ profit. It is also influenced by the supply and demand for housing in a particular area as well as the cost and availability of mortgages.

I thought about ways to control the land or site cost which typically required finding distressed sale situations or buying awkward sites at auction, which comes caveated with its own risks and uncertainties. I contemplated managing the development costs, subscribing to the adage of good design doesn’t have to be expensive. Interest rates are low at the moment, but a significant investment of equity is required and that doesn’t get a developer over the hurdle of managing risks and convincing lenders to part with their cash in a depressed property market. Besides, interest rates will not stay low forever and cannot be relied upon as a sustainable solution to affordable development.

This led me to think about the factors affecting buyers that require housing to be affordable. A friend who was a teacher was able to purchase a one-bedroom flat four years ago with a significant government key-workers’ grant, based on certain criteria. 20% of the purchase cost of the flat was funded by this grant. My friend provided her own savings to pay for the stamp duty and legal costs and she was able to get a mortgage for the remaining 80% of the cost. From what I recall, if she ever sold her flat, she would have to repay the grant plus a proportion of the net profit from sale back to the government.

It was on this basis that I was trying to develop a similar home-building concept, based on some form of profit-sharing if the properties were subsequently sold. The sale of a new, affordable property can be limited to a first-time or low-income buyer, but if the property was subsequently sold on the open market there is the inevitability that the property will no longer be affordable. Without the imposition of socially-minded restrictions, the provision of affordable housing is subject to abuse and manipulation, with profits lost in the open market rather than ploughed back into building more affordable properties.

And then there is the Community Land Trust (“CLT”), a construct that has been applied in the US, whereby ownership of publicly-owned land, which is an opportunity for re-development, is transferred to a trust, which then owns it on behalf of the community. The objective would be to keep the community’s interests in mind and build affordable housing on the land, available for sale via a leasehold structure to qualifying persons that would otherwise find it financially prohibitive to purchase homes. Properties can be sold back to the CLT for a value, based on a formula that is intended to give the home-owners a reasonable return on their equity investment, but also ensures affordability for future buyers. The critical feature is the governance and leadership of the CLT. In its original conception, the CLT would be governed in equal proportions by three representative groups – the leaseholders/ occupiers, residents from the neighbouring community, the public-at-large (not-for-profit housing providers, funders, public officials, others concerned person representing the public interest). Three features of the CLT are critical and curious:

  1. The transfer of land to the CLT is made at a fair and affordable price – this could mean existing use value, sub-market value, or the ultimate in affordability – £1.
  2. The long-term management, leadership, and governance of the CLT maintains the intentions and values of creating an affordable, sustainable community.
  3. Restrictions placed on the future selling prices of homes change the dynamics and economy of real estate on the site.

Without these three features, sustainable affordability fails. At the sight of this, the capitalists might be throwing their hands up in the air. The attitudes that fuelled the property frenzy up to 2006/07 are challenged and confronted full-on. The easy money found in a rising property market is no longer. It was lazy and unproductive and, if anything, it was destructive. Many blame the banks for loose mortgage lending principles. But underlying it was an attitude that wealth could be created and accumulated through buying property and flipping it. Property was exchanging hands at lightning speeds, without any evidence of improvements – not in the businesses that it housed, not in the communities in which it was situated, not in the buildings themselves. Increases in capital value were speculative and not founded on true value creation or accretion.

The whole ethos of a CLT challenges the attitude of relying on a rising property market for wealth accumulation. If a CLT and its development is managed properly and if a true sustainable community is built on and around it, it will be highly sought after – its value would sky-rocket. It’s a bit ironic because no one would actually be able to capitalise on that value other than qualifying to live there. Beautiful. Poetic even. Now that is the true value of property.

For more information about Community Land Trusts, check out the entry on Wikipedia or the UK-based Community Land Trust Directory.  London-based charity, London Citizens is bidding to develop the first CLT in London on the former hospital site of St. Clement’s.  Read more about it here.