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York Theatre gets the density save it needs

December 18th, 2008 · 10 Comments

I just passed through city hall briefly, where there was a lot of crying and hugging going on in the aftermath of council’s unanimous decision to give the York Theatre whatever it needs to cover all the renos it needs to be functional  — that will be not just density bonusing, but also maybe cash from various culture/capital funds and other incentives.

Some might have thought the vote was a given, what with former councillor Jim Green lobbying for it. But I had a hard time getting a read on what was going to happen in advance of the meeting and others did too, including the anonymous developer (Bruno Wall) who is offering to buy the theatre and reno it exchange for the density.

That went against the staff report, which said only give enough bonus density to cover a third of the needed renos and let the York Theatre fans raise the rest in donations.

York supporters were saying that would be pretty much the death knell of the 1913 building. It looks like councillors believed them. It was a unanimous vote. Now, the anonymous developer just has to actually buy the building now from the current owner, who was going to tear it down to build townhouses.

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  • anon

    I found the following in the briefing note for council and wonder if your report suggests that there was a “density bonus” attached specifically to the site somehow, or if the actual resolution gave transferable density to an as yet unidentified site somewhere in Vancouver. If the latter, then whatever property held by the anonymous developer will become the next potentially controversial decision in this story.

    “Density Bonus and Transfer
    The VECC and developer/donor have proposed a transfer of density to a site yet to be
    determined, that would cover the costs of the theatre restoration. Staff have advised them
    that $10-11 million in density is not supportable through City policy and practice. The
    recommendations outlined in the report reflect a target for City support of approximately 1/3
    of the total capital costs.
    There could also be other development options whereby adjacent sites could be consolidated
    with the theatre site and an on-site bonus density scheme could be considered. However, this option would require acquisition of additional sites resulting in higher capital costs.”

  • The anaonymous developer is Bruno Wall.

    This was a brilliant decision, giving East Vancouver a great cultural amenity, and eventually a historic theatre that will be well used and well restored.
    One remarkable Vancouverite is responsible for the salvation of the York(recently Raja) Theatre. Tom Durrie has been fighting for its preservation and restoration for 25 years. Tom never gave up, and with pit bull perseverence, he has approached municipal politicians, arts groups, community groups and potential benefactors for decades. Within the past year he has enlisted hundreds of people across the city to join in the campaign, and on one occasion, when he looked out his kitchen window and saw a demolition crew entering the closed theatre, he ran over and persuaded them to stop, convincing them that the owner was violating a mandatory protection order.
    I think Tom’s role in this deserves recognition…maybe a plaque in the lobby of the restored York Theatre.

  • Not running for mayor

    I wonder how many people here have been to the York theatre, the place has never been a theatre of value. I think the the city erred badly in this deal. Heck the Rio at Commercial and Broadway has been on sale for almost 2yrs now for well under $3Million and no offers. The city would’ve been better off buying that and selling density to raise the money. At least it’s in a much better location and is usable today.

  • Curious Guy

    When the City creates transferable density (permission to build a bigger building on some not yet determined site in the City) it is printing money and giving it away in return for something “good” for the City. The alternative would be to sell that density directly to the developer of that yet to be determined site for cash or an amenity benefitting the City.

    What Council has done here is spent $10 million dollars of public assets to fund renovation of the theatre. Do we know who will end up owning the theatre?

  • Blaffergassted

    I hope council’s support for the York does not diminish their enthusiasm for the revitalization of the much more historically significant Pantages Theatre.

  • TheatuhCritik

    I’ve been in the York as a theatre and a cinema.
    As a cinema it’s too small and out of the ‘great white way’ of
    what used to be downtown.

    As a theatre it is right sized, but not economic to put on
    plays there, and the neighbourhood would complain, as they
    did during Fringe Fest attempts on the Drive, about all the
    West Side SUVs parked on the streets.

    First fire (and they had a few in the Raja days) means that
    it won’t be restored. Look at the loss of the Fraser cinema
    on the eponymous street.

  • Tom Durrie

    I’ll attempt to address a few of the issues regarding the York Theatre that have been raised here.

    First, a bit of history. This theatre, originally known as the Alcazar, was built in 1913 as a centre of culture in the rapidly developing Grandview Woodland area. It ran successfully as a legitimate theatre for the next 10 years when it was bought by the Vancouver Little Theatre. They ran it very successfully for the next 54 years, presenting plays of all descriptions, even including a cycle of all the plays of Shakespeare. There are many tales of gala opening nights, complete with gowns and tuxes. There was also musicals from time to time; the theatre has always been know for its excellent acoustics. It was renamed the York Theatre in 1940, following extensive renovations on the interior and exterior. During these years, it was THE home of locally produced theatre, and every name in the history of theatre in Vancouver walked upon that stage at one time or another.

