Condo development prompts eviction of popular Vancouver lantern festival

A popular, free community event is facing eviction from its production space to make way for a new condo development in downtown Vancouver.

Artistic director Naomi Singer says city is trying to help, but she can't afford to pay more

A large lantern in the shape of a dragon is suspended in the production space of the Secret Lantern Society. The organization is being evicted from the space to make way for a condo development. (David Horemans/CBC)

A popular, free winter festival is at risk because its production space is being demolished to make way for a new condo development in downtown Vancouver.

"The situation is definitely tied in with Vancouver's real estate market that's just created this marvelous situation for some people and incredible hardship for others," said Naomi Singer, artistic director of the Winter Solstice Lantern Festival.

"Land is so valuable that I'm really hoping that people see culture as equally important." 

Naomi Singer holds a paper lantern she made in her production space in downtown Vancouver. (David Horemans/CBC)

The Secret Lantern Society is the organization behind the family-friendly festival, which takes place this Wednesday in four different locations downtown. It usually attracts thousands of people.

The society's production space at 1255 West Pender St. is crammed with hundreds of colourful paper lanterns created over the organization's 23-year existence, as well as the random bits and bobs Singer collects to make them. 

It's also where public workshops take place and volunteers come to make lanterns and prepare for the festival.

The Winter Solstice Lantern Festival takes place in December in downtown Vancouver and attracts thousands of people each year. (Secret Lantern Society/Facebook)

Cheap production space

Singer has rented the 1,600-square-foot production space for $1,200 a month for the past two years. 

The three-storey building also houses a variety of musicians, a company that provides reusable moving boxes, and the Atira Women's Resource Society.

But now it's being demolished to make way for a 19-storey mixed-use development with 20 residential units and retail on the main floor. 

Singer says she was told she would have to be out by Dec. 31. But after explaining her situation to the owners, they extended the deadline to Jan. 14, 2017. 

A paper lantern in the shape of a heron stands near a mirror in the Secret Lantern Society's headquarters. (David Horemans/CBC)

'We could do so much more'

Singer says she knew the space would be temporary when she moved in. But discussions with the owners led her to believe she would likely stay in the space for at least four years, with plenty of notice when it was time to leave. 

Instead, the permitting process took less time than expected, and she was given one month's notice to vacate the building. 

"If we had a stable home, we could do so much more," she said.

The production space at the Secret Lantern Society. Artistic director Naomi Singer collects materials throughout the year to put toward her work. (David Horemans/CBC)

"What we do now is not what we're capable of doing. We're extremely limited by always looking for a new space." 

Singer says her goal is to expand the organization's social profit revenue like producing lanterns for private events, which would reduce her reliance on government grants. 

She says the city has offered to help and has sent her a few of its holdings, but the rent in those buildings is far above her current costs. 

'This just isn't sustainable'

"And then there's also, to put it bluntly, the death traps," she said, referring to informal spaces she's found through word-of-mouth.

These are basements with only one exit and faulty wiring or blocked off fire escapes, she says.

But after reading about the fire that killed 36 people at a warehouse party space in California, she decided she couldn't work out of an unsafe space.

"The price that those artists and musicians paid for having a cheap place that they could afford — that price was too high. So I'm not going to move into something like that again," she said. 

Singer says she's not given up hope just yet, but she does have bad days. 

"I wouldn't say I haven't had the fantasy of just taking everything out to a large parking lot and having a healing, burning farewell bonfire, and saying I just have to do something else," she said, holding back tears.

"Because this just isn't sustainable."

A plastic rose is attached to a light inside the Secret Lantern Society's production space. Singer says the city has offered to help her find a new space to house the Latern Society, but the rent in the suggested buildings is far above her current costs. (David Horemans/CBC)

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.