After nearly seven years of hosting all-ages concerts, Chris Merrell spent Thursday packing up the few remaining mic stands, guitar cases and drum shells at 333.
The Vancouver punk and hardcore venue and studio that he founded closed its doors in October – the fourth music space in a five-block radius along Vancouver’s Clark Drive forced to shutter this year as skyrocketing property taxes and redevelopment upend the city’s cultural hubs.
“If there’s anything that we’re losing now, it’s that simple fact that there’s practically nowhere in Vancouver proper that’s accessible for people to get to that we can have our empty unfinished concrete basement,” Mr. Merrell said, recalling the house concerts during his teenage years that inspired him to launch 333.
The closing of 333 will be a major blow, in particular, to those under the legal drinking age with few spots around town to enjoy live entertainment. Property-tax increases made the situation untenable for the building’s owner, who didn’t want to pass along those costs to his tenant, Mr. Merrell, and opted to sell.
It’s a problem that reaches far beyond the music scene: Artists of all types say immediate structural changes are needed to reduce out-of-control costs that are already prompting scores to relocate to more affordable regions, depleting Vancouver of its cultural vitality.
Vancouver lost 152 visual-arts studios over the past decade, according to a report released Friday from the Eastside Culture Crawl Society (ECCS). Put another way, that’s nearly 400,000 square feet of studio space no longer in operation.
Of the visual artists surveyed, 77 per cent said they are seeking to find new studio space, with 38 per cent blaming rent costs and another 35 per cent attributing it to a building’s sale, demolition or redevelopment.
“We’re really at a point in time where if we say we value the arts and we love the arts and we support the arts, then we need to take a really deep look at those comments that we make, and not just talk the talk, but also walk the walk,” says Esther Rausenberg, the executive director of ECCS.
“If we don’t have affordable, safe and [secure] spaces for artists to produce, then there’s not going to be a need to have galleries, there’s not going to be a need to have exhibit spaces, because there’s not going to be artists producing anything.”
ECCS is hosting a public forum on the issue this weekend, with an exhibit titled Displacement running from Oct. 29 to Nov. 24, including during its popular open-doors Culture Crawl event.
The city approved a cultural plan in September that lays out a vision for the next decade. The centrepiece is 800,000 square feet of new, repurposed or expanded arts spaces – the first time the city has committed to a specific target. It also aims to see “no net loss” of spaces including studios and music hubs, plus 400 units of affordable housing for artists. Vancouver’s cultural plan includes a program for one-off crisis grants, pending council approval, but that would only set aside a total of $300,000.
Time is short: High prices are forcing more and more creative workers out to the Sunshine Coast, Vancouver Island and even across the country to Montreal.
More than anything else, Vancouver’s artists say the city must work with the province to overhaul the property taxation system.
Many spaces are on what’s called triple-net leases, which means paying tax on the assessed value of a building in addition to paying rent, insurance and maintenance costs. And as new, multistorey units get built in industrial zones, the property values of even the run-down spaces surge based on their potential use.
“It’s the legislation that’s almost forcing people to develop,” says Jim Carrico, the founder and director of Red Gate Arts Society. “We’re taxed as if we had a brand-new multistorey tower.”
One solution would be to assess those warehouse-type properties on their actual use. Other ideas being floated include allocating more city-owned real estate to arts spaces, increased artist-led ownership through a cultural land trust as well as giving non-profits complete exemptions from property taxes.
This week, the opposition BC Liberals introduced a bill designed to amend B.C.’s Assessment Act to create a new property sub-class. Cities would then be able to set a lower tax rate for small businesses and non-profits. B.C. Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Selina Robinson said the province is examining measures for tax relief, including interim solutions that could come in time for the 2020 tax year.
(In Toronto, city council recently passed a measure to cut property taxes by 50 per cent for some cultural spaces.)
Mr. Carrico’s Red Gate, which holds concerts and rents studios to musicians and visual artists, was forced out of its Hastings Street location last year after Chip Wilson’s Low Tide Properties proposed a rent increase of more than double the $7,500 he had been paying. (Low Tide’s purchase of 1305 Powell Street also prompted the music spaces Merge and Index to close this year.) Low Tide did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Mr. Carrico was able to find another space on Main Street, but making ends meet is a continual challenge. His base rent is just more than $8,000, but property taxes bring monthly expenses up to $11,500, and that figure is now set to increase to about $13,000. That’s because the property is assessed at $11-million, up from $2.5-million in 2015.
“Over a third of our total operating budget is taxed to the city and we’re a non-profit arts group, so that seems insane,” Mr. Carrico said.
Signs of the coming space crunch emerged more than a decade ago.
In 2007, Eri Ishii was one of dozens of visual artists put on notice at the studio space 901 Main, at the eastern end of the Georgia Viaduct. When the building was bought by Amacon, the artists formed a co-operative and launched a public campaign to try to negotiate a solution.
The developer relented and said it would give the artists studio space at another location – for double the rent. They found another studio instead. Twelve years later, 901 Main sits empty, just as Ms. Ishii and her friends had left it.
“I still miss the larger community around 901, we knew everyone around there. Shops are closed, people are gone, and you can’t regain that,” she said.
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