Development Could Mean Curtains for York

Time is running out for those keen to save the York Theatre

Friday, January 18, 2008
Vancouver Courier
By Cheryl Rossi

If city council doesn’t get behind a campaign to save the building that was most recently the Raja Cinema, it could be demolished within four months, says Tom Durrie.

That’s why Durrie, founder of the Save the York Theatre Task Force and former manager of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, is arranging meetings with individual councillors. Tom Durrie heads up the task force that hopes to save the York Theatre, more recently known as the Raja Cinema, which was built in 1913.

The group is urging citizens to send letters of support for the retention of the theatre to city council. It’s also seeking “bridge funding”–most likely, money from an individual to buy the building, which in October sold for $960,000–and is developing business and fundraising plans.

“The property will either be bought back from them by the society [task force] or else, if that all falls apart, they can simply resell it, probably at a profit,” Durrie said. “So it’s a matter of putting up money. It’s not really a risk.”

Members of the task force working to save the theatre at Commercial Drive, just north of Venables, met with Paul Phillips, president of Vintage Development Corp., one of the owners of the building, and with city planning, cultural affairs and heritage staff in December.

Durrie said Rob Jenkins, a city planner, mentioned the possibility of the city finding an alternative site for the developer to build townhouses.

“Unfortunately, when [the developer] first made his inquiries at city hall it was during the strike and he was told there was no interest in the theatre whatsoever,” Durrie said. “It’s unfortunate. I’m sure he would have had second thoughts otherwise, because there may well be delays in proceeding with this application.”

Jenkins said the task force raised the idea of an alternative site. He said the city is working on a cultural facilities study and is unable to respond to individual requests for capital funding at this time. He said finding an alternative site is unlikely, but the city is looking into it.

Phillips, also president of and designer for EDG Homes Inc., expects to file a development application with the city in the next two weeks. Such applications typically take four months to be processed. Once that’s done, a demolition permit could be issued.

“As time goes by we’re less inclined to sell it because we have more invested, obviously, in terms of time and energy,” Phillips said.

Durrie first founded a group to save the theatre when demolition was proposed in 1981. Although the building remained intact, the city said the York was culturally insignificant. It’s not on the city’s heritage register. But now the city is looking beyond architectural significance to consider its cultural and historical value, he said.

Durrie said John McCarter, who later helped designed the historic Marine Building downtown, designed the York. The 475-seat theatre is plain inside, but in good shape.

“It was built in 1913, just at the time when this part of town, the Grandview area, was beginning to develop. The tram lines were put in at that point and so a lot of rising middle class people built houses out here,” Durrie said. “At the time when they built it, they sort of envisioned this as being the cultural centre of Vancouver, and it still could be.”