“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” - William Blake
by Rod Lotter
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Sometimes it is very surprising how an event can hit close to home even at hundreds of miles away.
Last week, it was announced that the Waldorf Hotel, approximately 140 miles north of Capitol Hill in Vancouver, B.C., had been bought by a boutique condominium developer and the tenants of the building would be evicted.
The uproar from Vancouverites and the headlines in local publications could have pretty much been ripped out of any paper in Seattle circa April and May of last year, when the Melrose Building – home to the beloved Bauhaus coffee shop – was sold to developers.
The Melrose Building, which is located on the corner of Pine Street and Melrose Avenue, is home to the Bauhaus, Spine and Crown Books, the Mud Bay pet store among other businesses that made that corner of Capitol Hill a special place in the hearts of many neighbors.
Gentrification in East Hastings and Capitol Hill
The East Hastings area of Vancouver, where the Waldorf Hotel resides, has undergone a similar transformation as Capitol Hill: property values rose, developers moved in, cultural landmarks were bought-up en masse and transformed into condos and commercial spaces that, while clean, new and modern, lack the charm and cultural significance of the prior occupants. Inevitably, rent prices rose, local businesses were evicted, forced to move or to close.
In Vancouver, the gentrification cycle continued last week as the Waldorf Hotel was sold to the Solterra Group for $3.5 million, which was $1 million more than the property was worth last year.
Here in Seattle, all we need to look at is the Funhouse (nine years in Lower Queen Anne), B&O Espresso (36 years on Capitol Hill), Bauhaus and a host of other local establishments for proof of gentrification over the past couple years alone. This experience is something Seattle and Vancouver share.
The Waldorf Hotel opened its doors October 2010 and garnered a reputation as a shining beacon of arts and culture in a part of town that had been lacking in that department before.
The building itself is 65 years old and was restored by Waldorf Productions to include a tiki bar, a restaurant, two nightclubs, an art gallery and a recording studio.
In a press release, Thomas Anselmi, the entertainment director for Waldorf Productions, said “The irony that the Waldorf was taken over by a condo developer in the very area we helped reinvigorate is obvious to anyone. The Waldorf filled a void. People responded because they needed it. We tried to stand for something authentic and real in a city with thousands of empty condominiums and a community starved for cultural spaces.”
Danielle Kreeft, a former employee at the Waldorf and a volunteer in the “Save The Waldorf” campaign, said she wanted to be part of the business because of its history and the vision of the owners.
“It wasn’t a new pub with shiny tiles and fresh paint, the Waldorf Hotel has been around since 1947, so it has grit and history, it has cultural clout in this city,” Kreeft told The Capitol Hill Times of her reasons for applying for a job there. “The Waldorf Productions team had such creative vision and wild ideas. Walking through the place on my way to be interviewed, peeking into the tiki bar, seeing the bamboo get nailed into the walls, you just knew that something incredible was about to walk back onto the city’s cultural radar. And you wanted to be a part of it.”
A press release sent to media outlets by the Solterra Group after the public backlash said that they do not plan on demolishing the building. A representative from Solterra Group did not respond to interview requests in time for publication.
The gentrification of Capitol Hill has prompted numerous community groups to stand up against development. The closing of B&O Espresso resulted in an anti-gentrification protest led by Occupy Seattle. The Bauhaus sale prompted the Capitol Hill Community Council to express their concerns to Mayor Mike McGinn and the Seattle City Council. Even the demolition of a warehouse inspired a Seattle woman to symbolically marry the building as a protest against gentrification.
During a public meeting held in April on Capitol Hill, Mayor McGinn told a group of angry residents that there is not much he could do to stop development throughout the city. He said development is inevitable as people flock back into urban cores from the suburbs and that it is necessary to meet the city’s need for more density, which is the most sustainable solution for dealing with growth.
When Kreeft and other Vancouverites first heard word of the Waldorf’s closing, protests were scheduled and community groups were formed. The Vancouver City Council and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson announced their support to keep Waldorf Productions in the building, and to keep the building standing, as a result of the public outrage that engulfed the city’s art communities.
On Jan. 15, a group of about 150 people protested outside of the Vancouver City Hall during a council meeting to determine the future of the Waldorf building. The City Council decided to pass a resolution that states the Waldorf building cannot be demolished for 120 days. More than 16,000 Vancouver residents signed a petition to keep the Waldorf alive and kicking.
Kreeft said that it was an encouraging sign that the council is attempting to do something.
“I think that’s step one, to keep the Waldorf from being bulldozed or demolished,” Kreeft said. “But, what the rally was for, what all the staff are fighting for, what we really want to see is communication between Solterra and Waldorf Productions to keep this team dreaming and working on-site: to keep them at the Waldorf. My friend Jules said it perfectly this morning at the rally, ‘It’s all fine and good to have a skeleton but it doesn’t matter much without a beating heart.’ And that’s what Waldorf Productions is: the beating heart.”
So far, Solterra has not held a meeting with the Waldorf Productions team, Kreeft said.
On the other hand, The Madison Development Group, the company that bought the Melrose building, did meet with government officials and community members in order to come to a compromise of sorts. The group decided to keep the original façade of the building and has agreed to let Bauhaus move back into the building once construction was finished. Construction is scheduled to begin before the end of the year, according to Jim Gallaugher, a Madison Development Group partner.
“It’s been our experience that concerns about gentrification really stem from concerns about the quality of the project and the sensitivity of the developer,” Gallaugher said. “Developers who take the time to listen to stakeholders and work with community groups to create quality projects that fit in with the neighborhood fabric, scale and character will be much more welcome in any neighborhood, including Capitol Hill.”
A Lesson To Be Learned
While located in different countries, Vancouver and Seattle seem to share some of the same problems when it comes to density. While the actions of each government are somewhat different, the battle for Bauhaus and the fight to save the Waldorf share much in common: both are historical buildings with businesses that have a huge following among the art and music crowds. Both buildings angered the public and both the local governments and the developers got an earful from the public. For now, it looks like both buildings will retain most of their original structure, but the future of the businesses inside them are in limbo.
Currently, the Vancouver City Council is looking for ways to save the Waldorf and keep it as it was before being sold. One of the major goals is to get the building designated as a historical landmark before the 120-day demolition moratorium is lifted on March 15. Similar actions were taken on behalf of the Bauhaus, but it was too late in the process to change anything. The Vancouver City Council has stated that there may not be much they can do about the future of the building because the transaction was held between two private parties: the Solterra Group and Waldorf Hotel building owner Marko Puharich, who has owned the building for more than two decades. His lawyer did not respond to interview requests in time for publication.
Until then, maybe there is something Seattle and Vancouver can learn from each other in terms of how to deal with gentrification and its ultimate impact on the arts and nightlife community.
In the mean time, Kreeft said there is one thing Seattle can learn from Vancouver: “respect your arts community. See to it that it has some clout in the city because a gentrified city is no city at all. Value the creative sector of your city’s history because it’s the heart and soul of it.”
Indeed, the arts and nightlife communities are what makes Capitol Hill the place that it is. For decades, Capitol Hill has been the cultural hub of the city, but gentrification does endanger that. Capitol Hill has experienced skyrocketing rent prices, even as density has increased, and businesses along places like 15th Avenue and Broadway have suffered because of it. In the end, a balance must be struck between the demands of density and the needs of a thriving art community.