Several requests have come in to address the controversy surrounding the Waldorf Hotel.

[As you might have noticed, Price Tags tends not to jump in on urban issues in Vancouver as they’re breaking.  A few reasons: Frances Bula does it best with her blog, and provides not only reportial information but an effective forum.  Second, I prefer to wait until the contours of the issue (not to mention more facts) become apparent.  And thirdly, I’m really not quite sure how I feel about this one.]


The issue has been framed, in part, as the loss of another ‘cultural institution’ in a town that lacks good venues for the arts.  Problem: the Waldorf is not an institution; it’s a bar and a hotel with innovative programming.  Demands for government to intervene run into an immediate problem: institutionalization.  If public funds were used, governmental constraints come with the bucks – not exactly conducive to cutting-edge innovation.  Not to mention the equity problem: if the Waldorf gets assistance, why not any other bar claiming to support local talent?

Another frame: the loss of heritage, affordability, eccentricity or ________  (your concern here) for yet another ________ (fill in pejorative) condo project.   Apply that generally throughout the city, and add in the concern for a loss of industrial land, and you can eliminate a good percentage of opportunities for residential development … leading to more upward pressure on the remaining sites and existing housing stock, thereby exacerbating the problems meant to be addressed by rejecting change.

[My neighbourhood, the West End, is a good illustration.  Today, if the City proposed demolishing hundreds of decaying homes that had been converted into boarding houses in order to replace them with highrises, as occurred in the 1960s, I’m sure it would be opposed and likely rejected, largely in the name of saving affordable housing.  So today we would have hundreds of brilliantly restored heritage homes, completely unaffordable, and not thousands of lower-middle-income rental units in concrete boxes.]

If there’s any good news it’s probably this: the Waldorf isn’t going to be demolished.  And not because the owner and developer, running for cover, have said so.  It’s because the Waldorf is too valuable as a negotiating lever for rezoning or additional density – which the current campaign, wildly inflated through social media, has legitimized.

Because the site has to be rezoned for residential if condos were to be built, there must be some social benefit on the table, sufficient to offset the antagonism unleashed by the eviction of the current tenants.  The problem is: the current tenants aren’t likely to be the beneficiaries, partly because they’ve burned a few bridges, partly because the economics of their operation are still pretty dubious – unless the Waldorf was indeed ‘institutionalized’ as a cultural venue that would likely have to be subsidized or a commercial operation not dissimilar from what’s happening where values are higher.

Many have pointed out the irony of the Waldorf as hipster central – a low-cost location in an old building in a seemingly forlorn stretch of Hastings – appealing to those who disdain downtown vacuousness and who thereby unleashed the forces of gentrification.

Mid Hastings

Mid-Hastings, Vancouver

Maybe it was the Waldorf that started this shift, but more likely what is happening on Hastings is a manifestation of something bigger – something parallel to what is happening in San Francisco.  Market Street (map here) is surprisingly analogous to Hastings: The downtown financial and retail district at one end, next to a Tenderloin/Downtown East Side, then vibrant cultural communities beyond.  But in between, there’s Mid-Market which, like a long stretch of East Hastings, has been oddly moribund for decades.

Always predicted for regeneration, given its strategic location, Mid-Market never happened – until literally the last few months.  Suddenly the cranes have appeared, and about 20 projects are underway. (SPUR reports on the ‘Big Boom’ here.)

Mid market

Mid-Market, San Francisco.

The article lists six reasons: rental demand, the tech boom (major companies moving into the urban core to get and keep workers), post-recession investment opportunities, contained construction costs – and the two that are most relevant to mid-Hastings: the legacy of previous planning work, and changed political attitudes to growth.

Those are the issues likely to come out of the Waldorf controversy, in addition to the state of our cultural community (actually being addressed in a report before council).

What kind of character, amenities, urban form and rate of growth do we want for mid-Hastings?  The Waldorf may have triggered those questions, but the answers aren’t going to come easily.



  1. It’s pretty clear you haven’t actually experienced what the Waldorf has to offer… To describe it as a “bar” totally misses the point.

    The space is completely unique. The crazy staircase between levels, the insanely kitchy Tiki bar, the mammothly oversized restaurant space, the separate basement venues and the outdoor former parking lot that caters to all kinds of neat outdoor events – nobody can build something like it today. Events there are like nothing else – New Years 2012 with “ice” skating in one room, DJs in another, a mariachi band in the restaurant, music in the Tiki bar, all kinds of art going on upstairs… You just can’t do that anywhere else. The closest alternative would probably be the Astoria if they opened up the basement again, but even then it would be much less than half the size.

