In on the Ground Floor

Dialog architects bring streetwise aesthetics to three projects that will spur conversation about design in Edmonton for years to come.

The strange thing about architecture is that, despite its relative permanence, it’s a social experiment. As a building is raised, pretty as it may be, so is a big, ugly question: Will it have a lasting positive influence on the urban environment?

Educated guesses and years of training aside, no one knows until it’s built. Donna Clare, however, as principal and architect at Dialog, believes success depends largely on the way it meets the street. “The first 20 feet of a building are incredibly important,” says Clare.

Once – particularly downtown – such a statement would have ended with “for protecting people inside against the cold.” Block-length stretches of impermeable concrete and glass, a common Edmonton streetscape, are stalwart guardians against discomfort. And fun. As Clare puts it, they don’t “feed the life of the street” by attracting, engaging and giving reasons to return. For that you need shops, cafes and, well, doors.

Today, Dialog, the firm responsible for the Winspear Centre interior, the new control tower at the international airport and now part of the arena design team, is attempting to reanimate sidewalks with three major projects: Rice Howard Way’s Kelly Ramsey building, Oliver’s brewery district and the new Royal Alberta Museum.

Each represents so dire a need for urban renewal as to seem like civic obligation. Clare, an award-winning architect who has spent most of her career in the city, feels it. “It’s a huge responsibility,” she says. “We need to get this right.”

Here’s how they’ll try.

Out of the ashes

There’s some of the phoenix myth in the story of the Kelly Ramsey block. Gutted by an intentionally set fire in 2009, the neighbouring, early 20th century brick and limestone buildings are ready to rise from their ashes on Rice Howard Way as a 21-storey office and commercial complex.

Apart from the glass tower, which will be set back from the reconstructed ground floor, the design will use the old bricks, dismantled and stored during digging for an underground parkade. The faade, which will wrap around to 101st Street, will be reassembled according to original drawings – found intact but for charred edges in a cardboard box. Clare made the discovery as she walked through the damaged building with developer John Day.

Those drawings may spark a broader rejuvenation. “Your perception of Rice Howard Way is that it’s this great part of our city,” says Clare. “It never lived up to what was in people’s heads.” For a cobbled lane with restricted traffic, that image might be a quaint entertainment district. Apart from a few restaurants and pubs, however, the Way is dominated by a parkade, the granite fortress that is Scotia Place, and now the architectural equivalent of a mulligan.

The do-over pleases Robert Geldart, principal heritage planner for the city, which allocated $1.7 million for restoration work on the block that, a century back, hosted the busy Ramsey department store.

“It’s one of the few heritage buildings we have left downtown,” he says. The purist in him would rather the building was left standing than rebuilt, but he’s excited about the life it may bring to the area. “We want to keep that commercial viability on Rice Howard Way.” Or at least return it to circa-1920 levels.

Connectivity issues

Jarrett Campbell, president of the Oliver Community League, isn’t as excited about the Dialog project in his neighbourhood, even if the land directly north of 104th Avenue, once occupied by the Molson brewery and a car dealership, is about to go from barren to bustling.

By the end of 2015, the century-old brewery buildings, with the four-storey “beer castle” reinvented in glass-and-brick, will house office space and likely a restaurant. The rest of the roughly 11 acres between 118th and 121st streets will service what Campbell disappointedly labels a “strip mall” – one he feels is cut off from his community. 

“If you’re walking to the site [from Oliver],” he explains, “you have to walk around the building and in.” At the time of writing, designs showed no doors facing 104th Avenue, which lies about 21 metres from the closest buildings. Instead, they face the 400-stall parking lot (there’s another 600 spots underground) at the heart of the site. “That’s not a pedestrian-oriented development,” says Campbell.

As a real estate consultant, Campbell doesn’t fault Dialog or the developer, First Capital Realty. It’s business.

First Capital has confirmed that the City of Edmonton’s Scott Mackie, who managed the planning department that greenlighted the development, has been named in a lawsuit launched by Campbell. But the developer feels that the community league doesn’t speak for the community at large.

Ralph Huizinga, First Capital’s vice president, acquisitions and development for Western Canada, says that his firm reached out to condo associations throughout Oliver, as well as the seniors’ residence near the project.

