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Vancouver’s City Centre Motor Hotel transformed into artist studios, mural canvas as it awaits redevelopment


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By Kerry Gold

A relatively lower cost neighbourhood becomes populated with artists and young talent, including galleries, restaurateurs and mom and pop retailers, and a vibrant streetscape emerges. Developers take notice, purchase properties with an eye to tapping into that vibrancy, and the cool stuff gets pushed out, making way for condo towers and chain stores.

That’s what you don’t want to do, says Josh Anderson, vice-president of development at Nicola Wealth Real Estate. Instead, a developer should enhance the existing vibe, not wipe it out.

“The biggest challenge in development is that everybody wants to be in a place that has its natural organic way of being, whether it’s Williamsburg or Mount Pleasant,” he says. “That’s the biggest fundamental challenge of real estate development: not destroying what brought you there in the first place.”

Nicola Wealth is a 25-year-old Vancouver firm that manages $11-billion in assets, and in the past few years started developing its own properties. The company is heavily invested in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, with 12 properties in the area, mostly industrial, says Mr. Anderson.

Last year, it purchased the notoriously bleak City Centre Motor Hotel on Main Street. The building had been on the market before but wasn’t listed at a price developers wanted to pay. Nicola made an unsolicited offer last year that was accepted. They have since converted it into an arts lodge with 75 artist studios and a hub for the Vancouver Mural Festival (VMF) that’s been holding events at the site all week.

The VMF and the artists who rent the studio spaces, which are in former motel rooms, are guaranteed use of the site for about three years, or however long it takes to get redeveloped. Assuming the proposal is approved, they plan to build a two-tower purpose-built rental project consisting of 330 units, with retail and amenities.

Mr. Anderson is not the only developer to recognize the mutually beneficial relationship between art and development. An entire building became artist Douglas Coupland’s canvas a year ago, when Reliance Properties gave the Generation X author the exterior of an old rental tower, the Berkeley at 1770 Davie St., to showcase his striking geometric design. Today, it’s an English Bay landmark. Before then, the tower was better known for a major tenant dispute over renovictions.

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VMF executive director Andrea Curtis sees partnerships with the development community as a savvy business move for the arts community.SABRINA MISO CREATIVE/SABRINA MISO CREATIVE

Murals are popping up throughout the city, thanks to buildings that are either awaiting redevelopment or a new development that wants to stand out. Mount Pleasant has acquired an international reputation for its wealth of murals.

“A lot of developers and real estate owners have taken murals on and everyone sees the benefit,” says Mr. Anderson.

Depending on the size, a mural can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000, but it’s a worthwhile investment, he says.

“Obviously, it gets more expensive as you get bigger, and they are not cheap. But at any given time, a building is going to need a coat of paint anyway. This adds value to a building in so many different ways that you can’t compare them.”

David Duprey has a lease agreement with Nicola Wealth and is building landlord. He has leased a dozen Vancouver buildings since he returned from California 15 years ago, when he discovered that nobody was making use of empty spaces.

He had worked with Nicola Wealth before, so when he saw that they’d purchased City Centre he called them up and struck a deal. He brought VMF on board to hold events and rented out the former motel rooms for around $500 to $650 a room, depending on the size. It’s smart business for a developer to repurpose a vacant site, because it makes for good community relations, especially those who are in it for the long-term, such as managing rental units, he says.

“This is not unique to San Francisco or L.A. or Brooklyn,” he adds. “Somebody there would be like, ‘This building is empty, what are we going to do with it?’ There are empty buildings all over the world. It’s how people view them and see them.”

As well, a leased site offsets the carrying costs – and an empty building quickly falls into disrepair and can become a danger zone.

VMF executive director Andrea Curtis sees partnerships with the development community as a savvy business move for the arts community.

The VMF works with municipalities and developers throughout the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, which is a big part of their funding. They’ve built an organization of 25 employees that generates $1-million in income for artists each year. And the organization is growing by 20 per cent each year, she says. Their first murals were for Chip Wilson’s Low Tide Properties, who are keen supporters.

“When we first started painting some murals, we thought, ‘that’s cool,’ and then we realized how impactful it was in terms of space transformation and place making,” says Ms. Curtis, seated on a City Centre balcony last week, overlooking the setup for that night’s show.

She lives in a small rental building nearby that is older and will likely get redeveloped since it falls within the Broadway Plan, the city’s recently approved development plan that aims to significantly increase density along the Broadway corridor. Like a lot of people, she’s concerned about being squeezed out of her community, but she’d rather find a workable solution than mount protests about rising prices.

“We are going to find a way to root ourselves. I want to stay here. … I’m not burning bridges and saying, ‘oh developers are the evil ones,’” she says.

“I’ll say, ‘You’re using images of our artwork to sell your units, so how do we keep this neighbourhood awesome? How do we find space in your building or somewhere here? What’s a co-benefit?’”

It’s not lost on Mr. Anderson that artists are feeling the squeeze of gentrification.

However, he has a long-term plan to incorporate an art space into the new building, and keep the partnership going long term, he says.

Grosvenor senior vice-president Michael Ward said municipalities often have a public art requirement, but development companies like his go above and beyond that fulfillment because it makes for good community relations. Grosvenor has commissioned works by artist Drew Young, who painted a 4,000-square-foot mural at their Brentwood site, which is comprised of warehouses until it gets redeveloped into a master-planned community that includes six residential towers.

They more recently acquired the 14-acre Oakridge Transit Centre site, which is a vacant surface lot. They hope to use it as a drive-in movie theatre or farmer’s market – something to do with arts and culture.

Grosvenor has long made art a component of its developments, with major acquisitions of Coupland and Gordon Smith works for its West Vancouver Ambleside development, which was not a city requirement at the time. As well, it built a seven-storey 22,000-square-foot arts space at 825 Pacific St., as part of a community amenity contribution.

Mr. Ward said the in-kind contribution made more sense than simply cutting a cheque, which would have been easier. They’ve transferred ownership of the building to the city, who is looking for an arts tenant.

“We are a long-term investor in neighbourhoods and in these properties, and it’s a benefit for everybody to create space and build that community fabric,” Mr. Ward says.

“It strengthens the identity of the neighbourhood and that sense of community, and that’s good for us and our future development, and it’s just the right thing to do.

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The VMF works with municipalities and developers throughout the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.SABRINA MISO CREATIVE/SABRINA MISO CREATIVE

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