    What makes the Waldorf an awesome space for this kind of thing is the same thing that makes it a terrible hotel. The ratio of rooms to event space is so far out of whack – why would you need a massive restaurant and bar for a hotel with only about a dozen rooms? The space is so out of proportion for what it was “supposed” to be. Its dysfunction as a hotel makes it in to a great neighbourhood anchor though.

    I do definitely have some concerns about the current operators and their abilities to actually organize and properly utilize the venue. For instance my wife is a wedding photographer – while they do host the odd wedding there, they don’t seem to be able to market the fact that they do that very well. There are limited venues in Vancouver to host that type of event and they are always in high demand, but it seems like nobody even knows that they “do” that at the Waldorf. So the space they’d otherwise use for that sits empty a lot of the time. They have been getting better and better with their handling of events but overall it has been clear that they don’t have a lot of experience actually operating things. Stupid stuff like making it REALLY hard to buy a drink when they’re doing stuff outside despite the fact that they have the licence for it. Or not really understanding how Eventbright works for ticket sales and making you jump through hoops to actually get in the door. Or the hilarity that ensues when you try and check a coat and make the mistake of going up the “wrong” stairway afterwards. And I won’t even talk about how Nuba operates, though I gather that is run by separate management.

    I honestly couldn’t care a lick about what I’m seeing when I’m there… When I buy tickets for a “big” event like Halowe’en at the Waldorf the list of DJs / bands / whatever is secondary to the space. I love how everyone there is always having a great time, I love how you can move from room to room throughout the night and see different things and different people. The “vintage” cool factor of the space is what draws me in. And it has none of the “Granville Entertainment District” Ed Hardy / cologne / gold chains / baseball hat crap.

    I don’t really think it should have any government funding put in. If anything I think we need a new type of zoning for arts & entertainment facilities that results in a bunch of restrictions on the possible uses, resulting in a decrease in the assessed value and therefore the land taxes. If the Waldorf’s land could only be used to build another Waldorf then it becomes much less attractive to developers. $6m+ valuation for a crusty old building on a lot that you can’t do anything with? No way.

    The same approach would have helped protect the Ridge or the Hollywood. The only outstanding example of someone trying to do something new with spaces like that is the Rio. We’re definitely past the era of the single-screen theatre as a viable business, but those spaces can be used for so much more than just watching the latest Hollywood blah.

    As you mention, I believe this issue will go far beyond just the Waldorf as it is quite clear that the city needs a better approach to dealing with arts and culture space. When I saw the reports of the zoning board saying there was nothing they could do to “force” the developer of the Ridge site to even consider putting in a new theatre or bowling alley I woke up and started paying attention. When I saw the Waldorf potentially getting destroyed I started yelling at anyone who would listen.

    1. Terming it a bar “totally misses the point?” Is that valley-girl to-tally or some other totality? The operation was almost totally built around liquor licenses; 361 spaces for pure drinking, 230 with food, and an off-sales. Strip away that and it could not function. Come to think of it, the Waldorf couldn’t continue to function ~with~ all that. Dump on Granville establishments and patrons to your heart’s content, but realize, they are sustaining, and your watering hole has now dived.

  2. ” The issue has been framed, in part, as the loss of another ‘cultural institution’ in a town that lacks good venues for the arts. Problem: the Waldorf is not an institution; it’s a bar and a hotel with innovative programming. Demands for government to intervene run into an immediate problem: institutionalization. If public funds were used, governmental constraints come with the bucks – not exactly conducive to cutting-edge innovation. Not to mention the equity problem: if the Waldorf gets assistance, why not any other bar claiming to support local talent?”

    Bingo. Although I am sympathetic to the Waldorf’s situation i am uneasy about the tail wagging the dog here.

    bingo about thoughts ‘being cutting edge’ and the effects of institutionalization.

    The one example IMO that might be emulated for this situation is the lloyd hotel in amsterdam. It’s an old reform school by the docks in a relativley newly developed area, and it functions as a ‘cultural embassy’ the hotel was charmingly eccentric but the programming inside at the time not that engaging and i am unsure if the locals incorporated it into their fabric. it needed civic support to establish it, but i am unsure what sort of ongoing civic supports/funding it gets, if any.