    After 1977, the theatre entered a period of steady decline, even after extensive renovations, in 1995, by the Raja Cinema group. It went on sale in 2006, and though several valiant efforts were made to save it, it was bought by Vintage Developments in August 2007 for the purpose of demolition and construction of townhouses. The purchaser was not informed by City staff that there were moves to save the theatre, even though there had been extensive coverage in the media. Consequently, he has been subjected to delays and roadblocks in his development plans. On September 18th, Council approved a 120-day Protection Order preventing any demolition–even though some interior demolition work had been started (without permit).

    Fortunately, last fall, Bruno Wall came forward with an offer to restore and renovate the theatre for the benefit of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. This was the first positive offer ever made for its preservation. It was enthusiastically received by all of us. Again, the process was severely delayed by unsuccessful negotiations with City staff. As Eileen Mosca has reported, a staff report, issued on December 10th, asked Council to recommend a density transfer of one-third of the value of the project. (Mr. Wall had asked for 100%) Given that the protection order expires on January 15th, and that, at that time, the owner may proceed with demolition, the prospect of raising the balance of the funding necessary (around $8 million) was out of the question. Hence, a concerted appeal was made to Council to approve the density bonus of a value of $10 to $12 million, or 100%. This ended positively on December 18th. Now, it is up to Mr. Wall and the current owner to arrive at an agreeable purchase price, at which time plans for restoration may begin.

    There have been some questions about the viability of the restored and renovated theatre. Before proceeding with appeals to Council, the local theatre and musical community was surveyed as a part of feasibility study funded partly by the City and mostly by Mr. Wall. Response was overwhelmingly positive. It has long been recognised that a theatre of this size (400 seats) was desperately needed in Vancouver, not only for its size but also for the fact that it is a purpose-built proscenium theatre with a full fly tower.

    Plans call for a restoration of the theatre itself to its 1913 appearance and the addition, on the front, of a new three-storey building that will offer increased audience amenities, dressing rooms, storage, etc. Needless to say, the theatre will be fully equipped with modern stage technology. Operation by the Vancouver East Cultural Centre virtually guarantees success. The new appearance of the building will create an attractive anchor for the north end of Commercial Drive as well as a unique cultural attraction for East Vancouver.

    Finally, regarding the use of the density bonus: Mr. Wall has stated that he has no immediate use for the density and will probably apply it to a number of smaller projects some time in the future. The density can be banked and used in small pieces here and there as time passes. Any use must, of course, be approved by City planning.

    Last Thursday’s vote represents, for me, the culmination of many years of belief in the value of arts and culture and in the value of this particular theatre, both for its historical and heritage importance and for use practical and useful value for theatre and music.

    May I add that Council’s decision of December 18th sends a powerful and positive message to the Pantages Theatre restoration project.

    If you have any other questions, please feel free to call me. Additional information, including some interesting photos, is available at

    Tom Durrie

  • I am pleased to see that there may well be another theatre in Vancouver, and applaud the initiative by Bruno Wall. However, before everyone assumes that this is the solution for other potential cultural initiative in the city, I think it is important to understand why city staff did not recommend that 100% of the restoration cost be funded by density bonuses.

    There are currently more than 1,300,000 square feet of unused ‘bonused density’ that have been banked with the city. This is equivalent to a 200 storey residential tower, or 10 20 storey towers. Where will it go?

    It is my understanding that the staff concern is that there may not be enough development sites around the city to take this extra density for years, or maybe decades to come. That is why they said it is time to stop creating more ‘heritage density’. Now some might say, so what? However, the fact is that the city has approved this density in good faith, and developers have spent money upgrading heritage projects in good faith with the expectation that the additional density can be sold. To continually devalue the density (through the granting of more bonused density) will ultimately destroy the integrity of the planning system.

    As many of you will know, I am a proponent of higher densities in many areas throughout the city. I personally will support using the ‘bonused density’ to create townhouse and apartment developments in many existing single family neighbourhoods. I will also support extra floors on buildings located along transit corridors and near new SkyTrain stations. Will you?

    Mr. Wall owns a number of sites that could be developed at much higher densities. I just hope that those who are criticizing the city staff (for not fully supporting this initiative) and who support the restoration of the theatre will be there to speak at the future Public Hearings when all of the bonused density is seeking a new home!

  • foo

    Let’s face it, this is just a gift to the developer. As is most of the ‘heritage density’. If the developer can just bank it and only use it in 1,5,20 years from now, it’s worth not just the ‘face value’ of $10m. It’s worth multiples of that amount.

    If there was a ‘use it or lose it’ clause that went along with the gift, it would be a little more reasonable. As it is, the whole thing ends up being politicians paying back developers for their support.

    Note that Bruno Wall has his density bonus, and he doesn’t have to do anything about the theatre – he can plan for the next 20 years if he feels like it. He can demand that other groups put up the money for the renovation if he wants. But whenever he feels like it, he can go use his $10m gift.

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