Vancouver as No Fun City: Is Liquor a Cultural Lubricant?

Here’s a short paper I wrote for my summer class, URB 690: Art, Culture, and the City (slightly modified to make it less academic).

Photo by Veggy: Attendees of May 26, 2011, Douglas Coupland event at the Waldorf Hotel

Vancouver is often called the City of Glass. While it is a title bestowed upon it mostly based on the city’s prominent slender glass condominium towers, it also alludes to the way in which municipal and provincial regulations enforce the idea that it is also a fragile city. This conservative attitude towards urban living is translated on the street-level as “No Fun City”. Indeed, this idea plays a significant part in Vancouver’s cultural narrative.

In 2011, filmmakers Melissa James and Kate Kroll released their documentary No Fun City about Vancouver’s alternative and ‘underground’ music scene and its “struggle in a city that seems hell-bent on shutting down all the fun.” In much of the media concerning Vancouver’s cultural life there appears to be some common interrelated concerns: housing and space costs, the proliferation of condo developments in low-income artist communities, ensuing noise complaints, the closure and commercialization of music venues, and stringent city zoning and liquor regulations.

Photo by Simon Hayter from Maclean’s Article: Keeping a lid on fun in Vancouver

Although the high cost of space (for housing, work, and performance/exhibition) has perhaps the largest impact on Vancouver’s culture scene, liquor regulation proves to be an important constraint as well. As venues, like the Rio Theatre, attempt to expand their operations to include many different artistic ventures (film, theatre, music, etc.) and as artists seek out flexible performance space — both struggling to survive as part of Vancouver’s cultural landscape — inflexible laws and regulations have been considerable obstacles.

Liquor is a substantial source of revenue for many performance and cultural spaces and thus it holds an important place in the production of culture in Vancouver and without easing liquor restrictions, Vancouver will risk remaining a ‘no fun city’.

In B.C. there are three main types of liquor licences: A Food-Primary Licence for selling liquor at restaurants where the primary purpose is to serve food; a Special Occasion Licence (SOL) for individuals and groups holding special events, such as community celebrations, weddings or banquets; and a Liquor Primary Licence for businesses where the primary purpose is to sell liquor.

Most live performance venues do not want a food-primary licence, although it is easier to procure one, because their business must be then geared towards selling food — they would rather have a liquor primary licence. However, liquor-primary licences are difficult to obtain as the City of Vancouver approves very few of them. This may be because of zoning and other bylaw restrictions (building requirements such as soundproofing, which is expensive). Typically, the process long and expensive (the process can cost upwards of $8,000 and take 8 to 10 months). Currently there are around 255 liquor-primary establishments in Vancouver. Since 2009, only 8 have been approved. However, liquor-primary licences can also be bought and sold, and because of their rarity, they are prohibitively expensive and often sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. At the time of writing, a 235 seat liquor-primary licence was for sale on Craigslist for $150,000 – priced for a “quick sale”.

Most live performance venues actually fall somewhere between a liquor-primary and a special occasion licence. The SOL has a fairly expedited process but applicants are only allowed 2 licences per month to a maximum of 24 a year. Most festivals or artists who do not have their own space apply for an SOL but because they are only permitted 2 licensed events per month it is highly restrictive. For example, weeklong events must apply for an exemption from the Province from this particular rule and the exemption is not guaranteed.

In 2009, the City of Vancouver began conducting a Live Performance Venue Regulatory Review and it has found that when a live performance venue or space added liquor service, regulations that govern the event and the space become increasingly complex. For instance, if “venues that want to host more than 60 persons and serve alcohol must double their exit capacity (e.g. widening exits or creating additional exits) or reduce the number of guests. The Building and Fire By-laws dramatically limit the possibility of hosting licensed events with more than 60 people.” This particular bylaw heavily restricts the temporary use of space for a live performance where an organizer may not own the space and/or the owner is mostly unwilling to spend a considerable sum of money to add exit capacity. City staff have since recommended that this bylaw be reviewed. In addition to bylaw complexity, there are further restrictive and anachronistic pieces to British Columbia’s liquor laws that are no longer relevant. For instance, the Rio Theatre wanted to expand beyond film screenings and include live performances, and in general, become a more flexible and multipurpose venue in a bid to stay in business and relevant to its community.

