The protests against the demolition of the Varsity Bowling Alley and with that the iconic Ridge Theatre has proved practically as ineffective as protesting the passage of time.
In spite of the late awakening of organized community sentiment, the block of West Side buildings on Arbutus between 16th and 15th avenues has outlived its economic utility.
It was built more than 65 years ago at a time when working class folks formed bowling leagues and the only place to watch what we can now download on our smartphones was the single screen movie theatre.
But for some years now that strip of structures in its current configuration has been a business basket case.
It was owned, along with a parking lot across the road to the east and two more one block north, by the well known lawyer Arthur Fouks.
Fouks’ daughter, Sondra Green, inherited that property and over time, it appears, attempted to accommodate her tenants by giving them what some would classify as “charity level” rents.
But by then all of the leases had “demolition clauses,” which would allow the landlord to boot them out in the event of redevelopment.
One spark of hope was ignited several years ago when a space previously occupied by two successive grocery stores was leased to Meinhardt’s Fine Foods for 25 years. The unusually long-term lease apparently had no demolition clause. And the gourmet grocer poured a reputed $2 million into the property in leasehold improvements.
The catalyst leading to the sale of the property by Green and the subsequent approval this week by the city of Vancouver’s Development Permit Board allowing for the demolition of the block was the severing of that 25-year lease between Meinhardt’s and Sondra Green.
Neither Linda Meinhardt nor Sondra Green has returned my calls to comment on the circumstances of that rupture.
But I can tell you this: Meinhardt’s Arbutus store was in serious financial difficulty before it closed Dec. 24, 2010 and before the lease was terminated.
I know that because of court documents filed by Linda Meinhardt with the Supreme Court of British Columbia earlier that month in the matter of her companies “Bankruptcy and Insolvency.”
In that, she states a “variety of factors” including the economic downturn in the local economy, the startup costs for the Arbutus Stores which “greatly exceeded budget,” continued operating losses at the store and, finally, “legal disputes” with the landlord for the Arbutus store regarding the termination of the lease which cost Meinhardt “invaluable time and financial resources.”
Meinhardt retreated to her original Granville Street property and just last month ended up selling that business to the Jimmy Pattison Group of companies.
Meanwhile, six months after Meinhardt cleared out of Arbutus Street, Green sold her holdings to Cressey Developments for just over $20.3 million. (One other developer who looked at the property told me he didn’t bid on it because he was concerned about community backlash if it was demolished.)
The most valuable piece in the package, the block with the bowling alley and the theatre, which according to Cressey vice president Hani Lammam had the highest development potential, cost $15.6 million.
Cressey’s plan got kicked around by the Development Permit Board. They were knocked from five storeys down to four and criticized for not consulting enough with the community. Cressey is in conversation with a number of potential tenants who want to put in a grocery store but none who are willing to underwrite a bowling alley or a theatre.
The “Ridge” will be remembered when the sign is rescued from demolition and placed atop the new condo building, as much a statement of today’s economic and cultural values as the theatre and bowling alley were when they were built.