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Restrictive liquor laws pose a threat to alternative events in Vancouver

Matt Troy, left, an event host, is photographed at his art party in a warehouse space in Vancouver on Sunday. It has become more difficult for party promoters, musicians and artists to get access to venues to host alternative events in Vancouver.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Willis Lombard knows the challenges of trying to find spaces in Vancouver to host dance parties firsthand.

In 2008, he took over DollHouse Studios, the legendary underground venue near Main Street and Broadway that had served as a rehearsal and performance space for the dancers of Sweet Soul Burlesque for several years.

Mr. Lombard says the costume parties he hosted at the space attracted artistic types, creating an alternative to the typical booze-fuelled club environment full of drunken guys trying to pick up women.

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"It was amazing to have a place where you could sidestep all of that and still enjoy a night out," says Mr. Lombard, who runs a group called SHAHdjs.

But despite his best efforts at soundproofing, noise complaints from the neighbours ultimately shut the space down.

Event promoters say restrictive liquor laws and residential creep are stifling Vancouver's alternative arts and music scene by making it virtually impossible to find venues to host concerts, art shows, dance parties and live performances.

New housing developments are transforming formerly industrial zones such as the Hastings and Clark corridors, once home to a bustling underground art scene, into quiet, residential neighbourhoods.

Critics say the new local area plan for the Downtown Eastside, which was approved by city council last spring, paves the way for further residential intensification, leaving fledgling art and music communities with few places to go where they can make noise without disrupting the neighbours.

"We can't make sound anywhere any more," says Matt Troy, who hosts gender-inclusive, interdisciplinary art events. "Lots of areas where you could have a big, loud event in the city have disappeared."

Richard Newirth, the managing director of cultural services, says the city wants to allow cultures to thrive. "It's a balance of trying to be enabling as well as ensuring safety," he says. Generally, the city tries to be tolerant of alternative spaces, unless there are a ton of complaints, he says.

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Provincial liquor laws also pose a challenge. Getting an industrial-type space licensed on a permanent basis is pricey and would require extensive renovations.

The city has introduced the Arts Event Licence Pilot Program, which allows for up to three events a month to be held in unconventional spaces such as warehouses – but under provincial laws, only two of those events can involve booze. It can be hard to financially support a space without regular liquor sales, says Luke Summers, who runs a venue called Studio East that hosts everything from electronic music shows to alternative theatre productions.

Compounding the problem is the fact there simply aren't many old, industrial warehouse spaces in Vancouver, says Melissa Fong, a PhD candidate in planning and geography at the University of Toronto.

"Industrial zones lend themselves very well to party spaces," says Ms. Fong, who is also a techno enthusiast. "That's why some of the culture around Berlin, Detroit and Brooklyn has proliferated, because you have those abandoned warehouse spaces that lend themselves very well to artists that find creativity and opportunity in empty spaces."

Some event promoters say they would love for an area of Vancouver to be reserved for artist studios and big, loud events in unconventional spaces.

"That's what artists need to create culture," says Mr. Troy, who is creating a non-profit called the Vancouver Arts and Leisure Society. "We need to act to protect space, because if not we're just going to have a giant sprawl of condos everywhere and no real sense of community."

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Sure, he concedes, there are the bars and clubs of Granville Street, but not everyone feels comfortable in that environment.

And throwing a party in a big, expensive venue limits the kinds of event you can host, Mr. Summers says. "In an alternative scene there is not as big a crowd, so there is not as much revenue," he says. "Mainstream venues have their huge overheads and they can only host things that will bring in the really big money."

The purpose of unconventional venues is to provide spaces where alternative communities and cultures can grow, before they become big enough to sustain events in large theatres, galleries and clubs, Mr. Lombard says.

"There's basically a steady flow of artists in Vancouver that get to a point here where they're not going to grow any more," Mr. Lombard says. "They go to San Francisco or Los Angeles or Toronto or Montreal and flourish like they never would have here."

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About the Author
Business Reporter

Alexandra Posadzki joined the ROB in August 2017, after spending nearly three years covering banking and real estate, among other topics, for the Canadian Press newswire. More

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