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Vancouver city council to explore ways to save Waldorf Hotel

The Waldof Hotel is set to close Jan. 20 after the land was sold to a condo developer.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The fate of the Waldorf Hotel and its myriad, on-site cultural activities is hanging in the balance, as city council prepares to take on the political and emotional hot potato, seen by many as a sign of Vancouver's urban priorities.

Buoyed by a remarkable outpouring of support from Vancouver's artistic elite, performers, artists and cultural activists, hotel operators remain hopeful a solution can yet be found to keep them in business there beyond Saturday, their projected closing date.

But others caution against such optimism, pointing to animosity between the operators and the hotel's long-time owners, who recently sold the Waldorf to the Solterra Group of Companies. The development firm takes possession of the storied hotel in September.

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In an interview Monday, Marko Puharich, whose family has owned the Waldorf for more than 40 years, said he was particularly unhappy to learn last year that the operators, Waldorf Productions, had talked to individuals about developing the large property, without his knowledge.

"I'm the owner," he said. "How would you feel if you owned a car you'd had for a long time, and you found out someone was trying to sell it? What would your feelings be like? I can tell you, I wasn't very happy."

Waldorf Productions announced last week that they were closing Jan. 19, after finding out from Mr. Puharich that the hotel had been sold to a development company and they were unable to obtain more than a week-to-week operating lease.

The news provoked a storm of outrage from the artistic community, aghast that one of city's most popular performing and cultural venues was being lost to development. The pending demise of Waldorf Productions added to a long list of other disappearances from the cultural scene.

"Something just snapped in Vancouver," said arts advocate Sandy Garossino, who helped with the swift organization of Sunday's "love-in" that drew hundreds of people to the Waldorf.

"There was the sheer excellence of what was being done creatively and artistically at the Waldorf, and then the thought that we were just watching our Vancouver, our history, our culture and heritage future vanish in the face of condos," Ms. Garossino said.

Those speaking at Sunday's boisterous Waldorf gathering included Kathleen Bartels, director of the Vancouver Art Gallery; James Wright, chief administrative officer of the Vancouver Opera; Governor-General's-award-winning artist Paul Wong; and Ian Wallace, an internationally known Vancouver artist whose work is on display at the VAG.

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At its regular Tuesday meeting, council will consider a hastily prepared report on the Waldorf from city manager Penny Ballem, outlining steps to prevent the building from being demolished and suggesting ways to retain its cultural heritage.

The matter is difficult for council, since the clear desire of the cultural community to keep Waldorf Productions in operation is set against the private rights of those who actually own the property. There is also the issue of whether the operators have a viable business plan. After taking over in 2010, Waldorf Productions had problems with their bottom line, although the operators say they are now turning a profit.

Hospitality director Ernesto Gomez denied his group has any bad feelings toward Mr. Puharich.

"We're hoping to meet with him on Wednesday, and I'm very hopeful he will allow us to stay at the Waldorf," Mr. Gomez said. "We appreciate what he and and his family have done for us, and I don't think he really wants to run that hotel on his own, if we leave."

Late Monday, however, Waldorf Productions seemed to lose some of their optimism.

A press release accused the Solterra Group of refusing to meet with them to discuss the Waldorf's future. "This company is showing no respect for the community they're supposedly marketing to," declared entertainment director Thomas Anselmi.

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Meanwhile, city hall sources pointed out that Solterra would have difficulty winning approval for any major residential development until the Grandview-Woodlands community plan is complete, a process likely to continue well into 2013.

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