Proposal for mixed-use tower on site of historic Whyte Avenue building garners pushback

·4 min read

A proposal to knock down a historic commercial building in Old Strathcona to make way for a residential tower is causing consternation among residents keen to preserve the neighbourhood's historic character.

Calgary-based Wexford Developments proposes to build a nine- to 11-storey mixed-use building called The Baron on the corner of 105th Street and Whyte Avenue.

The site is currently occupied by the Archibald Block, home to the gift shop When Pigs Fly.

Built in 1909, the single-storey brick structure is on the city's inventory of historic resources, but it isn't currently protected from demolition.

The building is significant for its association with the early commercial growth of the area, its unique transitional style of architecture, and its connection to Strathcona's early Arabic-speaking immigrant community.

From 1912 through 1928, the Archibald Block was home to Morie & Co. Confectioners. The business was owned and operated by the Morie family, who immigrated to Canada in 1901 from what is now Lebanon.

"We're losing a historic building if this goes ahead, which is part of what makes Whyte what it is," said Coun. Ben Henderson.

Monday (Dec. 21) is the final day for the public to submit feedback on the proposal. A zoning application is expected to go before city council in 2021.

In November, the provincial government directed the property owner to conduct a historic resource impact assessment prior to any changes being made to the property, including demolition.

The process will look at physical elements of the building and its condition, and will also assess how the building could be retained or incorporated into future redevelopment.

The Strathcona Area Redevelopment Plan dictates that buildings within the core area of Strathcona should not be taller than four storeys.

5,000 square feet of commercial space

Wexford Developments wants a rezoning to allow a building of nine to 11 storeys with 65 residential units and up to 5,000 square feet of commercial space at street level.

The company declined an interview request from CBC Edmonton.

On its website, Wexford said the building would have a two-storey podium with rental suites on the upper seven storeys.

The Baron would be constructed using mass timber construction, Wexford says. The method uses wood and fire-resistant glue to create a strong and light building material.

"This will be the first true mass timber building in Alberta and we hope to make it a cornerstone not just on Whyte Avenue but in Edmonton and the province," Wexford says on its website. "It will be a beacon of sustainability and showcase the future of building in Canada."

Wexford built the six-storey Raymond Block, completed in 2019, that sits on the south side of Whyte Avenue, across from where The Baron would be constructed.

The difference between the developments is the Raymond Block was built on the previously contaminated site of a former gas station that had long been a sore spot for the city, Henderson said.

Henderson said the main issue with The Baron is that it would contradict the findings of the planWhyte land use study, completed in 2018, which surveyed Old Strathcona businesses and residents about how best to balance development with the neighbourhood's heritage. The results confirmed a desire to maintain a four-storey height limit.

Henderson said he's received emails from Old Strathcona residents concerned with the proposal, particularly because it disregards the survey so soon after it was completed.

David Ridley, executive director of the Edmonton Heritage Council, echoed Henderson's concerns.

Allowing the new development would undermine community engagement, Ridley said, and furthererodethe neighbourhood's character.

"The future of Old Strathcona as an area that is importantly rooted in heritage, as a place where Edmontonians appreciate gathering, is at stake," said Ridley, who was interviewed on CBC's Edmonton AM on Monday.

Ridley said the heritage council isn't against all development but wants to see properties that fall within the community's existing parameters.

'Huge loss of heritage'

Maureen Duguay, an Old Strathcona resident who played an active role on planWhyte, stressed the importance of the historic area of Whyte Avenue and the four-storey height limit on new development.

The Baron is a fine development but it doesn't belong on Whyte, Duguay said.

Each one of the neighbourhood's historic buildings is of value and together they tell an important story , she said.

"When you take one building out of this zone, then you are taking away the context of the history. And that's what's so important about this development," Duguay said.

"The [area redevelopment plan] has been modified from that public engagement. It has just been modified, and to change it now would be a broken promise. And a huge loss of heritage would happen there."