Mixed Salad: Thoughts on the Waldorf
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.
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, 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.