Category Archives: Redevelopment

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.

How to Protect Empty Property

Squatters in empty property are not the problem. The problem is not putting empty properties to better use. Properties lie empty and are not being used effectively.

The opening paragraph of a guide produced by Property Week and Aviva, which advises on how property owners can protect themselves against squatters, suggests that “squatters can use unlet shops to sell knock-off gifts in the run-up to Christmas” and “even home in London’s Mayfair are not exempt, although the squatters there call themselves ‘artists’.

I question whether squatters are using empty shops to sell knock gifts, question why empty homes in Mayfair should be assumed to be “exempt” from squatting, and believe some squatters are validly artists.

There is no evidence given in the guide which supports the idea that squatters use unlet shops to sell fake products. I also wonder why anyone would go through the trouble and inconvenience of using an empty shop to do so. I wonder what reason there is that empty homes in Mayfair should be exempt from squatting. I do not understand why size or perceived “market value” should make any difference that an empty property is underused. And what evidence is there that the squatters of empty homes in Mayfair are not artists?

Two prominent collectives that have squatted high profile Central London buildings include the Temporary School of Thought and the Oubliette Arthouse.

The Temporary School of Thought occupied 39A Clarges Mews in January 2009. It provided “a weeklong Free School event in a pretty unusual location, put together by a group of artists and activists.” “The programme [ranged] from welding to bookbinding to the history of Situationism.”(1)  Dougald Hine, founder of Space Makers Agency and collaborator with the School of Everything did a talk about Ivan Illich and “De-schooling Society” and Vinay Gupta, inventor of the Hexayurt, a cheap, simple, open source shelter that has been applied by emergency relief NGOs, gave a lecture on infrastructure (2). PSFK, an innovation and ideas agency, reported the Temporary School to be “dedicated to the admirable ideals of mutual learning and skill sharing rather than making money.”(3)

Londonist had this to say about the Temporary School:
“What do you do with five floors of long-abandoned Mayfair luxury, complete with hand painted Chinese wallpaper and a warren of servants’ quarters? Tidy the place up, for starters. Then launch your own school. In its first week of ephemeral existence, the Temporary School of Thought has run on a packed timetable of open events, covering subjects from cooking and dance to Polish history and traditional French book binding.”
Londonist went on to add, “over the course of the evening, students became teachers, and enough visitors signed on to lead workshops in their fields of expertise to carry the school forward for weeks to come.”(4)  Some great photos from Amanda Farah are here.

There is also the Oubliette Arthouse, which describes itself as “an itinerant autonomous arts group based in London, showcasing bold new work by squatting long-term empty properties.” The group develops “high quality events that showcase emerging artists and provide a platform for new work, have hosted visual, three-dimensional, performance and music based works as well as charity fund raising events.” Founded in April 2009, in a disused English language school in Waterloo, the group has occupied prominent buildings in Mayfair, W1, and SE1 in London. They are presently resident in a 1888-built former Welsh Presbyterian Church in Soho, which is better known for being a super-club called Limelight and most recently a Walkabout Pub. The building itself has been through significant change as demand for activities taking place inside it declined with changing times. Oubliette’s residency draws attention to the underuse of such large, historic buildings and rather than create problems or damage the property, they manage it and animate with new activities and experiences available to the public to enjoy.

There are many more empty buildings being put to use by creative groups, artists, thinkers, and squatters. The two I mention in this article drew attention due to the high-profile nature and Central London locations of the buildings they squatted.

In the guide, Simon Martell, business manager for Aviva’s property owner’s insurance team says “we’re faced with situations where the property owners don’t have the finance or the ability to put money into developing, renovating, or speculative lets. They won’t commit money if they think they are more likely to get better investment returns elsewhere.” Herein lies a problem. Property owners cannot develop the empty properties for the use they would like to see for the buildings. However, squatters, creative groups, social enterprises, and community organisations are not short of ideas for empty properties. So why the disconnect? Why not let a property be used by people who have a demand, need, or desire to do so? Just because the use is not the use intended by the owner, doesn’t mean it is not a valid use. In many cases, the outcomes and return are something other than a financial return to the owner – a social return to the occupiers, the wider community they reach and the general public. Why should this be a problem for property owners?

I would like to see an enlightened property industry think again about paying significant sums for security systems and instead be aware that creative, cultural, social enterprise, and community uses are an alternative for discovering a new life for a disused property and for protecting and managing properties to prevent their deterioration. Although this is unlikely to yield a financial return to an owner immediately, it may translate into new, longer-term, more sustainable solutions.

I welcome reactions and responses to the guide published by Property Week and Aviva, providing advice to property owners on how to protect empty property.