“We know that the seniors were very supportive of the project, and they have more residents than the community league has members. We feel that Mr. Campbell speaks for a very small minority of residents in the area.”

Darrell Halliwell, managing principal of Dialog’s Edmonton office, sees the project as the first stage of evolution for this and the surrounding area. “It will be the right thing for the community and the site, but it’s going to take time,” he says.

In addition to filling a gaping urban hole (possibly with high-density residential once the market demands it or the LRT arrives – but the train’s running about 20 years behind), he believes it will have an aesthetic ripple effect, raising area standards. Though the old-world features of the brewery may be somewhat obscured by glass, the developer wants its charm and the quality of materials to be reflected by the entire site.

“They want a sense of permanence, a sense of historic character,” says Halliwell, “a sense of belonging to the community.”

Campbell will likely continue to debate the latter, even while the city claims that many in this community – one of Edmonton’s densest – look forward to a quicker trip to the grocery store. Based on looks alone, however, “As a suburban development it’s done relatively well,” he concedes. “It’s better than what is there now.

The unpredictable child

If, as Clare suggests, “designing a building is probably like raising a child,” the Royal Alberta Museum was a difficult birth. Clare and her team won the bid for the job when it was to be rebuilt in Glenora, lost it when the provincial government decided in 2006 to move it downtown, then beat international competition to reclaim the job.

“The museum has been my life for the past 10 years,” she says. “By the time it’s built, it will be one-third of my career.”

Despite her dedication, the design was criticized by peers as conservative. For a design-build like this, in which the builder rather than client contracts a designer, that’s not uncommon. “They have to be more cost-conscious, so the easiest thing to do is sacrifice design aspects,” explains Kevin Porter, chair of the environmental design technology program at NAIT. “It’s the process that limits.”

The building balances innovation with restraint. “There’s no challenging the status quo,” says Porter (whose program – full disclosure – benefits from scholarships from Dialog), but he likes how it plays with Edmonton’s modernist traditions. The hard lines and stone walls that defined the city for decades are back, but at times cleverly exaggerated. Parts of the second floor, for example, challenge gravity by jutting far out over the main floor – one cantilever extending enough to make the museum visible from the Art Gallery of Alberta and thereby anchoring a new cultural corridor. Porter would like to have seen more such features throughout the building.

The museum isn’t bold like the star-chitecture of the AGA, but it’s radical compared to what was. The Glenora building – squat, boxy, its front door virtually hidden – was a vault, protecting more than 10 million artifacts (including Clare’s initial museum design). The new one is a 37,100-square-metre display case, with much of its ground floor glass-walled and accessible without a ticket.

And visible in unexpected ways. To combat the long nights of our northern latitude, the museum will brighten a dingier corner of downtown with perforated, backlit panels. Like oversized Lite-Brites, they’ll show abstract images of Alberta – maps, the boreal forest, a prairie lightning storm.

“This may be more conservative,” says Porter, “but what’s within is more dominant.”

When the building opens in 2017 for the museum’s 50th anniversary, Clare hopes its design invites visitors to treat the space as part of an everyday downtown experience rather than an occasional destination. She knows, however, that she’ll have to wait and see whether she got it right.

“You never know how that child is going to turn out,” she says, returning to her parenting analogy. “You hope you’ve given it the structure that will serve it well, and you nurture it and feed it. Then one day you have to let it go. And it’s going to be what it’s going to be.”

Downtown’s Importance to Us

An arena. A new museum. More LRT access. The 104th Street renaissance. Downtown matters to Edmontonians.

In the 2014 survey, 89 per cent of respondents said it was desirable to live close to downtown; only 5.2 per cent put access to LRT as “undesirable.”

Only 3.1 per cent said they didn’t care that much about commute times, while just 2.1 per cent said that they didn’t care about a neighbourhood being pedestrian friendly.

Need more proof that Edmontonians crave an urban lifestyle over a suburban lifestyle?

Only 4.3 per cent of our survey respondents called a community where most of the homes are large “very desirable.” And 52 per cent called a community where most of the homes are large an “undesirable” place to live.

So, size does matter – as in, big isn’t necessarily better. 

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