By Jessica Werb, April 13, 2011
Anger and disappointment are greeting the loss of Vancouver’s historic Pantages Theatre, which is now under demolition.
“I’m sad because we put a whole lot of energy into something that was really, really important to the Downtown Eastside, that everybody seemed to support,” said Peter Fairchild, former president and chair of the Pantages Theatre Arts Society, which waged a long battle to save the doomed theatre. “And I’m angry because we almost had a deal with the city and it fell apart.…We were so close, with so much support for it.”
The city quietly issued a demolition permit on March 18 to the theatre’s owner, developer Marc Williams, whose goal to restore the historic theatre—the oldest remaining Pantages theatre in North America—was thwarted in October 2008 after fractious dealings with the city. Williams, with the support of the Pantages Theatre Arts Society, had initially sought a bonus density transfer to fund the theatre’s restoration, but when the city placed a moratorium on such transfers, he hammered out a deal to have the city purchase the theatre outright. That deal collapsed when the city requested a feasibility study, causing more delays during which time the theatre deteriorated beyond repair.
Charles Barber, artistic director of City Opera Vancouver, which was to have been a resident company at the theatre, laid the blame for the venue’s loss on city staff. “The city had every opportunity to do the right thing. At every opportunity they chose to do the wrong thing,” he said. “Twenty years from now, people will wonder how the city could have been so stupid. The developer never asked for anything more than air—heritage bonus density transfer, that’s all he ever asked for.…This is unforgivable.”
Barber and Fairchild said they don’t harbour any resentment toward Williams for bringing the theatre down, noting that it had become a safety hazard. “The city kicked him in the teeth at every opportunity,” said Barber. “It is disgusting how they treated him.”
Vision Vancouver city councillor Heather Deal said the city hired a heritage consultant to retrieve items of value before the demolition began last month. “They’ve got about 25 of the plaster ornaments they were able to take out of the building and they’ve been saved,” she said. “They did extensive documentations, did rubbings and cataloguing and all kinds of things.” She added: “It is unfortunate. The time to save it has passed and has been a couple of years now. It was beyond saving when we [Vision Vancouver] came in.”
Don Luxton, president of Heritage Vancouver, which in 2009 put the Pantages at the top of its list of endangered sites in Vancouver, said he’s concerned that the freeze on density transfers could place other historic theatres in jeopardy.
“We only have so many opportunities like this,” he said. “Not only is it the loss of a historic site, but it’s a historic interior, it’s a historic public gathering place. We don’t have many left and now the Hollywood is for sale, the Ridge is for sale, we’re losing all of the local and neighbourhood theatres. Can the rest be far behind when there’s so much economic pressure on these sites? We’re just afraid we’re going to lose them all.”