Official response from the Coalition to the Development Application

Note: this is the revised letter sent as a followup to the earlier one formerly posted on this page. 

Lizette Berdahl
Project Coordinator
Planning and Development Services
City of Vancouver
Processing Centre – Development
453 W 12th Ave
Vancouver, BC V5Y 1V4

VIA EMAIL to lizette.berdahl@vancouver.ca

VIA FACSIMILE to   604 873 7100

 

Dear Ms. Berdahl

Please accept this revised letter as a replacement to our letter previously sent earlier today.

The subject development permit application, pertaining to Vancouver’s historic Hollywood Theatre, effectively proposes temporary and incomplete heritage preservation in exchange for change of use from Theatre to Fitness Centre Class 2.  Respectfully, the Save the Hollywood Theatre Coalition believes that this is a lose-lose proposition for Vancouver.

The City of Vancouver’s web site states that the Heritage Register exists in order to protect buildings with historic and cultural significance. The Hollywood Theatre is a landmark building for both its architecture and its cultural role in the city and merits being classed as Heritage A rather than B.

The Hollywood’s art deco facade is an essential heritage element of the Broadway streetscape, but this is just one aspect of its heritage merit. It also has outstanding interior and cultural heritage merit. This Development Application seeks to irrevocably alter the interior of the Hollywood Theatre by gutting all aspects of the theatre, leveling the inclined ground floor and replacing the existing balcony with a continuous second floor, thus extinguishing the arts and cultural value of one of the city’s remaining iconic cinemas.  In our view, it would be tragic, if the City were to permit this outcome by approving the requested change of use when there is already a critical shortage of theatre and performance space on the city’s West side.

Since gathering at the 6 November Council meeting, the newly formed Save the Hollywood Theatre Coalition has reached out to the property owner, to the City, to local businesses, to potential partners and to communities, and we recently organized a hugely successful rally at St James’s Hall, with a beyond-capacity audience of over 300 people. The coalition has also gathered around 5000 signatures on its new online and paper petition to save the Hollywood. There is clearly a hunger for heritage and culture in this city.

CONTEXT

Our local theatres, including the Hollywood Theatre and until recently, The Ridgeare unique facilities that help to define Vancouver, as envisioned in the City’s Cultural Plan, as ‘a city of vibrant, creative neighbourhoods’. Finding innovative ways to re-imagine these cultural spaces as local amenities will help to sustain urban vitality and a unique sense of place. If our historic theatres are lost, we are unlikely to see this kind of neighbourhood community space constructed again. With the destruction of The Ridge, there are very few such spaces left, and the cultural life of Vancouver is severely diminished by these continuing losses.

DEVELOPMENT APPLICATION: BY-LAWS AND POLICIES

Exterior: In terms of the detail of the Development Application that pertains to the exterior, the applicant seeks to remove the original doors and movie signboxes and to convert one door into a window. This will further detract from the heritage value of the remaining façade. The application does not indicate how signage for the new fitness facility will be handled. This should be an integral part of the application since signage that covers or affects the heritage signs will further detract from the heritage merit of the facade retention. Moreover, the paint colour of the rear portions of the building should be carefully chosen to blend into the area: a light colour that blends into the area, minimizes the bulk of the rear of the building, and does not darken the lane.

Change of Property Use: In terms of use, the Development permit application requests change of use from current designation as “Theatre” to “Fitness Centre Class 2”. We are strongly opposed to this proposed change of use, as Vancouver, and notably the West side, lacks cultural spaces. There are many small local fitness businesses in the area, which would suffer tremendously from the implantation of a giant fitness centre (starting with the Kitsilano Community Centre). In contrast, cultural spaces are scarce, and independent movie theatres even more rare (after the demolition of the Varsity and the Ridge). The Hollywood theatre is one of the last of its kind in the region.

Parking: In terms of parking, the amount of heritage retention in this application does not, in our view, merit a full relaxation of all parking requirements. All requirements for parking should be waived only if the interior and exterior and the cultural value of the building are retained. Since there is no possibility to add parking on site, a requirement from the City for some parking essentially could justify refusal of this application.

