I’ve lived in the El Mirador apartments for 10 years. A whitewashed complex with Spanish flair in the heart of downtown—the buildings are impossible to miss. What most Edmontonians don’t see is the courtyard, a unique space where residents have created a sense of community that’s unusual for apartment dwellers. We have communal barbecues and we relax together under the spruce tree on hot afternoons. Sometimes the courtyard draws strange visitors, but one neighbour with a great vantage point acts as de facto building security.
However a sense of dread has always hung over us. How much longer can a modest three-storey building hold its ground in a rapidly revitalizing neighbourhood? The answer came in late November when we learned that the owner’s representatives had met with the Downtown Edmonton Community League to discuss future redevelopment. They’re currently in the pre-application stage for rezoning several adjacent lots on 101 Ave. and 108 St., including the 75-year-old Rochester Apartments, a small brick building next door. If approved by city council, redevelopment will mean bulldozing our homes and replacing them with mixed-use retail and residential towers.
The owner, developer and lawyer John Day, is celebrated for rehabbing and reinventing such heritage buildings as the Garneau Theatre and Kelly Ramsey. But there are no such plans for El Mirador, which sits on Capital Boulevard, the recently revamped street between the Alberta Legislature Building and MacEwan University. Property owners in the area are sitting on veritable gold mines, so it’s hard to blame anyone for wanting to redevelop, but tearing down El Mirador means yet another loss for the city’s architectural tapestry.
Edmonton seems to have the same debate every year. A historical structure is threatened; there’s public outcry. Sometimes the building is saved, like the McDougall United Church in late 2015. Many times, it’s demolished, like the 117-year-old Etzio building on Whyte Ave., which earned a spot on the National Trust for Canada’s “worst losses” list last year. These historical buildings tell stories about the city and its communities. They are part of our shared memory, but they’re also owned by people with very real property rights. Their existence is precariously balanced between public and private interests. The question is: When does one outweigh the other?
El Mirador has been part of the city’s landscape for 80 years. According to documents in the City of Edmonton archives, a building permit for R. H. Trouth was approved in July 1935, and he built the first 12 suites by the end of the year. Subsequent permits allowed Trouth to build more suites and the Patricia Annex, which was completed in 1954.
The apartment complex is listed on the city’s Inventory of Historic Resources, a classification that offers little protection for the building; it’s simply an acknowledgement of the building’s historical significance. Owners of inventoried buildings can apply to have their properties added to Edmonton’s Register of Historic Resources and, if approved, the buildings are officially designated and owners agree to maintain them and protect them from demolition. In exchange for choosing to designate their buildings, owners can receive financial incentives. This official designation was crucial to saving the Molson Brewery and United McDougall Church.
Edmonton allocates $1.5 million per year to its Heritage Reserve Fund, which is primarily used for rehabbing buildings new to the registry. The department receives about six applications for historical designation per year, each one vying for a piece of this very modest fund.
Heritage guidelines vary across Canada, but Alberta’s Municipal Heritage Partnership Program assesses properties by looking at their eligibility, significance and integrity. With rare exceptions, properties must be at least 50 years old and in their original locations. Historical significance can come from the people or groups that once occupied the building, activities performed in it, or its design. Above all, says the City’s principal heritage planner David Johnston: integrity is key. Do most of the original building materials remain? Have significant changes been made to the structure? Was the original construction up to snuff? If the answers are no, it’s enough to sink a beautiful old building with an important story.
Even if buildings meet these requirements, many owners aren’t interested in designation, which becomes permanent on the property title and transferable to every owner thereafter. Some owners worry that such an inflexible property could be very hard to sell when the time comes. Beyond that, it has to be maintained to the City’s standards.
Two of my friends in El Mirador have a shabby piece of plywood reinforcing their bathroom ceiling, and they still experience the occasional leak when their upstairs neighbour takes a bath. My windows don’t open all the way. Each winter, the heating fails at least once or twice, and some apartments are icy-cold until April. Each issue can be seen as yet another disincentive for designation.
Upgrading and maintenance are easier— and cheaper—said than done. However, once an owner chooses to officially register a building, the City attempts to balance the financial scales. Rehabilitation grants for residential buildings cover up to half of approved costs to a limit of $75,000, and owners can apply for $10,000 for maintenance every five years thereafter. There are some things the grants won’t cover, like heating or electrical upgrades. But apartments like El Mirador are technically commercial properties and, as such, they are eligible for more generous grants. The City contributed $225,000 to the Phillips Lofts building, $260,000 to Westminster Apartments and $548,000 to the McLeod Building, according to Johnston.
Former historian laureate Shirley Lowe doesn’t express much sympathy for owners who argue that their buildings have fallen too far into disrepair to be salvaged. In some cases, lack of maintenance is intentional — “demolition by neglect,” she calls it. “Usually the reason you want to demolish it is because you can reap a reward, an immediate reward, perhaps at the expense of the community.” The only thing that matters to most developers is a cost comparison of upgrading a building versus tearing it down to build anew. In strictly economic terms, the answer is rarely in favour of the former, so long as city council approves rezoning the site. Once zoning changes, explains Johnston, property owners have a “massive economic opportunity sitting in their lap. … They can sell the land with this additional opportunity now enshrined.”
