Solterra President Gerry Nichele (centre) with VP Mike Bosa (right)
EDITOR’S NOTE | On Jan 20th 2013, the Waldorf Hotel will close its doors to the public. For the last two years, developers have been quietly buying up property along the Hastings Corridor while building support from city councillors. The result has been a dramatic escalation in property values, followed by evictions and rent increases. While evictions are typically poorly covered by mainstream media, the eviction of the Waldorf has been making big headlines. This cultural space, however, has a backstory that links it to other evictions and to the broader neighborhood of which it is a part.
Vision Vancouver and the revitalization of East Hastings
For the past two years the real-estate industry has been aggressively acquiring property in the area east of Clark Drive on the Hastings Corridor. This forward march of developers into the east end, actively encouraged and brokered by Vision Vancouver, has brought dramatic increases in the value of property in the area surrounding the Waldorf. The price of the Waldorf property has increased $1 million in the past year alone. The blocks surrounding the Waldorf site are being consolidated by the Solterra Group, a large property development corporation, with the Waldorf site being the last piece of the puzzle. Solterra, who purchased a table at Vision’s recent fundraiser, is run by Vice-President Mike Bosa of the Bosa family of developers, also reliable Vision funders.
Across the street from the Waldorf is 1500 East Hastings. This past year, the entire block was purchased for $5.5 million by Sharam and Peter Malek of Millenium Development, who were bailed out by the City during the Olympic Village social housing betrayal.
Further along the Hastings corridor, the situation is the same. Late last year, despite opposition from low-income residents, local artisans, and sex workers, a massive project dubbed “Woodwards East” by DTES residents was approved. It sits only a few blocks away from the Waldorf site at 955 East Hastings. When 955 East was rezoned from industrial to residential, Downtown Eastside residents and COPE held a press conference predicting wide-sweeping changes to the area after the approval of a rezoning.
History of Solterra on the Eastside
The Waldorf redevelopment is not Solterra’s first project in the neighbourhood. On May 7th, 2011, Solterra was granted a development application for a 10-storey condo development at 189 Keefer Street, Chinatown. A year previous, Vision had approved an upzoning policy for the area, as part of the city’s new gentrification plan for Chinatown, increasing the value of 189 Keefer from $1 million to $2.9 million overnight.
There was much at stake at the upzoning hearing: on one side stood the working-class community opposed to the project, while on the other side Vision’s gentrification plan for Chinatown, and of course Solterra’s desire to maximize profits, all hanging in the balance. To remove uncertainty Solterra threw caution to the wind, proceeding to infiltrate one of the most important civic institutions on matters of urban policy: the City of Vancouver’s Development Permit Board. On the day the 189 Keefer project was passed, the architectural advisor sitting on the Development Permit Board was Foad Rafii, a paid employee on this Solterra project.
During the hearing, the conflict of interest was raised by DTES residents. The Mainlander reported: “Rafii spoke on behalf of the applicant, and did not publicly disclose his conflict of interest. When a member of the public voiced his concerns, the Board Chair Vicki Potter and Foad Rafii remained silent, refusing to address the public’s claim.” The development was approved by Vision Vancouver, despite the conflict of interest.
Solterra is also involved in the notorious Wonder and Palace single-room occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside. Mainlander readers will recall that under the previous owner, George Wosley, building conditions were so bad that the city leveled 100s of bylaw infractions and tenants took the owner to court. The owner was forced into receivership in June 2012, at which point Solterra purchased the hotels at rock-bottom prices (the firm which acted as the receiver, Campbell Saunder, had its office on the same floor of the same building as Solterra’s downtown corporate headquarters at 925 West Georgia). According to one tenant, pressure on the low-income residents of the Wonder and Palace hotels has only been increasing in recent months.
