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Revitalization

As hotel becomes newly hip, so too goes the neighbourhood? Add to ...

Along a lonely industrial stretch of East Hastings, the newly trendy Waldorf Hotel has been drawing a steady crowd for dinner and clubbing in its first month of operation.

The Waldorf is home to Canada’s oldest 1950s-era tiki lounge. After its heyday, once the rumba tunes faded, the place was just another bar that served chicken wings. But its hip factor has returned. Today, after a major renovation, you’ll find queso fundido on the menu. Thankfully for tiki-philes, the bamboo furniture and Polynesian naked lady paintings have survived.

The new restaurant, run by the owners of Nuba, is getting decent word-of-mouth reviews and is packed for dinner on weekends. The hotel rooms, which doubled as mini art galleries on opening night, are booking up.

It’s become a hot spot for office Christmas parties this year – and if tickets keep selling the way they have been, it will be the place to be for New Year’s Eve. The new operators are pleased.

But can the renewed popularity of the Waldorf kick-start an area that has long been the unpopulated outback of the Downtown Eastside? Developers think so.

Marketer Bob Rennie has long said that the city has nowhere to go but east, and that means down the East Hastings corridor.

“In 2002, Larry Beasley and I stood on a pedestal and said, ‘the city has to move east,’” Mr. Rennie said of the city’s former director of planning. “It wasn’t genius – there’s no place else to go. I really believed that if you gave me Clark Drive to Victoria, from Powell to First Avenue, and maybe even to Kingsway, we could build a new city.”

As for condo development that could follow, new Waldorf operator Tom Anselmi just hopes any new neighbours can handle the noise that comes with the live venue.

“You are going to have to have a real tolerance for loud music to stay here,” he said.

Noise aside, the area is the obvious connection between Strathcona and Commercial Drive. It’s close to transit and shopping districts. There are mountain views to be had. For potential retailers, it’s cheaper than trendy Main Street and parking is easier.

The introduction of condos into a socially beleaguered area is always a contentious topic. Nobody knows that better than Mr. Rennie, who marketed the Woodward’s building in the Downtown Eastside. But change is coming, and resisting it isn’t the way, he said. The Waldorf area could serve the demand for condos at the lower end of the market, in the less than $400,000 range. Mr. Rennie has sold 802 condo units in the past 22 weeks in other parts of the city – 85 per cent of them for less than $500,000.

“It’s a launch point for real discussion,” he said. “Let’s look at new models…you have to understand the energy of a progressive hotel and the nightlife and the services and restaurants that that brings. It will be like a magnet to service that population.”

Developers have long had their eye on the Waldorf and the area around it, including the defunct Canadian Tire across the street.

Vancouver Councillor Raymond Louie said he is open to hearing proposals, but cautions that the area should keep its industrial component. “We do need our industrial space in our city, and the people who move in, if it happens to be residential, they need to understand what they are moving into.

“I’m excited to see a proposal that would reanimate that area of the city. The door is open. I’m not saying they’ll get their way. But it’s great to see people come forward.”

Rize Alliance Properties CEO Will Lin – who has plans to build a 26-storey tower on Main Street near Broadway – said he’d build around the Waldorf. The developer has always tried to build in areas that aren’t yet desirable to live in. “Successful developers get richer by investing in neighbourhoods that are filled with shopping carts, not manicured lawns,” Mr. Lin said.

To that end, he started buying retail properties around Main and Broadway several years ago. The area is now a hot spot for high-priced homes. The downtrodden Waldorf area fits that model, he said.

Writer and curator Michael Turner has a hand in programming art and music at the Waldorf. He sees the area as a potential refuge from the generic chain stores that suck the charm out of a neighbourhood.

“You’d be surprised by how many people would choose an apartment across the street from a chicken reduction plant [rather] than one across from a Gap,” he said.

“The Waldorf sits there on its own, surrounded by parking lots and union offices, and it’s at the elbow of two of our city’s most energetic streets, East Hastings and Commercial Drive.

“I am sure, given the city’s need for both housing and tax revenues, they can’t say ‘no’ to rezoning those sites.”

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