City Debuts Renovated York Theatre

This article by Mike Howell was originally published in the Vancouver Courier on December 5th, 2013.

Vancouver spent $13 million to restore theatre in deal brokered by the late Jim Green

It was dilapidated, filthy with rats and was once slated for redevelopment.

Now the 1913-era theatre at 639 Commercial Dr. has had a $14.8 million rebirth and will officially open Friday with the production of Jack and the Beanstalk: An East Van Panto.

The York Theatre, which operated previously as the Alcazar, the Palace, The Little Theatre and the Raja Cinema, has been restored to a mix of modern and classic design that features 365 seats, a balcony, an orchestra pit, new lobby and ticket booth.

“It’s so exciting and I’m still kind of all in that pinching myself place,” said Heather Redfern, executive director of The Cultch, which will manage the York. “I still can’t quite believe it’s actually going to open tomorrow night, but it is going to open tomorrow night — and hopefully the paint will be dry.”

Redfern joined Mayor Gregor Robertson and architect Gregory Henriquez of Henriquez Partners Architects at a press conference Thursday to mark the opening of a theatre whose future seemed doomed back in 2007.

That’s when EDG Homes purchased the property for redevelopment. News of the purchase prompted a community group led by arts activist Tom Durrie and others to found Save the York to battle for the building’s survival.

In September 2008, the NPA-ruling council approved a 120-day temporary protection order on the building. The order allowed city staff to assess the viability of operating a theatre in the building and determine the cost of restoration.

Soon after, Wall Financial Corporation purchased the building and worked out a deal with the City of Vancouver to restore the theatre. Many speakers at the press conference credited the late Jim Green, a former city councillor, for ensuring the deal got done.

“Jim was certainly the catalyst to bring partners together and to make sure we all took that next step together, “ Robertson said. “It wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t had that coordination and confidence that other partners were going to be there for each other. So Jim really was the glue and visionary for this.”

Henriquez recalled a conversation he had with Green about the importance of arts and culture in the city. Green was a supporter of the arts and longtime activist for low-income people before he died in February 2012.

“He always explained to me that culture is not for the wealthy — culture is sort of a fundamental right of all human beings,” Henriquez said. “It is something that we all hold near and dear to our hearts and allows us to distinguish us from other species on this planet.”

Redfern recalled the first email exchange between Bruno Wall of Wall Financial and Green suggested the theatre could be restored for $2 million and be completed before the 2010 Winter Olympics.

“I believe that after the first walk-through with Gregory Henriquez, we realized it wasn’t going to be $2 million and finished by the Olympics,” she said of the building’s poor condition.

The City of Vancouver contributed $13 million of the $14.8 million cost to restore the theatre. Canadian Heritage provided an additional $1.8 million. When questioned about the city’s cost for the project, Robertson pointed out “tens of millions of dollars” were spent on restoring the Queen Elizabeth and Orpheum theatres, both of which are city assets.

The opening of the York Theatre comes as residents have rallied to save the Hollywood Theatre on Broadway from being redeveloped into a gym. Robertson said there is no city money in the capital plan to restore or buy the Hollywood, although the city does have “tools” such as transfer of density and rezoning provisions that could entice the owner, Bonnis Properties, not to redevelop the theatre.

“I would hope that seeing the York Theatre revived gives us some more hope for the Hollywood Theatre to continue to survive and be a great community arts and culture asset,” Robertson said. “The owner of that building has to make a decision that benefits the community at some point here if we’re going to save the Hollywood.”

Actor Christopher Gaze, artistic director of Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, hosted the press conference at the York and later performed an impromptu piece on the stage from Henry V. Gaze, originally from England, said he was impressed with the renovated theatre and that it reminded him of the venues of his youth.

“When I was a lad, this was the kind of theatre you went to,” he told the Courier. “The colours, the redness, the plushness — in a contemporary sort of way — is very evocative of what theatres used to be.”

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