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It could be curtains for Vancouver's heritage theatre

For three years, a group of Vancouver arts and heritage enthusiasts has worked tirelessly to save an old vaudeville theatre in the city's Downtown Eastside, arguing that the Pantages represents an important part of the city's history. But now their efforts are exactly that: history. The Pantages Theatre Arts Society (PTAS) has officially pulled the plug on its fight to preserve and restore the theatre.

"I'm angry as hell," says Charles Barber, executive director of PTAS, which on Friday sent an open letter to Heritage Vancouver members officially informing them of the decision.

"The city had a chance to change Hastings and Main from a cemetery to a marquee. They blew it."

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The group says their decision is the result of the city's failure to approve a restoration plan by developer and owner Marc Williams, with whom they had been working. Williams offered to lease the building to a number of arts companies (including Barber's City Opera of Vancouver) at a cost of $1 a year. But that was contingent on a major multimillion dollar renovation. The developer proposed a plan to the city that would have seen public money funnelled into the project. But last year the city turned down his proposal. After that decision, Williams put the building up for sale.

Despite dropping the price (it's now listed at $6.28-million) he has still not found a buyer. So he is now looking at demolishing the theatre and building something else there, which has left the PTAS with little choice but to give up on the idea of restoring the site.

"Everyone tried their best and it's time to move on," Williams says. "The building is beyond I think anyone's ability to do anything within any scope of budget, so I think it's time to look forward."

The Pantages is on Heritage Canada's top 10 list of endangered buildings. Opened in 1908, it is the oldest surviving theatre in Vancouver and has the oldest purpose-built vaudeville theatre interior in the country. It has operated under many different names as both a live venue and a movie theatre. Closed since 1990, it has fallen into a terrible state of disrepair.

PTAS - a group of local arts advocates and people concerned about the Downtown Eastside - formed in 2006 with the express purpose of restoring the theatre and in turn, they hoped, improving conditions for the neighbourhood. The group always saw the potential of the building, not just as a theatre, but as a catalyst for change in the troubled area.

In April 2008, PTAS opened up the doors of the dilapidated theatre and with much fanfare announced its restoration plans: a $26-million renovation that would turn the boarded-up, 100-year old vaudeville house into a state-of-the-art 650-seat theatre, along with a 99-seat black box/rehearsal space, and art gallery.

The beginning of the end of that dream came with council's decision not to greenlight Williams's plan. The city's director of planning Brent Toderin says Williams was asking for "tens of millions in terms of public assets" for the project - and that was simply too much for the city to shoulder.

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"The city demanded rigour regarding our plans." Barber says. "It turned out that was simply an excuse for rigor mortis."

A fire last May on the roof of the building sealed its fate. Firefighters had to cut through the roof to ensure the fire had been fully extinguished. Since then, the complete stage area has collapsed into the basement, the balconies are no longer safe to walk on, and the structural members supporting the front of the theatre are splitting. It is no longer possible to enter the building safely to retrieve any of the remaining heritage elements, according to Peter Fairchild, PTAS chair.

Over the weekend, Heritage Vancouver issued an urgent appeal, asking people to contact the mayor and council to find a way to save the building. "At this point it looks pretty bleak," says Heritage Vancouver's president Donald Luxton. "But we have had situations where things have looked very bleak for structures in the city and they were rescued at the last minute," he adds.

One of the few solutions Luxton can envision is for the city to step in as interim owner. While that may not happen, given the city's current budget restraints, Toderin does indicate a desire to save the building - or parts of it - and perhaps make it a cultural facility once again.

"At a minimum we would seek to preserve aspects of the building and incorporate them into the new development; at a maximum, we'd seek to preserve the entire building," he says. "We're still interested in the idea of a cultural facility onsite and although we regret PTAS pulling out, that does not mean the idea of a cultural use on site is non-viable."

But the building's owner has other ideas. Williams has shelved his fantasy of restoring the theatre and has ordered his own studies on possible uses for the site; he's thinking mixed commercial/residential with some affordable housing.

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"Everybody's got wonderful ideas and dreams and hopes, which is great," he says. "So did I."

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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