Category Archives: Conservation and preservation

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

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.

Trading Off Homes for Heritage

I wrote the following on 1 May 2011 as a comment to an article on OpenFile about a property developer whose plans involved evicting tenants as a trade off to preserving a heritage home of historic character in the East Vancouver neighbourhood called Grandview-Woodland (near Commercial Drive).

Rising housing density will feature in an attractive city, with a rising population and limitations on urban sprawl… Older homes likely don’t serve people’s needs or desires these days (due to layout, insulation, energy efficiency, different family dynamics), but their preservation/ conservation is important – it tracks a city’s history, tells a story about how we lived in previous times. However community conservation is a different story and one that is often missed when we speak about real estate development. Development and heritage revitalisation that only pays attention to the number of units and the financial cost and rewards fails to recognise what makes a neighbourhood attractive (and one of the reasons why density might be rising there). If community values are not kept in mind, neighbourhoods run the risk of trading community cohesion, shared values, relationships and connections for money – this can happen by current property owners selling their homes for the “profit” and moving elsewhere or local councils accepting tradeoffs and property taxes. These are immediate term gains with long term consequences.

I believe “community-oriented neighbourhood” means knowing who your neighbours are, connecting with them, sharing values, sharing resources – if you’re in a bind, you know you can count on your neighbours (which is far more important and valuable than any money in the world.) Many communities have lost this sense in the pursuit of personal gain and wealth, but really – what’s the point of having a big house, big car, and big TV if you are a stranger in your own neighbourhood?

Here, I believe, are some of the solutions – take rising property values out of the equation. Property and real estate are no longer (some could argue not ever) a commodity – you cannot sell it and replace it with something identical. You can’t take it with you. So market supply and demand forces on real estate do not work the same way as they might for other portable, replaceable, tradeable goods like a car or computer for example. If your property value rises and you want to cash-out – you must move to another neighbourhood with different features. If you want to stay in the same neighbourhood, all your profit goes back into the new house. This requires a major behavioural shift…

Co-op structures and principles are a good start and I am keen to see co-op housing brought in the mainstream and not seen just as an affordable option – but that living co-operatively with your neighbourhoods is a regular thing (I am working on developing these concepts further). So where does the capital come from to acquire properties? Community equity (community share issues) or working with a like-minded partner who has patient capital. But the key piece of the puzzle is not the money nor the legal structure – it is around values, behaviours, and a change in perception of how land economics works.

Elks to Harmony to Home

A beautiful, almost exotic renovation of a former businessmen’s club in Alabama into a grand home on New York Times today. Read the article about how David Harlbut converted the 20,000 square foot Harmony Club into a residence, preserving the architectural features and personality of its past incarnation.  The waterfront building was founded in 1909 as a businessmen’s club, then became the Elks Club in the 1930s.

via @iambrianjones

Image by Robert Rausch for The New York Times

Look Up, Look Around During 1920s Toronto

A beautiful collection of 1920s buildings and architecture from my hometown of Toronto, as gathered and reported by Agatha Barc on Blog TO.  Check out Nostalgia Tripping:  Toronto’s Art Deco Heritage.

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.

In Derby for the DTA Conference

In October 2009, I wrote a post about the Derby Hippodrome.  I was fascinated by this building, which I had discovered rather randomly through my interest in beautiful, but disused buildings and urban exploration (as an observer, rather than a partcipant!)  Anything, living in East London, I never would have thought I’d have an opportunity to visit Derby and see this lovely, historic building in person.  But guess what?  I am here and I’m staying in a hotel just down the road from it.

I am in Derby until Tuesday for the Development Trusts Assocation annual conference on community assets and community enterprise.  It couldn’t be more appropriate than this!

The hotel is admittedly a bit shabby (but very affordable with single rooms!)  And part of me started to think perhaps I should have booked at the Jury’s Inn where many other delegates seem to be staying.  But I stand by my decision – namely for patronising a smaller, non-multiple business and secondly because I am staying close to the centre of the town, seconds from the Derby Hippodrome.  Before tomorrow’s proceedings, I’ll be venturing out a bit earlier to walk past the Hippodrome to have a look around.

Updated information on the state of this building is at the “This is Derbyshire” website.  I’m going to see if any clever people at the DTA Conference tomorrow might have some ideas and resources to rescue this building (and others in Derby!)