Creative class alliance
One month after the re-zoning of Solterra’s 189 Keefer property, on June 10th 2011, Vision held its pre-election nomination meeting at the Waldorf Hotel. The event was a natural link between an emergent cultural institution and a second-term contender conscious of their roots in the young, creative class of Vancouver. The link was fruitful: a few months later, in the lead-up to the election, Vision hired local promoters Sean Devlin and Cameron Reed to organize a “time-raiser” at the Waldorf to build ground-support for the Vision campaign. Meanwhile the director of the Cheaper Show, Graeme Berglund, was singing the praises of Vision Vancouver from his home base at the Waldorf. By locating the new Waldorf as a space for creative class engagement, Vision increased both its cultural ‘cred’ and millennial generation support.
In late October 2011 the Globe and Mail published an article celebrating the revitalized hotel’s one year anniversary, calling it “Vancouver’s cultural oasis in the middle of nowhere.” In one sentence, the article both erased already-existing cultural spaces a short walk away from the Waldorf (Cedar Root Gallery, The Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society, LES Gallery, The Purple Thistle Centre for Arts & Activism, The Dogwood Center for Socialist Education, to name a few), while contributing to a key aspect of gentrification discourse: the notion that nothing of value exists here anyhow.
Today, with news of the sale to Solterra, the ‘nowhere’ narrative continues as supporters begin a petition that decries the onslaught of condo-development, since it means losing the Waldorf. The petition celebrates the establishment of this “cultural oasis in the middle of nowhere” while also quoting Vancouver’s mainstream poor-bashing magazine, Scout. Low-income people are of course the “nobody” in the middle of this DTES “nowhere,” and the petition seems to suggest that the battle plan for a rescued Waldorf is to strike a new deal with Vision and city hall, rather than forge new alliances with the same people (renters) being evicted by the same developer (Solterra) in the same neighborhood (DTES).
Indeed, the celebrated cultural institution is finding itself in the shoes of last May’s Chinatown residents. The difference might be that unlike the low-income residents at the Asia Hotel, Waldorf supporters are still counting on their ties to Vision Vancouver with their petition appealing to Gregor Robertson and Vision for help.
In addition to being a successful space on its own terms, the Waldorf was explicitly viewed as an institution capable of drawing a more affluent demographic to the east of the Downtown Eastside, home to some of Vancouver’s lowest income housing and artist space. The Waldorf frames its role lucidly: “The irony that the Waldorf was taken over by a condo developer in the very area we helped reinvigorate is obvious to anyone.” What remains to be dispelled is the notion that the Waldorf was a lonely pioneer. Gentrification is always a shared class effort, as we are reminded by Peter Wall’s statement to the Globe and Mail last January: “We have the Waldorf, Bob [Rennie] has bought that little building; I think it’s ripe for change.”
Peter Wall’s “we” is a particular we, specific to the developer monopoly in the context of gentrification. The eviction of the Waldorf forces artists and cultural workers to consider the ways in which they are used by forces larger than themselves. It is not a matter of blaming artists for gentrification, but rather taking stock of the ways in which we can choose how to deal with the cards we are dealt. Some have advocated passive submission, since “we can’t throw ourselves in the way of the economic locomotive and just hate developers.” But is that approach justified at a time when many cultural spaces are continually lost, and irreversibly so?
On the other side of the equation, some of the people defeated in the Chinatown hearing last May later joined Vision in hopes that “if you can’t beat them, join them.” The Waldorf proves that even if you join the development establishment, you still get beat. For this reason, the eviction might be a moment of opening — an ideal turning point for coming to the simple yet difficult realization that gentrification does not discriminate between artists, cultural workers and low-income renters.
In response to the eviction, local artists are calling for a one-off solution to save the Waldorf. It is possible that Vision will make an exception for the threatened Waldorf as an attempt to recuperate its ‘creative class’ discourse, but to address the root causes of gentrification another approach is needed. Renters and artists affected by displacement can recognize their shared position and organize together from there — and what better moment than now? The end to displacement ultimately rests on these future ties.