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Filling old bar with pea gravel 'stupid'

By Mike Howell-Staff writer

Filling up an historic basement space around the Europe Hotel with pea gravel is a waste of money and an unacceptable heritage preservation method, says a former city planner who specialized in Gastown.

Jon Ellis, who worked for the city from 1973 to 1988, said the city should instead draw more tenants to Gastown and forget about its $215,000 plan to fill in the basement space and restore sidewalks around the hotel.

"The city makes nice noises but they are the main reason why nothing is happening down there," said Ellis, who now runs his own planning consulting business.

"Filling up the building with pea gravel is just stupid."

The city's services and budgets committee agreed Thursday to spend $215,000 on the project, proposed by city heritage planner Jeannette Hlavach.

Filling the space with pea gravel-a $20,000 cost-would support the sidewalks and prevent them from collapsing into the basement space, where the pub's decorative tiled floors are still intact and protected by a concrete wall which separates it from the hotel, Hlavach said.

City engineer Doug Smith said water is leaking through the prism-glassed sidewalks and that the erosion coupled with the weight of pedestrians or an errant vehicle could bring them crashing down into the "areaway"-the city's term for the basement space.

"From the city's point of view, it's not a waste of money because it eliminates their liability," Ellis said.

"But it also destroys most of the heritage of the Europe Hotel. They're not willing to pay to preserve heritage, they're willing to pay to lessen their liability. But they don't give a [hoot] about heritage. If they did, they'd spend that money figuring out another way to do that."

If the city is worried about liability, it should install large concrete barricades around the sidewalks to prevent vehicles from running up on the sidewalks, he said. As for fixing up the sidewalks for pedestrians, Ellis said many of the sidewalks in Gastown need to be restored-not just those around the Europe Hotel.

Hlavach believes Ellis' comments are "well-intentioned" but because he quit his job with the city in 1988, he doesn't have the benefit "of more recent realities" such as the lack of money to properly restore the sidewalks and areaway. She also pointed to the lack of interest from a tenant wanting to incorporate the areaway into a business.

"Everyone's been frustrated about what to do," Hlavach said.

The city's restoration plan will not damage the areaway, Hlavach said, noting boards and tarps will be placed over the floor to protect it. Smith noted the gravel could be removed easily with a vacuum truck, sucking it out of the areaway "like popcorn."

"We've beaten this issue to death and there's no simple solution," Smith said.

The hotel's owner, Affordable Housing Societies, supports the city's plan but challenges Ellis to come up with a better alternative. Bob Nicklin, the societies' general manager, said the areaway is a difficult space to lease to a prospective tenant because of the cost associated to restoring it and providing electrical, plumbing and ventilation work.

"People can sit back and criticize, but no one's come up with a viable solution for over 10 years," Nicklin said.

Heritage consultant Don Luxton said the city's $215,000 plan is better than its decision in 1991 to fill in the Europe Hotel's areaway with concrete. But pointing to a Gastown Heritage Management Plan he helped created that is expected to go before council this year, Luxton said a new regulatory framework for heritage preservation in Gastown and financial incentives for developers and tenants to do business there are needed.

Luxton said the provincial government should also be lobbied for money for heritage preservation in Gastown since the province designated Gastown a heritage site in 1971.

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