As a drummer, Rob Stewart naturally has to have his finger on the pulse.
It’s proving to be an ideal quality outside of the rehearsal space as well.
Stewart is the co-founder of the arts collective known as Suna Entertainment Group, which owns and operates four rehearsal spaces across Vancouver and New Westminster through both public and private partnerships.
The group effectively has a coup on the rehearsal space marketplace in Metro Vancouver and opened the largest facility of its kind west of Toronto last year.
Stewart’s next feather in his cap also appears to be a Vancouver first. He’s partnered with developer PortLiving to put rehearsal rooms, art spaces, a live venue and a food location into what will otherwise be a six-storey tower used for storage and other industrial uses.
Called Gateway, the project broke ground late last year on Bridgeway Street near the PNE and is expected to open in early 2021.
“I don’t think this has ever been done before in Vancouver,” Stewart said.
Stewart’s newest acquisition will encompass 17,000 square feet spread across the entirety of the building’s second floor. Though he has yet to finalize the floorplan, art studios in the range of 500 square feet and rehearsal rooms up to 200 square feet will make up the private portion of the space. The remaining footprint will include an all-ages music venue and space for a rotating cast of kitchen commissaries, food truck operations and other food vendors.
The venue is costing Stewart’s group around $1 million in up-front costs and he’s secured a five-year lease with options to renew.
“The beautiful thing about this setup is that it’s a self-contained facility and it’s in an industrial zone — there are no residential condos or houses anywhere very close,” Stewart said. “There will be no NIMBY people around there.”
Getting out of old warehouses and into new buildings has been a process that’s two years in the making. It was then that Stewart and Suna partner Amrit Maharaj met PortLiving execs, gave them a tour of their rehearsal facilities off Clark Drive and introduced them to the scope of the Suna staff makeup: Stewart used to work in commercial insurance and other members of his team include lawyers, architects, realtors and contractors.
“When you’re trying to put a business together, that [staffing complement] makes even more sense for us,” PortLiving senior vice president Brad Berry told the Courier. “It’s not just an open idea, they’re thinking through this and they’re turning real estate into active art and music space that is going to have some longevity and some life to it.”
Once the development opens, Stewart also plans to employ a few other firsts. Rooms schedules will be figured out entirely via an app that tracks times and usage. Prime-time users, those who rehearse or create in the evening, will pay more than those during the day or later into the evening.
The music venue, meanwhile, will be run entirely on a subscription model. While Stewart hasn’t figured out prices yet, he offered an example whereby $10 would get you into a month’s worth of shows. The venue won’t be licensed, save for the odd special event, and the overarching idea is to take liquor sales out of the discussion when sizing up an act’s potential or draw.
“We feel that the reliance on liquor sales to prove a band’s worth is denying the public the opportunity to experience many of the new acts and arts out there,” Stewart said. “When I was a kid, I had access to places where I could watch music when I was 15 and 16. There’s nothing like that out there right now and there should be.”
And while shovels are barely in the ground for Gateway, both Stewart and Berry see more for the model they’ve established. Industrial vacancies hover near two per cent and Stewart said the type of old warehouses traditionally used for rehearsal spaces simply don’t exist anymore, or are out of range financially.
Other spaces still are operating on a hush-hush basis.
“Most of them are doing it illegally, they’re doing it until they get kicked out, until the neighbours complain or they realize the zoning isn’t right,” Berry said. “What Rob and Amrit are doing is they’re legitimizing it. That’s the biggest thing for me. They’re legitimizing a real need.”