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City terminates gay club’s lease

Odyssey owners scouting for new location

MAKE WAY FOR SUPPORTIVE HOUSING. The owners of The Odyssey are searching for a new location after the city terminated the club's lease for construction of supportive housing for people with HIV/AIDS. Credit: Natasha Barsotti photo

The Odyssey nightclub, a major gay stomping ground for over two decades, is looking for a new home following a joint city-provincial agreement to build supportive housing on its site.

“We were given notice May 1,” reveals the Howe St club’s co-owner Michael Levy, adding he had expected the bar to remain at its current site until 2011.

“This is where we were caught off-guard,” Levy says. “Now, it’s not as if we did not know that this would eventually be coming in 2011. I mean, we knew that because that’s when our lease expired and we did not expect it to be renewed. However, we did not expect it to be by the end of this year.”

Levy notes that a development application sign went up on the north side of the club about two weeks ago. The sign indicates that a 12-storey building housing 110 units will occupy the site once construction is complete.

The site, located at 1233-1251 Howe St, is among 12 city-owned properties being set aside for up to 1,200 social and supportive housing units in keeping with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the City of Vancouver and the province, approved in December 2007.

According to the MOU, a different non-profit housing society will be selected to operate each new housing project, managing buildings and tenants. A BC Housing release dated Feb 1 indicates that McLaren Housing Society was assigned the 1233-1251 Howe St site — which includes The Odyssey — after successfully submitting a development application for one of the 12 sites following a BC Housing request for proposals.

“We saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says McLaren’s vice-president Peter Regier, noting that this type of cooperation between the province and the city hasn’t been seen for several years.

“We realized that it was something we had to jump on, and it was an opportunity to get a significant win for our target population,” Regier says. The McLaren Housing Society has been providing safe and affordable homes and support services to low-income people living with HIV/AIDS across BC since 1987, when it was founded by members of the gay community.

Regier says there is a “massive need” for supportive housing in the HIV/AIDS community.

“The city has given it [the site] to us for the next 60 years under the Memorandum of Understanding between the city and the province,” he adds.

Doug Robinson, a project facilitator with the city’s development department, confirms the McLaren Housing Society will operate the new housing project, pending final approval from the Development Permit Board Jun 16.

“The site will be owned by the city but it will be leased to them for 60 years to operate under lease terms and conditions which have yet to go to council,” Robinson explains.

“They’re planning 110 units of supportive housing essentially with folks with HIV/AIDS or a history of such. They’re people who clearly are in need of affordable housing who are likely residents and are occupying the area and the downtown area, so it’s part of an overall city plan for 12 city-owned sites throughout the city, [of] which this is one,” he continues.

Regier expects to take possession of the site this fall.

“We will be taking possession of the site. We have been told to expect it in November, and then we’ll be working from there to clear the site and to start construction,” he says.

Regier says the new facility will comprise studio as well as one- and two-bedroom suites for single people, couples and families. About 55 units — half of the proposed building’s stock — will be designated for men and women living with HIV/AIDS.

Levy says he’s familiar with McLaren’s new housing project. “Eventually it will become a new development, there’s no doubt about it,” he says, adding that he expects construction to start by the end of the year.

He too says he considers the HIV/AIDS housing project a positive move. But, he says, it means The Odyssey will have to relocate.

“We are exploring all relocation avenues,” Levy says. “We are doing our utmost to ensure The Odyssey continues. We hope that by the time ground is broken that The Odyssey would have successfully relocated.”

Levy says he has his eye on “a couple of good options” for potential relocation sites but declined to give any further details, except to say that the club’s new location will be “within walking distance” of the existing Odyssey.

“It will be within the West End,” Levy hints. “We would never think of going where our clientele would feel uncomfortable.”

Regier says McLaren contacted The Odyssey’s management to register concern about the housing project’s impact on the club’s employees and patrons.

“McLaren Housing was proudly founded 21 years ago by the gay community in Vancouver,” notes the society’s chair, Darren Kopetsky, in a press release. “We appreciate that this is a tremendous opportunity for us and those we serve but it will mean changes for others, in particular the staff and patrons of the present lessee on the site, the Odyssey Nightclub. It is our sincere hope that any disruption for the Odyssey would be temporary and that it will relocate and continue to be an important social destination and meeting place for the GLBT community in Vancouver.”

“Displacing the Odyssey is what might come here,” Regier acknowledges. “We hope it will be mitigated as quickly as possible, and the Odyssey will move to a new site, and will continue to flourish as a business. We absolutely support the business and we let them know that.”

Regier says the Society appealed to the city in a letter dated Feb 28 to facilitate The Odyssey’s relocation.

“We don’t know exactly what’s in the city’s power to do to try and assist The Odyssey, but we asked them to investigate that and to facilitate the move as much as possible in terms of business licenses and whatever other kinds of regulations would apply to bars,” Regier says. “We do have our eye on this and we’re concerned.

Asked if the city plans to assist The Odyssey in its relocation efforts, Robinson says he doesn’t think the city is “in the position to respond to commercial enterprises.”

The city’s primary responsibility in this case, he says, is to develop the site to meet its new social housing objective.

“I’m not aware of any discussion that took place on retaining the Odyssey on site,” Robinson continues. “The aim is to house the homeless and certainly to deal with a chronic and severe problem in the city. I think the goal has been certainly to maximize the number of housing units as the first objective anyway.”

Levy says he hopes the city will be as helpful to The Odyssey’s relocation requirements as it has been to the housing project it’s erecting on the gay club’s site.

“I think that once we can say, ‘okay, this is where we’re moving to,’ that’s when the pressure can be put on the city to make sure that if they expedited that part — ie. the housing project — they can expedite our part as well,” says Levy.

The Odyssey “has been there as a gay venue since 1985,” Levy continues. “We’ve always catered to the gay community, and it is our intention to be able to provide the same venue very soon.”