City Offers Density to Save York Theatre

Bruno Wall agrees to buy, renovate and hand over theatre in exchange for tower

By Christina Montgomery
Photograph by Arlen Redekop
The Province

Vancouver developer Bruno Wall has offered to spend up to $12 million to buy and restore the historic York Theatre, now slated to be torn down Jan. 15 to make way for townhomes.

Wall has also offered to hand ownership to the city — in exchange for development rights equivalent to a 20-storey building, to be built on an as-yet undetermined city site.

The 500-seat theatre, opened in 1912 near the north end of Commercial Drive, was home to the Vancouver Little Theatre, where a number of local actors launched their careers. It later hosted musical acts and Bollywood films.

But it has been empty for several years. EDG Homes bought the property for $960,000 in August 2007 after being assured by city staff that there was no historical significance or interest in the theatre.

The city has approved EDG’s townhouse proposal, which is now eligible for building permits. Demolition of the theatre is legally permitted as of Jan. 15.

Yesterday, EDG’s Peter Phillips warned council that ongoing development costs and liabilities would force him to demolish the theatre and proceed with the townhouses if no deal for a sale is completed.

In March, the city’s attitude toward the site changed. The Vancouver Heritage Commission ruled that it was eligible for listing in the Vancouver Heritage Register.

Arts groups that want the theatre saved argued its restoration would provide the hub for a cultural district when combined with the nearby Vancouver East Cultural Centre and the cafes and galleries bordering Commercial Drive.

Yesterday, after learning that Wall had stepped forward with cash that arts groups and theatre fans have failed for years to raise, council agreed to offer Wall the unusual density deal to encourage him to proceed with the purchase.

Heather Redfern, director of the Vancouver Eastside Cultural Centre that would run the new theatre, applauded the move.

Redfern described the theatre as “the perfect place” — an ideal, mid-sized venue that would provide affordable space for small projections and art showings in a city where theatre space of any kind is at a premium.