  3. You’re absolutely right the answers won’t come easy, and that’s one reason why i’m glad you did jump into the fray early and in the way you did.

    When condos do start popping up on that stretch (it seems likely not on the Waldorf site, but across the street at the very least), what becomes of the existing uses? Who’s going to want to live downwind from the chicken rendering plant? Is that use going to be deemed not appropriate for the new version of Vancouver? What happens to those jobs, and to the other uses that have colonized the space to seek shelter from the market and the higher rents, including artists and the soon-to-be-previous operators of the Waldorf.

    That space in Vancouver has been able to nurture an amazing art scene, even before the Waldorf appeared, but it has exploded since the Waldorf. Nowhere in the city has that sort of programming and attention on up-and-coming or unusual arts been able to be practiced. It’s not just the building, it’s the heart of the neighbourhood, of a culture, and even if the new owners decide to become long-term operators of the beautiful and unusual building, save it and turn a profit, that heart will be lost.

    Of course the city institutionalizing the building is probably a no-go. I would hope there would be other options. The assessment of that property is absurd and can only be explained through speculation on changed zoning, certainly not what the building itself or a parcel of industrial zoned land is actually worth for what can be built there. That’s a huge problem affecting not just the Waldorf but the whole city. Is there some sort of land-bank that can be prevent speculation? Can we put some covenants on cultural institutions in every neighbourhood that will prevent them from being converted from cultural use for a certain period of years? Condominium speculation, for as long as the market is hot, is more dangerous than actual conversion, and it has the ability to completely weed out other uses. Maybe for this building at least a heritage designation could do the trick.

    But bigger than that, I’m more than a little worried about the what the city will lose if this corner of the city turns from industrial to middle-income gentrified condominium ownership. Jobs. Culture. An area where experimentation is okay, and won’t disturb the neighbours. A place where something can stink and that’s not the end of the world.

    There are other ways to create affordable housing that don’t include displacing the only non-white colour high-paying jobs in the city. What good is affordable housing in Vancouver, after all, if all the jobs are in Surrey? We can and should be more open to densification within our neighbourhoods in different forms, and what form that densification should take should be more openly discussed, weighing the different options, and then making those options happen (and not simply only towers in this case, but laneway houses, multiplexes, fee-simple, strata-townhouses right up to low-rise and mid-rise). It wasn’t just the concrete boxes that rose in the 1970s after all, but the wood-framed walk-ups that dominate Kitsilano, Grandview and Mount Pleasant, and provide even more affordable housing than is able to be offered in the West End, and yet didn’t so radically tear the city apart. Even renting in Strathcona, the so-called expensive option of renovated heritage homes contrasted with the West End in your piece, is relatively cheap – likely cheaper for many suites than the West End is today. And I expect the density isn’t too much lower either, given many of those houses are split into suites.

    All that said, as one of those who sent you an email, I’m happy to have this discussion here, because it’s a different discussion here than at Frances Bula’s blog or the Globe and Mail. And yes it’s messy to jump in the fray when it’s still going on, but it’s much more useful than chronicling the past when it’s set in stone.

  4. It is – defined by alcohol sales, its main revenue stream – a bar. It is not the heart of a ‘hood or any culture. And its mismanagement has no effect on the rest of our thriving artistic scene. It’s hardly a “cultural institution” if it’s primarily driven by beer, and nightly, causes numerous vomittings with some patrons becoming seriously intoxicated. “Heart of a culture”? Sober up. Not much different than Granville St., just more beards, eyeglasses and attitudes. When the next new thing comes along, it will fade.

  5. Geez – it’s pretty bleak if the “heart of Vancouver culture” rides on a 3-year-old “tiki-bar” in a dilapidated hotel.

    Bottom line is Waldorf is/was a business (bar/venue/whatever) that didn’t generate enough revenue to satisfy its obligations. Seems clear to me that its patrons didn’t love the place quite enough to buy enough booze/tickets to keep the place afloat. Which leads to the sticky situation – when does a business become a “cultural institution’ worthy of Tessa’s special covenants? Sounds like a sweet subsidy for that lucky bar owner…

    Aren’t we as a people empowered to create this culture? Here’s an idea – get a thousand like-minded people together to scrape up a thousand bucks each and secure (probably not buy outright) an old warehouse space. Charge admission, etc. to cover the remaining mortgage and expenses and have at it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *