Can Vancouver really rename its Trump tower?

A petition to rename the 63-storey hotel may be nothing more than a message

December 10, 2015

By Max Fawcett

What’s in a name? When it comes to Donald Trump these days, a whole lot—and none of it very good. Trump, of course, announced earlier this week that he would ban all Muslims from entering the United States if elected president, and while the odds of that happening are still about as good as the Vancouver Canucks winning the Stanley Cup in 2016, it’s another inappropriate outburst from a man whose campaign has been constructed entirely out of them. It’s also an outburst that has repercussions here in Vancouver, where the 63-storey Trump International Hotel & Tower is set to be completed some time next year. The project, which promises to “transform the city’s skyline,” may end up achieving that promise in a much different way than the marketing executives who helped craft its messaging envisioned—not to mention the people who might have to spend the next few decades looking at it.

The ambitious US$360-million project was originally designed by the late Arthur Erickson and intended as a Ritz-Carlton hotel before the 2008/09 recession pushed those plans into the ditch. A company called Holborn Holdings pulled it out of there but needed to strike a deal with the Trump Organization in 2013 that gave it naming rights and control of the interior design and operations of the building in order to finance it. Now, it seems, Vancouver may be stuck with the Trump name lording over its downtown core—whether its residents like it or not. “The city can regulate architecture, and it can regulate density, but it can’t regulate the name of the building,” says Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s former director of city planning. “A developer can call it ‘tuna fish’ if they want to. The only pressure that can be brought to bear is a reputational pressure. And frankly, I’m not sure that can do much in this context because their hands may be contractually tied.”

That hasn’t stopped Taleeb Noormohamed, a local entrepreneur and former Liberal candidate in the riding of North Vancouver, from trying to apply a bit of his own pressure to city council. He’s created a petition at Change.org that encourages Vancouver’s Mayor and Council to remove the name—or, at least, strongly suggest that the developer do it themselves. “I thought that if we started a petition we could get people motivated to at least speak out in a way that we could then take to them and say, look, there is support for this type of initiative, and there is support for us taking a stand against giving someone who’s a xenophobe and a bigot a chance to put his name on a landmark.” And while he understands that petitions rarely succeed at actually instigating change, he thinks it still has symbolic value. “We don’t have many tools in our arsenal, but this is at least one way for us to send a message—and a positive message. This is not a council that’s shied away from making difficult decisions.”

And while council can’t intervene directly in the matter, Noormohamed thinks it could lean heavily on the developer in an effort to help it make the right decision for the city. “Where the city does have a role is in moral suasion and its ability to take a position that is clear with these developers and say, ‘look, you intend to do a lot of business in this city, and you need to understand what the values of this city are when it comes to the type of community we’re trying to build. We strongly encourage you to do this, and if you want our support on this or other things, thinking about the consequences of not doing that might be worthwhile.’” The statement released on Wednesday by Holborn Group CEO Joo Kim Tiah, in which he declined to comment in any meaningful way on the issue, suggests that he may not have thought much about that yet.

But while Toderian is outraged by Trump’s comments, he isn’t particularly surprised by them. “Frankly, a lot of us saw this coming when it was first announced that Trump would be attached—in name, at least. There was a feeling of great disconnect between Trump’s brand and message and way of thinking, even at that time, and the Vancouver model of city-making and the Vancouver attitude towards inclusiveness. And that’s when Trump was just a jerk. It raised a lot of eyebrows. But what Trump is now is much more dangerous than just a jerk.”

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