Downtown arts space loses out
// Claire Vulliamy

In January of 2010, the Cultural Services department of the city of Vancouver teamed up with the Licensing and Inspections branch, Fire and Rescue, and the VPD, and put forth a report that suggested a move towards loosening Vancouver’s notorious restrictions on live performance venues. The idea, as stated by the document, was to address issues “in various civic bylaws and policies… [as well as] permits and license regulations that impact the creation and operation of live performance venues.” The content of the report was unanimously approved by City Council, and the West Ender ran a story with the headline, “No-fun city no more?” The problem is that an idea on paper is still just that: an idea.

In May of this year, the art space and music venue The Red Gate was given a 30-day order to vacate. The Red Gate had existed within the historic Trocadero building at 252-156 West Hastings for several years, during which it was the home to a variety of creative enterprise, including JC/DC studios, who have recorded the New Pornographers, among others.

The order came after a surprise inspection in January, after which Carrico claims he was told to expect another, more major inspection within two weeks. “No such inspection took place,” says Carrico in a letter to Will Johnston, Chief Building Official (CBO) for the city of Vancouver, from June. “If the points listed in the Order to Vacate were made known to us at that time, there is little doubt that most, if not all, of these issues could have been dealt with by now.”

After a flood of letters and petitions, the space was eventually granted a 60-day reprieve in order address the issues listed in the order to vacate, which mostly had to do with fire safety. Carrico wrote a point-by-point reply to the city, with intent to explain that most of the statements had been exaggerated. For example, one point was that “the smoke alarms have been covered with tape and plastic bags,” to which Carrico replied that “one of the smoke alarms on the 3rd floor had been taped over with a plastic bag… and although we were unable to determine exactly who the idiot was, the tape and plastic were removed almost immediately.”

Carrico began renting the space in 2004, before which the building had been quiet and boarded up for five years. Over its long history, the building had been used for various purposes, a few arts-related, until 1998 when an order to vacate left it empty. “I’m not sure what was going on, but apparently some kind of really harsh biker scene had taken over the second floor and they weren’t paying [the owner] any rent and wouldn’t leave, so he got the building shut down,” said Carrico, explaining that the power was shut off to prevent them from overstaying.

The vacated building’s status was never officially changed. Will Johnson, the CBO, stated on a side note that while the city is primarily focused on safety, “the owner of that building doesn’t have permission to occupy that building.”

In December of 2007, The Red Gate was discovered by the city. The reaction at that time, Carrico says, was one of surprise, even excitement. “They were actually kind of stoked, because at that time, it was before the development [the Woodwards building] was happening across the street, and it was really crack town down here…so we looked good. Artists: better than crack heads, one step up the social ladder,” Carrico adds, sarcastically.

Carrico says that he had been working with the former Chief Building Official, the late Ed Neufeld, and had made any necessary changes that had been brought to his attention. Johnson explains why the law has been laid down now: “When you’re dealing with basic life safety in a building, the longer you allow those to go on, the higher the risk. The people performing at the time might have said that it was okay at the time, but at this point in time we’ve come to a point where we can’t allow those risks to continue.”

Johnson claims that the upgrades are still incomplete. “What we’ve said to the owner of the building and to the artists is that as long as we can ensure that the people using that building are safe, we will give them time to work through the process of dealing with the use.” A letter from Gregor Robertson sent to petitioners highlighted the need for “basic safety renovations,” but also made the ultimatum that in order to keep the building occupied, the owner must also commit to an “upgrade plan.”

It was a requirement revealed later that the owner must submit full development plans to update the building to 2011 building code. This is another complication: as the building’s current official use is office space, the Red Gate needs to apply for a use change. This has triggered the building’s required modernization.

“All the requested fire code work has been completed and inspected,” Carrico writes in a release on his website from August, calling out the “bait-and-switch” tactics of the city.

The notice to vacate mentions grants available for such situations, as does a letter that Gregor Robertson sent to those that petitioned. Carrico is well aware of these resources. “There’s a $50,000 grant that’s been sitting in a bank account for two years to fund a building, to give the whole thing a once-over, which we don’t qualify for because don’t have a lease. We don’t qualify for the $150,000 infrastructure grant for the same reason.”

The owner doesn’t want to commit and give them a lease, and Carrico can see why. “[He] says, ‘$200,000, that’s peanuts,’ and he’s right. If we have to get to 2011 building code it’s going to be a million plus, maybe $2 million.”

Carrico says that, unfortunately, if all the upgrades are made, he will no longer be able to afford the building. “For one thing, we’ll have to leave in order to rip the whole building apart, and when it’s done, it’ll be three times as expensive.”

Carrico has run arts spaces in Vancouver of a similar nature for about 30 years. “We’d have the same place until we couldn’t for whatever reason, the building would be developed or torn down.” He says that now it’s harder than ever to find space, and that he’s lost momentum. He has plans to occupy the Red Gate as long as possible. “If there’s a buyer, then fine, we leave, but if the alternative is to have the building boarded up and empty, we’re just going to stay here.”

In the Red Gate gallery, Carrico displays a painting of his that shows a group of people planted around and sitting on the scaffolding of a building, explaining that this is his vision for the community of artists that he oversees. He says that he wants to find a way to pull together everyone invested in the space, and make the changes gradually, in a way that addresses the city’s concerns but also seeks creative solutions to difficult problems. In his opinion, “city planning is more like biology than engineering, it’s not about finite solutions.” The Red Gate has flourished on its own two feet; now, it’s time for the city to take the opportunity to help bring it forward- and not lift it out of the reach of those who participated in its creation.

// Claire Vulliamy
Arts Editor

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: