This February, after nearly a year and a half of construction plagued by delays, re-designs and regulatory hurdles, the new Cactus Club opened on English Bay. Rumoured to cost over 7 million dollars, the 5,400 square foot facility (counting the patio) is a beautiful combination of wood, glass, tile and west coast modernism. Situated in a stunning location in the heart of the West End, where Denman Street intersects Beach Avenue, it replaces the 3rd rate hot dog stand run by the Vancouver Parks Board for as long as anyone can remember.
|Cactus Club at English Bay photo by Junie Quiroga|
That the Parks Board has been able to cling to an antiquated policy of wretched buildings and food that do nothing to showcase the waterfront area and cash in on all the tourists and locals alike who would appreciate a decent meal accompanied by a magnificent view, is something only a city, as boring and held hostage to special interest groups as Vancouver, could perpetuate for so many years. But the winds of change are slowly blowing away the old ways of thinking and some of the prime real estate along parts of the 22 km. seawall are finally being allowed to open up to private enterprise.
|Old English Bay concession stand|
It started in Kitsilano a few years ago when a deal was made to allow a restaurant to open on top of a new life guard station and public washroom, in exchange for 6.5% of gross sales. The folks behind the Watermark, (which in 2010 was changed to the Boathouse) signed a 20 year lease with the Parks Board after a lengthy fight with with people opposed to private enterprise on public lands, folks opposed to the building's design, and other folks who plainly refused to acknowledge the benefit of a no cost upgrade to the disgusting public washrooms with this new restaurant. In the first 5 months of 2005 the Parks Board collected more in rent from the Watermark than they did on average for a year at any of the other restaurants leasing Parks Board property.
|Boathouse at Kitsilano photo by Junie Quiroga|
The success of this venture led to a "Concession Strategy Study" that quickly identified English Bay as the next place to secure a long term lease with a restaurateur and, in 2010, the Parks Board signed a 30 year deal with the Cactus Club for $240,000.00 per year plus 4% of any sales over $4 million. Considering that each of the 16 seasonal hot dog stands the Parks Board operates yield on average only $50,000.00 in net income, this is great news for Vancouver taxpayers who are on the hook for the $100 million dollar annual Parks Board budget and the $1.6 million dollar deficit it rang up in 2010.
At the other year round facilities on Parks Board property that it designates as cafe/bistro fine dining, it collects on average each year $100,000.00 per restaurant. These facilities include The Shaughnessy in the VanDusen Gardens, the Stanley Park Bar & Grill, The Teahouse, the Prospect Point Cafe, and the Fish House in Stanley Park, Seasons In The Park in Queen Elizabeth Park and the Mill Marine Bistro on Harbour Green Park in Coal Harbour. Each of these restaurants are privately run and they pay good rent but, it would appear there's a big difference between those who are on the waterfront and those who aren't.
|Mill Marine Bistro|
In 2003 the Mill Marine Bistro opened on the Coal Harbour section of the seawall with a lot less fuss, presumably because it wasn't on the beach. However, with the success of the Kitsilano and English Bay conversions, can Spanish Banks, Locarno, Jericho or Sunset Beach be far behind? With 22 km. of seawall surely there has to be room for more than just 3 restaurants?
One only has to visit nearby White Rock and see all the restaurants along the beach to recognize how lively a dining scene can be with an ocean backdrop. Journey across the line and the number of places to eat along the Seattle and Tacoma waterfront staggers the imagination. Go to any tourist area in the world and the beaches are filled with colourful walk up bars and bistros. Meanwhile back in Vancouver the guardians of the waterfront are determined to keep the hordes at bay and deny them anything except a view.
|White Rock |
Yes unspoiled park land is a beautiful thing and so is a decent hot dog but, lost in the rhetoric about public parks and cheap hot dogs, who is paying for all this? Also why should a hot dog be the only food offered and why can't a person get something alcoholic to drink with their meal? For that matter what's wrong with eating and drinking inside considering it occasionally rains in this fair city?
The new Cactus Club is offering the best of all worlds to a very hard to please population. The owners have built a beautiful building for dining in comfort (inside or out), they will pay handsomely for the privilege of operating on the beach, and they have agreed to offer up inexpensive hot dogs to the passing public. Let's hope the Parks Board stays on its new course and continues to open up the waterfront in selective fashion for those of us seeking good libations.