The Truth About Property

I came across this article this week in the Independent about the tricks of the estate agent trade:  things that estate agents say or do to help sell a property.  This tied in quite nicely with the imagery around a new block of apartments rising up at the top of my street.

Here is the pretty image in the house builder’s marketing materials.  Notice the abundance of trees and in particular the bit of grassy green space at the bottom left hand corner.  The image positions this shiny new development on a day with the clearest of blue skies.

The development isn’t yet complete of course, but here is what it looks like at the moment.  The pleasant neighbourhood is instead a setting where cars exit the A12 motorway and is very built up and unkept rather than open and leafy.

Here is a close up of that grassy green patch depicted in the glossy brochure.  There is a wonderfully big tree which someone has *decorated* with what looks like plastic sheeting, but with the concrete border and fencing, it isn’t exactly the neighbourhood parkette one might imagine.  This is one of the nicer photos I took – in the others, the *park* is obscured by cars whizzing past as they come off the motorway exit ramp.  Nice.

Redchurch Chance and Ebor – What’s Coming to the old Huntingdon Estate

Les Trois Garçons – quirky, maximalist, and over-the-top – this experience of French cuisine in a former 1880s built pub first opened its doors at the corner of Bethnal Green Road and Club Row in 2000.  In 2003, its creators followed up with Lounge Lover – a brightly coloured, decadent, cocktail bar – on Whitby Street just around the corner.

At the same time in 2000, a property developer called Derwent London bought the Tea Building just down the road.  It opened the workspace doors to creative industries in 2003.

Four years later things really took off:  June 2007 – Shoreditch House (part of the Soho House group) launches in the easterly end of the Tea Building, followed by Beach Blanket Babylon Shoreditch in November 2007, right next to Les Trois Garçons.  In 2008, Sir Terence Conran opened The Boundary, on the corner of Redchurch and Boundary Streets, just behind Shoreditch House.

Sandwiched between the Tea Building and Shoreditch House to the west and Les Trois Garçons, Lounge Lover, and BBB Shoreditch to the east, lies the Huntingdon Estate.  Opportunistically situated on Bethnal Green Road, opposite the Shoreditch High Street East London Line station (which opened summer 2010), the site is owned by a developer called Londonewcastle.  We wouldn’t have known had we not stumbled across a gallery exhibiting street art – its unassuming doors on Redchurch Street open on a Sunday afternoon.  It was proudly announced in the entrance way that Londonewcastle had donated the space for gallery use.  If you’d like to see what the developers have planned for the site instead, have a look *here*.  If you’d like to keep an eye on what plans are being approved for the Huntingdon Estate search the Tower Hamlets planning application database for Redchurch and Chance Streets.  A collection of past planning applications for and near the site are *here*.

Stake Your Claim – Warning!

I received the dodgiest looking brochure in the post recently, advertising 323 plots of freehold land for sale near Chelmsford in Essex.  Firstly, I’m not sure how these agents got my name and address.  Secondly, the imagery used on the brochure is very odd.  There is an image of some unidentified stately home, under which it says “stake your claim”.  Elsewhere there is an even stranger image of two construction workers erecting a “sold” property sign, in a pose which clearly copies the American flag-raising image of Iwo Jima.

The site is a large farm, subdivided into 323 plots.   Most of the plots are 650 square metres and some are larger, odd-shaped and triangular.  A plot of 36 metres by 18 metres costs you £27,500.  The 20% deposit can be “conveniently” paid for by credit card.  This is all very disturbing.

Really, what use is a freehold plot of land on a site which currently only has planning for agricultural use?  How would this ever be developed?  Would each freehold owner need to apply for planning permission on each plot individually?  If anyone dreamed of developing the community, they would have the task of consulting and reaching agreement with each freehold owner – this is possible which a very patient and coordinated community organising exercise.  Although I am very interested in co-operatively structured and developed communities, I wouldn’t start with the land, I would start with the people first.  This sale is a free-for-all, demonstrates no coordination or attention to community building, and seems to be appealing to the archaic sense of property ownership (and freedom?)

A further search shows that Chelmsford Borough Council has no intention of granting planning permission to develop this land for anything other than agricultural use.  Sadly, the brochure is uninformative and takes advantage of people who do not understand property development or the planning system.  It is sad to see that people are motivated to hand their money over to such unsecure, misleading offers.

The brochure closes with a quote by someone named Lou Scott and is meant to describe what real estate is.  It is a striking contrast to my thoughts on what real estate or property are.  Have a look at my contribution to the Future We Deserve, about a future vision of property.

Other links:

  1. This is Total Essex – warning from July 2009
  2. Chelmsford Borough Council – scroll down to Buyer Beware from July 2010

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!)