Heritage: Section 3.2.5 of the Zoning and Development By-law states that the Director of Planning may allow an increase to floor space such as is included in the Development Application provided that he has regard to the ‘impact upon livability and environmental quality of the neighbourhood’. Additionally, should the property owner wish in future to apply for bonus density, the City’s Heritage bylaw states:

(2) The Director of Planning or the Development Permit Board, on the advice of the Vancouver Heritage Commission, defines the heritage features required to be retained in order to earn bonus density.

The current Development Application neglects the heritage character of the interior, which is integral to its role as cultural amenity, is central to the livability of the neighbourhood and is therefore a factor in assessing both the requested addition to floor space and any future bonus density. Development processes assess sites for archaeological value, which would normally concern sub-surface archaeology. However, the interior of the Hollywood Theatre is a unique historical archaeological site. It evidences 78 years of history in Vancouver, a history that includes all of its communities. The Hollywood Theatre is unique in the city in terms of providing a full record of the significant 20th-century cultural practice of cinema-building and cinema-going, a cultural tradition that is under threat. By destroying the interior, the archaeological value of the Hollywood Theatre is also destroyed.

Moreover, given the City’s commitment to sustainability, external and internal features and their existing uses should be preserved where possible. Such features also contribute to the economic activity of the neighbourhood. Local members of the BIA support plans to retain the interior configuration of the Hollywood Theatre and use as a multi-purpose arts space as they argue that such use attracts a wide range of visitors to the area who support local commerce.

PROCESS

The Design Rationale appended to the Development Application cites numerous attempts by the property owner to find tenants for this space. However, we understand that the former owners, the Fairleigh family, and the former Festival Cinemas director, Leonard Schein, had sought long-term leases from the current owner. The Church at the Hollywood has also requested a longer lease, but was refused. Therefore, attempts to find tenants were not unsuccessful due to the theatre configuration of the space, as referenced in the Design Rationale. Rather, they were unsuccessful because of the unwillingness of the owner to engage with the community.  Furthermore, the coalition has been informed by a third party that the Fairleigh’s agreed to sell in reliance on the owner’s promise to continue to operate the Hollywood as a theatre, rather than to propose a change of use.

In summary, the process of this Development Application fails to take into account that the Design Rationale contains inaccuracies, the notification letter omits any outline of the relaxations being requested, and key stakeholders were not informed about this application and its 19 November deadline.

FUTURE PLANNING

The Hollywood Theatre might become a useful limit case for the City of Vancouver to re-think its approach to heritage conservation and, specifically, to address the lack of integration between exterior and interior features and their relationship to cultural heritage.

While we recognize that the City’s refusal to approve the subject development application could potentially see the Hollywood suffer the same fate as nearby Ridge Theatre, we encourage the City to reject the current application and to work with the applicant to identify an equally or more attractive development strategy that simultaneously preserves the Hollywood Theatre as a unique heritage and cultural asset.

More generally, we urge the City of Vancouver to explore new and innovative ways that the Hollywood Theatre and other surviving community theatres can enhance the livability of our neighbourhoods as theatres, performance spaces and community gathering places. The coalition supports the retention of Vancouver’s historic theatres  as unique cultural and social community-gathering spaces that contribute to the identity, character and vitality of our city’s neighbourhoods. Heritage Vancouver recommends that the City of Vancouver implement the City of Vancouver Cultural Plan through the following actions:

  • Explore the potential use of historic cinemas as multi-purpose cultural space in support of the Vancouver Cultural Plan objective of ensuring that festivals, special events and exhibits can take place in accessible non-traditional neighbourhood venues;
  • Work with private and public partners to secure conservation of historic cinemas as a community amenity in rezoning and development applications for each relevant site;
  • Consider tax exemptions for owners and other incentives to enable the retention and reuse of heritage theatres;
  • Consider special funding to historic cinemas from the Coal Harbour Arts Complex Reserve Fund, and examine the most appropriate use of the Fund to provide cultural amenity space;
  • Encourage the owners of historic cinemas to apply to the City’s Cultural Infrastructure Grant Program; and
  • Explore the City’s Property Endowment Fund (est value $3b) as a means to support the preservation of heritage properties such as the Hollywood Theatre in terms of their ‘public interest’.

Your attention to these matters is greatly appreciated, as is the opportunity to respond to this Development Application.

Sincerely yours,

The Save the Hollywood Theatre Coalition

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