City council has to balance many interests, and sometimes those priorities are in conflict. Infill and density in the core are important goals, but they don’t necessarily align with historical preservation, as demonstrated by the fate of El Mirador. Upzoning—changing the zoning to allow for larger structures or retail space—is a significant barrier to saving heritage buildings. “And every time we do that,” says Johnston, “it’s just another death blow to our ability to try to retain these historic buildings.” And while the costs of maintaining a historical building can be significant, there can also be an economic benefit, says Dan Rose of Heritage Forward and member of the Edmonton Historical Board. Rose offers the example of 104 St., which was practically derelict 15 years ago. “You can basically quantify the value of historic character based on the foot traffic, the retail spending, the economic activity of Old Strathcona and 104 St,” says Rose (who is also involved in the Yards and OCL).
Despite its beautiful street renovations, Capital Boulevard isn’t exactly Whyte Ave. or 104 St., so what will happen to El Mirador? If it’s demolished, the planned redevelopment will consist of two mixed-use high-rises on three-storey pedestals—similar to owner John Day’s new Kelly Ramsey Tower—and 276 underground parking spaces. Day, like many councillors and people living within the core neighbourhoods, is a champion of density. His two towers, alongside two more proposed towers on the adjacent land owned by Maclab Enterprises, would each be up to 90 metres and could ultimately add 800 units, perhaps doing for the street what the Icon Towers did for 104 St.
Historical buildings often lose out to new developments; their chances are even worse when the proposals tout principles from Edmonton’s planning documents, like increased downtown residents and street-level retail. Ultimately, when it comes to heritage preservation, Lowe says we need to ask ourselves one question: “As a city, do we care?”
El Mirador has been living on borrowed time for decades. According to an Edmonton Journal article from August 1978, the landlord at the time told the paper, “I don’t think El Mirador will be around in 10 years. It may be even shorter.” The building’s existence was precarious then for the same reason it is now: the land would be even more valuable with something bigger built on it. While bylaws and zoning influence the city’s development, market forces have shaped Edmonton’s urban fabric since its inception, and the oil industry’s peaks and valleys have been imprinted on our cityscape over the last half-century. “The booms have quite often taken the buildings that were significant,” says Lawrence Herzog, who co-authored The Life of a Neighbourhood: A History of Edmonton’s Oliver District with Shirley Lowe.
Even Herzog seems surprised that El Mirador has lasted. He attributes its longevity to its place on the western edge of downtown, away from much of the past demolition in the city centre. In the last decade, however, development has spread outward from the downtown core, putting the building in the path of the wrecking ball. But demolitions also tend to be put on hold during busts, so El Mirador may be given a reprieve.
“The economy has obviously slowed down, so I think it’s going to slow down a lot of projects,” says John Day. It could be four to five years until redevelopment is underway—if ever. But that doesn’t change his mind on salvaging the building; he insists some sort of redevelopment is inevitable.
It’s unsurprising, but saddening for me to hear this confirmation. El Mirador is Edmonton’s only example of this architectural style.
Our city hasn’t always done a good job of preserving its heritage buildings, but there’s a change in the atmosphere, says Herzog. Young adults are promoting awareness about our heritage and Baby Boomers are growing nostalgic. And that, he hopes, will be true of property owners too. “If the sole motivation is to flip or to make money, then historic buildings are always going to lose,” he says. “But if owners have got a motivation to preserve a landmark, to leave a legacy, to do right by the community, to make the tapestry of the block stronger by doing their part [and] taking care of their property, then there’s more pride connected to that.”
Few apartment residents are as proud as El Mirador’s, and our sense of community is by design. The courtyard is a central gathering place and our windows face our neighbours, not a street or a parking lot. When I first visited the building at 17 years old, I sat on the floor of my apartment, hoping desperately that my rental application would be accepted. I still smile when I walk up to the building and someone excitedly asks if I live here. It’s an irreplaceable feeling.
The Endangered List: Four Beautiful Buildings That Might Be Doomed
10233 Jasper Ave.
The National Trust for Canada considers the dormant cinema, built in 1951, at risk, and rumours about its doom have been swirling in the news for two years. With a lease sign up again, don’t expect ProCura’s plans for a glass residential tower anytime soon.
The Royal Alberta Museum
12845 102 Ave.
Nothing proves our disposable outlook on architecture more than the fact that mere months after the museum moved out of its original home, a Provincial report stating possible demolition emerged. The National Trust for Canada listed it as one of Canada’s top 10 endangered buildings in May.
The Graphic Arts Building
9523 Jasper Ave.
The quaint art-deco commercial building was hotly debated because the owner slated to demolish it was none other than the City of Edmonton itself. It’s now seeking a buyer or considering dismantling and storing the building for future reconstruction.
The Rochester Apartments
10125 108 St.
El Mirador’s brick neighbour (built c. 1941) is also owned by John Day and part of the same plan to construct mixed-use towers on Capital Boulevard. —Staff