In 2010, the Rio applied for and received a liquor-primary licence, however, under the Liquor Control and Licensing Act it was illegal to serve alcohol and screen films in a live-event theatre due to the concern that it could lead to underage drinking. Karen Ayers, Liquor Control and Licencing Branch general manager, stated that the regulation was enforced do to public-safety issues:

A large number of moviegoers are youth and families and there’s some fairly unique challenges posed by movie theatres in terms of ensuring minors don’t have access to alcohol. Typically movie theatres are dark. When the movie is in play, there typically are no staff within the theatre for the duration of the movie.

After a lengthy campaign by the Rio’s supporters, it wasn’t until April 2012 that the Provincial Government amended the law to allow movie and live-event theatres to serve alcohol.

Independent theatre owners Corinne Lea and Ken Charko have campaigned for more liberal liquor laws. Photo by Yolande Cole from Straight article: Draconian liquor rules harm B.C. economy.

The Rio case underscores a part the complexity of navigating Vancouver’s liquor laws and how regulation controls how performance spaces operate. Further, this case also highlights the rigidity of the current licensing regime based on primary-use definitions. That is, the Rio is neither a bar or nightclub and it is not a restaurant either. If performance spaces, like the Rio, W2, or the Waldorf to name a few, need to adapt to new socio-economic realities, regulations need to be flexible enough to allow that to happen. Danny Fazio, Waldorf Brand and Design Manager, argues that:

“Because it’s so difficult to get things like liquor licenses, Vancouver is missing out on the opportunity to re-purpose spaces that are not being used. You would see that happening right away if things loosened up. You would see people going into new space so quickly. As soon as the City flips [zoning laws], they could have a whole new city.”

Most media reports about the implications of Vancouver’s liquor regulations frame the issue in economic terms. One article in the Georgia Straight newspaper explains that “the dilemma B.C. faces in terms of its liquor legislation can be distilled into one of pure economics: [the] province’s inflexible and outdate stance is now adversely affecting arts-and-culture-related activities, nonprofit organizations, and the kinds of small-to medium-sized business that would be flourishing in other provinces.” David Duprey, owner of the Rickshaw Theatre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, explains that, “selling $5 glasses of wine or beer may net $500 once every two weeks. It’s not a lot of money, but it is critical to the survival of a small, independent gallery. In other cities, it’s how it works.”

Vancouver’s current regulation and licensing regime favours large ‘hospitality groups’ such as the Donnelly group, the Granville Entertainment Group, and the Adelphia group, who’s venues are concentrated in the Granville Entertainment District. Restricting the diversity in performance space ownership reduces the diversity in cultural/entertainment options and, overall, these issues constrain the places Vancouverites can go for live performances and what is performed at them – leading to the perception of overly controlled entertainment consumption.

Malcolm Miles defines a city by invoking the idea of proximity, which is “the condition of a large mass of people from different backgrounds inhabiting a single site.” The result of proximity is a space of diversity, conflict and stimulation that allows for anonymity and spontaneity and thus freedom. The very essence of regulation attempts to control difference and thus reduce conflict: “trends in contemporary urbanism suggest that, rather than fostering the experience and celebration of difference, city building and the priorities of city dwellers are increasingly creating homogenous, predictable environments where encounters with difference are, if not avoided completely, then controlled.” It can be argued that these predictable environments is what Vancouver is enabling – the basis of a no fun city.

It is clear that there seems to be a correlation between liquor regulations and the creation and sustained operation of live performance venues. While liquor is only one part of a broader discussion, there are reported economic and social impacts from restrictive and rigid liquor regulation; the issues are indeed complex and require much further and deeper analysis. This analysis would benefit from exploring the concepts of social drinking, consumption and identity formation, regulating urban spaces, the nature of multi-purpose performance spaces, and instrumentalized culture.

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2 responses to “Vancouver as No Fun City: Is Liquor a Cultural Lubricant?

  1. no mention that the sheer pressure of a no fun citizen base in the city of Vancouver forces the government to restrict liquor licensing. the real power

  2. I am not sure where you are getting your info, but great topic.
    I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more.

    Thanks for magnificent information I was looking for this info
    for my mission.

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