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Nov. 28, 2021

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Wattle Tree Place looks for new home as deadline for razing approaches

Beloved business/gathering spot owners have sights set on Jane Weber Evergreen Arboretum

By , Columbian staff writer
16 Photos
Michael Gorman dances with fire during a full moon community drum circle at Wattle Tree Place this past Saturday night. Wattle Tree’s future is uncertain; the block it sits on is being redeveloped, but the sisters who operate the business haven’t found an appropriate site for relocation.
Michael Gorman dances with fire during a full moon community drum circle at Wattle Tree Place this past Saturday night. Wattle Tree’s future is uncertain; the block it sits on is being redeveloped, but the sisters who operate the business haven’t found an appropriate site for relocation. Photo Gallery

The Australian sisters know that deadlines can be hard or they can be soft. In recent weeks, the pair have had to face some life-changing deadlines without knowing for sure which type they were, or exactly how things would turn out.

The first deadline turned out a little soft, but the result was literally perfect. Anna Phillips was due to give birth to her third child on Sept. 14, but baby blew off the appointment; hospital inducement was on the horizon, days later, when Phillips and her sister, Sophie Wegecsanyi, went on a labor-leveraging walk to the waterfront.

“We jump-started it,” Wegecsanyi said, and Sean Jr. arrived the morning of the hospital appointment, at home in downtown Vancouver. Mom and baby are doing just fine.

“Anna had the perfect birth she wanted to have,” Wegecsanyi said triumphantly. “If we can manifest that, we can manifest anything.”

The sisters have a track record of “manifesting” great outcomes via focused spiritual energy, they say, but their next deadline may put that notion to the test.

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Wattle Tree Place

Nearly two years ago the sisters, natives of Australia who bopped around the globe with their families for a few years before settling down in Vancouver, launched their dream business in a dream location. Wattle Tree Place is a cafe, sandwich shop and wine bar, but that’s only a taste of its true identity: a multifaceted, spiritually oriented community gathering place that offers everything from massage therapy and tarot readings to drum circles and other New Age happenings.

“Welcome to our newest community member!” Wegecsanyi declared to little Sean Jr., who was nestled in her tired sister’s arms while a drum circle — attended by approximately 50 people — picked up speed this past Saturday night.

Crucially, Wattle Tree is also a kid-friendly playspace with a built-out, fenced-in back yard that’s great for toddling voyages of discovery while Mom relaxes nearby with a snack or beverage.

Put all that together, its proprietors and fans say, and what you’ve really got is community. Since Wattle Tree opened two years ago, it’s developed a fiercely loyal fan base. “We mean it seriously when we say, we wanted to create a home,” said Wegecsanyi. “It’s a space where people can be themselves.”

For just one more month, that space remains a classy, friendly old slice of downtown Vancouver history: a 1910 arts-and-crafts bungalow on a leafy street just yards from Main Street. It’s got a covered porch, brick columns and other vintage touches. The sisters “manifested” this ideal site, they said, by sketching it on a piece of paper and watching it magically appear before their eyes.

But the property faces a true deadline. When Wattle Tree moved in, it took on a month-to-month lease while the whole six-parcel block was for sale — and not long after, it sold. The new owner plans total redevelopment of the block: 96 apartments in two new buildings, plus 43 parking spaces. This past summer, everything on the block was razed except the Wattle Tree bungalow, which is now surrounded by cyclone fences and vacant spaces. Wattle Tree Place faces an Oct. 31 deadline to get out.

Everybody knows that downtown Vancouver needs affordable housing, the sisters concede, but doesn’t it also need a grass-roots, one-of-a-kind business with soul? Even Vancouver’s Downtown Association seems to think so; months before the real estate hammer came down, VDA named Wattle Tree Place its “Best New Business” for 2017.

Next manifestation

A “Save Wattle Tree” petition and a newspaper story about the problem are on display in Wattle Tree’s main parlor. The sisters say they’ve brought their predicament to everyone from sympathetic downtown landlords and developers to Vancouver’s mayor and community development department. But nothing has seemed like the precisely right fit for their spiritually oriented, outside-the-box establishment. At the moment, there’s still no concrete escape plan for Wattle Tree Place. The sisters — one of whom now has another pressing priority — are hunting for viable real estate while the clock ticks.

They may settle, temporarily, for a commercial storefront on Main Street, Wegecsanyi said — even though that wouldn’t provide all the private nooks and crannies for Wattle Tree activities like massage therapy and counseling, and it sure couldn’t contain the crowds Wattle Tree sometimes draws for group meditations and drum circles. But a conventional storefront might be a stepping stone to what comes next, they figure.

A historic mansion like the city of Vancouver’s gorgeous, spacious old Slocum House might be a better fit — but its location in Esther Short Park, the city’s highly trafficked “living room,” means no separation for children and moms who spend hours hanging out in Wattle Tree’s current backyard oasis. Wattle Tree might be just a little quirky for the most prominent spot in town, the sisters concede.

Did You Know?

What’s a wattle? Acacia pycnantha, otherwise known as the golden wattle, is a tree native to southeastern Australia. It grows fuzzy golden flowers in late winter and spring that are called mimosas in Europe; it’s a treasured source of wood, aboriginal food and folk medicine in Australia, where it was named the official “floral emblem” in 1988. Native Australians Anna Phillips and Sophie Wegecsanyi say the business name Wattle Tree Place is the perfect symbol of their homeland’s healing and hospitality.

The sisters are trying to manifest a surprising dream about five miles to the east of Wattle Tree’s current digs, in a neighborhood that’s nothing like downtown: the Jane Weber Evergreen Arboretum, a uniquely historic and under-utilized greenspace. The arboretum is 7 acres of sloping greenery that rolls down from the 9100 block of Old Evergreen Highway to the Columbia River waterfront; it’s the site of one of Clark County’s original, historical structures, the 1867 home of settler John Stanger. The Stanger home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, but it’s basically abandoned and in desperate need of rehabilitation.

The property’s backstory gets deeply shaggy: In the 1950s, it was purchased by Dr. Vinson Weber, a dentist and teacher at Clark College, and his wife, Jane, a teacher with Vancouver Public Schools. They built a new home uphill on the site, closer to the street — an angular, “mod” structure that Kelly Punteney, a trustee and former caretaker, has long wanted to see demolished. It’s not really compatible with the land’s history and the old Stanger home, he has long argued.

But the Wattle Tree sisters see possibilities for both sagging structures, they said. A pottery studio. Retail spaces. A restaurant. Lots of private space for massage and spiritual matters. And, of course, the acreage outside is ideal for drumming, dancing and communing with nature. (Nighttime drum circles don’t take place that often at Wattle Tree, Wegecsanyi pointed out; normally the place closes down in the late afternoon.)

There’s another interesting aspect of the arboretum grounds that frankly thrills the sisters: Jane and Vinson Weber are both buried there. That was a clever parting-shot strategy to make sure the place never got redeveloped as anything other than a nonprofit, educational institution. The property was donated to Clark College, but Clark no longer wants it; according to Punteney, it’s soon to be transferred to an independent, nonprofit board of trustees — who will still insist on an educational, environmental mission, he said.

Can the Evergreen Arboretum become Wattle Tree Place? The sisters believe the two missions overlap, and they feel cautiously optimistic about it after an initial conversation with the arboretum board of trustees. But Punteney, contacted last week, said the idea is news to him.

Look for more news about Wattle Tree to manifest in the weeks to come. “We dream big,” Wegecsanyi said.