Commercial Drive’s York Theatre to be restored as live playhouse

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

John Mackie

The York Theatre on Commercial Drive, currently the Raja, will be restored. Photograph by : Ward Perrin/Vancouver Sun

VANCOUVER – It looks like heritage and culture are back on the agenda at Vancouver City Hall.

Vancouver’s new Vision-dominated council voted this week to “support in principle” a proposal by developer Bruno Wall to restore the York Theatre on Commercial Drive.

The entire $10-million to $12-million cost would be paid for by heritage density bonus transfers. This is a reversal of the policy of the former Non-Partisan Association council, which had suspended the heritage density-transfer program.

The program granted increased density on other projects to developers who agreed to restore heritage properties.

“I think it’s one of the most important things to happen at the city in 20 years,” said Jim Green, the former Vision councillor and mayoralty candidate who helped put the deal together.

“We’ve really opened the doors with a new council and mayor to saying that the city is ready to make this a creative and cultural city to live in, and [that it’s] going to use the tools at its disposal to allow culture to happen.”

The council decision went against a city staff recommendation that funding for the York adhere to the standard formula, where the “city portion” of the redevelopment would be one-third of the total cost.

Normally the other two-thirds comes from the federal and provincial governments. But the York proposal was put forward by the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, which is in the middle of a $21-million reconstruction project that has already received $11.5 million in funding from the province and the federal government.

Green said VECC officials didn’t think they could get more money from senior levels of government, so they decided to ask that the entire York restoration be paid for by bonus density transfer.

Council agreed.

“Our cultural facilities study clearly shows this is the type of facility most needed in the city, a theatre in that 300 to 600 [seat] range,” said Coun. Heather Deal.

“This is a rare purpose-built theatre,” Deal said. “Most of them are converted from churches or movie theatres or something else; this is a purpose-built theatrical theatre with the acoustics for musicals where you wouldn’t need microphones.”

Wall will now attempt to buy the building from the current owner, who had planned to tear the theatre down and build townhouses.

A key element in the deal is that Wall will hold on to the 20 storeys in bonus density he will receive, rather than sell them off to another developer. (The city has been worried there is too much bonus density already out there, which lowers its value.)

“Bruno Wall stepped in and said he was willing to do the project and to hold the density instead of putting it out there for trade,” Deal said.

“In theory this is a virtual bank, and the value of other people’s density wouldn’t drop, because it’s not being added to the pool.”

When it opened in 1913, the York was known as the Alcazar. It started off as a live playhouse, but by the end of the First World War it was showing movies and was known as the Palace.

In 1923 it was purchased by Vancouver Little Theatre, which converted it back to a live house. It was known as the Little Theatre until 1940, when it became the York.

In 1977 it became a movie theatre again. In the mid-80s it was a live concert venue hosting concerts by the likes of Nirvana and Metallica. In recent years it was known as the Raja, an East Indian movie theatre.

When the restoration is finished, perhaps in two years, it will be a 400-seat live house for plays and music, managed by the Vancouver East Cultural Centre.

The deal to save the York was hailed by Peter Fairchild of the Pantages Theatre Society, which has been working to save the historic Pantages Theatre at Hastings and Main.

“The past city council declined all our efforts to get a bonus density in the amount the developer wanted,” Fairchild said.

“[But] they just signed off on 100 per cent, which the city has never ever done before.”

But Fairchild cautioned that saving the Pantages is a lot more complicated than saving the York.

The most recent proposal would have seen the city purchase the Pantages and four adjacent lots for $8 million, and then restore the theatre at a cost of $12 million to $20 million.

Up to 137 units of social housing could be built next door to the theatre.

“We’re not asking for bonus density any more, that’s long gone,” Fairchild said.

“We’re asking for the city to buy the building. I think what city council has stated by doing this is [that] they’re quite prepared to listen to the Pantages and figure out how to make this work.”

Deal said she has made a request to staff for a “full briefing on the current situation [with the Pantages], opportunities and scenarios for the Pantages and the block around it.”

Deal also said Vision is “open” to reconsidering the heritage density program, which helped spur many restoration projects in Gastown.

“That freeze was done at the request of the NPA and we will be looking at that again, because it certainly is a very powerful tool,” she said.

“And we will looking at all the things it can be applied to — heritage, culture, and whether or not we should open it up to have it apply to other things.”

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