To Protect and Preserve

When a landmark building faces possible destruction, developer John Day gives heritage sites their second lives.

John Day’s name may not ring a bell, but his impact on the city is evident every time you see the glowing marquee of the Garneau Theatre (now Metro Cinema) – his most recent heritage building redevelopment.

The revamped block testifies to the sweat equity Day has put into revitalizing other notable city structures, such as his initial venture just a few blocks southeast. “My first redevelopment project was one I was sort of forced into,” he says about Main on Whyte, the three-storey building on the corner of 104th Street and 82nd Avenue. “Because of the area’s zoning and parking requirements, we ended up having to demolish the property and start from scratch.”

Day, a former real-estate lawyer, opted not only to repurpose the property, but also restore it.  “Three historic buildings had stood there previously. I wanted whatever was built as its replacement to match the character and ambiance of that historical area of town.

Since 2003, maintaining and enhancing the authenticity of landmark buildings has become Day’s modus operandi. In a city with a reputation for destroying the old to make room for the new, his reimaging of the Old Hub Cigar building on Whyte, Cecil Place on Jasper Avenue and the Garneau Block has proven Day to be both a smart developer and a believer in preserving the city’s heritage.

“The community has an interest in these developments, as does the city and the public,” says Day. “I have no illusions that I can do these projects by myself. I don’t think that there has ever been a project I’ve worked on that hasn’t been made better because of someone else’s idea or contribution.”

Day’s newest blueprint attempts to restore the Kelly-Ramsey Block on Rice Howard Way – two buildings, from 1914 and 1927 respectively, gutted by suspected arson fire two years ago. The property sat on the market for several months. In early 2010, following a drop in the selling price and discussions with the City about the property’s potential viability, Day purchased the Block.

While plans for the buildings’ end use – retail or office space – are still in the works, consultations with the City’s historical planners allowed for preserving their historical facades. “Basically we’ll take the structure down and start again, but with one big proviso: We will take the south and east faades down, piece by piece, have them catalogued and photographed extensively by a historical architect. And then once the new building is complete, we’ll reassemble the walls exactly as they were,” says Day.

“That’s part of the uniqueness of the property. It’s a wonderful location in the heart of the city. Having seen a lot of buildings knocked down in the city, and watching the downtown really suffer through some difficult times, the extent to which these buildings can be kept or enhanced feels better than demolishing something or putting up a parking lot.”

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