Vancouver’s City Center Motor Hotel Turned Into Artist’s Studios, Murals Awaiting Redevelopment

Vancouver Mural Festival decorated the former City Center Motel, which is being converted into 75 art studios.Gabriel Martins/Gabriel Martins

A relatively cheaper neighborhood is populated with artists and young talent, including galleries, restaurateurs and mom and pop shops, creating a lively streetscape. Developers take notice, buy properties for that vibrancy, and the cool stuff gets pushed out, making way for condominiums and chain stores.

You don’t want that, says Josh Anderson, vice president of development at Nicola Wealth Real Estate. Instead, a developer should enhance the existing atmosphere, not wipe it out.

“The biggest challenge in development is that everyone wants to be in a place that has their natural organic way of being, whether it’s Williamsburg or Mount Pleasant,” he says. “That’s the biggest fundamental challenge of real estate development: not destroying what got you there in the first place.”

Nicola Wealth is a 25-year-old Vancouver-based company that manages $11 billion in assets and has started developing its own properties in recent years. The company is heavily invested in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, with 12 properties in the area, mostly industrial, said Mr. Anderson.

Last year it bought the notoriously gloomy City Center Motor Hotel on Main Street. The building had been on the market before, but was not listed at a price developers were willing to pay. Nicola made an unsolicited offer last year that was accepted. They have since converted it into an art lodge with 75 artist studios and a hub for the Vancouver Mural Festival (VMF), which holds events at the site throughout the week.

The VMF and the artists renting the studio spaces, which are located in former motel rooms, are guaranteed use of the site for about three years, or however long it takes to redevelop it. Assuming the proposal is approved, they plan to build a purpose-built, two-tower rental project consisting of 330 units, with shops and amenities.

Anderson is not the only developer to recognize the mutually beneficial relationship between art and development. A year ago, an entire building became the canvas of artist Douglas Coupland, when Reliance Properties de… Generation X authored the exterior of an old tenement tower, the Berkeley in Davie St. from 1770, to showcase its striking geometric design. Today it is a landmark in the English Bay. Before that, the tower was better known for a major tenant dispute over rebirths.

Sabrina Miso Creative/Sabrina Miso Creative

Andrea Curtis, Executive Director of VMF, sees partnerships with the development community as a smart business move for the arts community.Sabrina Miso Creative/Sabrina Miso Creative

Murals are popping up all over the city, thanks to buildings awaiting redevelopment or new construction that wants to stand out. Mount Pleasant has earned an international reputation for its wealth of murals.

“Many developers and property owners have done murals and everyone sees the benefit,” says Mr. Anderson.

Depending on the size, a mural can cost between $20,000 and $100,000, but it’s an investment that’s worth it, he says.

“Of course it gets more expensive as you get bigger, and they’re not cheap. But at any time a building needs a lick of paint. This adds value to a building in so many different ways that you cannot compare them.”

David Duprey has a lease with Nicola Wealth and is a landlord of buildings. He has rented a dozen buildings in Vancouver since returning from California 15 years ago when he found that no one was taking advantage of empty spaces.

He had worked with Nicola Wealth before, so when he saw that they had bought City Centre, he called them up and struck a deal. He brought VMF on board to host events and rented out the former motel rooms for about $500 to $650 per room, depending on size. It’s a smart thing for a developer to repurpose a vacant lot because it builds good relationships with the community, especially those who are in it for the long haul, such as managing rental units, he says.

“This is not unique to San Francisco or LA or Brooklyn,” he adds. “Someone would say, ‘This building is empty, what are we going to do with it?’ There are empty buildings all over the world. It’s how people see and see them.”

In addition, a leased location offsets transportation costs – and an empty building quickly falls into disrepair and can become a danger zone.

Andrea Curtis, Executive Director of VMF, sees partnerships with the development community as a smart business move for the arts community.

The VMF works with municipalities and developers throughout the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, which is a major part of their funding. They have built an organization of 25 employees that generates $1 million in revenue for artists each year. And the organization is growing 20 percent every year, she says. Their first murals were for Chip Wilson’s Low Tide Properties, who are avid supporters.

“When we first started painting some murals, we thought, ‘that’s cool,’ and then we realized how impactful it was in terms of space transformation and place making,” says Ms Curtis, sitting on a balcony in the city center last week, overlooking the lineup for that night’s show.

She lives in a small rental building nearby that is older and likely to be redeveloped as it falls within the Broadway plan, the city’s recently approved development plan that aims to significantly increase density along the Broadway corridor. Like many people, she worries about being squeezed out of her community, but would rather find a workable solution than mount protests against soaring prices.

“We’re going to find a way to root ourselves. I want to stay here. … I don’t burn bridges and say, ‘oh developers are the culprits,’” she says.

“I’ll say, ‘You use images of our artwork to sell your units, so how do we keep this neighborhood great? How do we find space in your building or somewhere here? What is an additional benefit?’”

It’s mr. Anderson can’t help but notice that artists are feeling the pressure of gentrification.

However, he has a long-term plan to include an art space in the new building and continue the long-term collaboration, he says.

Michael Ward, Grosvenor’s senior vice president, said municipalities often have a public arts requirement, but development companies like him go beyond that fulfillment because it ensures good community relations. Grosvenor has commissioned works by artist Drew Young, who painted a 4,000-square-foot mural at their warehouse location in Brentwood, until it is redeveloped into a master-planned community of six residential towers.

They recently acquired the 14-acre Oakridge Transit Center site, a vacant lot. They hope to use it as a drive-in movie theater or farmers’ market – something with art and culture.

Grosvenor has long made art a part of its developments, with major acquisitions of Coupland and Gordon Smith works for its West Vancouver Ambleside development, which was not a requirement for the city at the time. It also built a 7-story, 22,000-square-foot art space at 825 Pacific St., as part of a community amenity contribution.

Mr Ward said the in-kind contribution made more sense than simply clipping a check, which would have been easier. They have transferred ownership of the building to the city, which is looking for an art tenant.

“We’re a long-term investor in neighborhoods and in these properties, and it’s a benefit for everyone to create space and build that community fabric,” said Mr. Ward.

“It reinforces the identity of the neighborhood and that sense of community, and that’s good for us and our future development, and it’s just the right thing to do.

Sabrina Miso Creative/Sabrina Miso Creative

The VMF works with municipalities and developers throughout the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.Sabrina Miso Creative/Sabrina Miso Creative

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