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October 14, 2019

A Landmark for Tomorrow

A dream for the Rossdale power plant.

Squandering prime real estate in the heart of downtown, the Rossdale power plant presently sits without a purpose or a plan. It’s a dreary, vacant wasteland, closed off to the public, dotted with no trespassing signs.

But imagine, a sign that reads, No. 2 Pumping Station, with an image of steaming coffee drawn above it. Inside is a cafe where people cradle their coffees and watch swimmers delight in a distant hot spring located right on the River Valley. When you walk outside, you’ll pass a bistro on the right while a gondola hangs overhead. Skaters dance on the rink out front, while others head inside with towels under their arms, ready to go for their swims.

Obviously, this is not how the plant functions today. But it’s a glimpse of the building’s future potential. In an attempt to create a destination for tomorrow, a local intern-architect proposed blueprints of this community space. But he had a lot with which to contend.

Over the last year, debate erupted over whether or not the building should be torn down. The Rossdale ReGeneration Community Group (RRCG) – a body of artists, architects, politicians and other passionate citizens – formed to find solutions to preserve and re-use the plant. Some of its members represent large historical organizations as well, since the site was designated a provincial historic resource site in 2001. 

And while the property is currently owned by EPCOR, the city – in an effort to resolve the issue –  is eyeing to take the plant over. In late August, Edmonton City Council agreed to meet with interested parties and look at potential future plans for the plant.

One such plan already exists, however, and it turned many heads earlier this year.

Michael Zabinski, an Edmontonian who spent the last six years studying architecture at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, created the award-winning proposal. Zabinski graduated with his Master’s of Architecture in April after presenting his final thesis – a series of innovative designs reinventing Edmonton’s Rossdale power plant.

Zabinski received a student medal for his thesis from the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada. His project, Generating an Oasis: Architecture for Climatic Engagement for a Northern City was a plan for transforming the dated, Rossdale landmark into an energy-efficient, globally competitive, cultural hub. Zabinski desired to restore the structure’s vibrancy and “open it up to the people, to the city and to the winter.”

Looking at leading winter cities around the world, he noticed how Sapporo, Japan, Copenhagen, Denmark and Helsinki, Finland use thermal design strategies to contrast cold climates. As far back as ancient Rome, bathhouses have been a place for social engagement – the same is true today at Japanese baths and Finnish saunas.

His plans include a thermal year-round bath that connects with natural elements inside and outside the plant. “By adding a single element – water – people can actively swim through the industrial richness of the building,” says Zabinski. Pointing out how public swimming already flourishes in Edmonton, he thought his idea could add to the scene.

 The thermal bath would flow through 40 per cent of the building, from the boiler and turbine halls, into an outside space overlooking the river valley. The indoor bath would reside on the lower level of the plant, allowing spectators to look down from floors above. Stone-pit fires create areas for people to gather for comfort and conversation before or after a swim. Aside from pleasure, Zabinski knows the plant needs to generate profit as well.

“Using an entire plant for a purely socially enjoyable use, that’s not totally feasible,” says Zabinski. Former city councillor and current member of the RRCG, Michael Phair would have to agree. Having been inside, he says it is a mammoth building.

“It’s the length of three football fields and about eight stories tall,” says Phair. “So when you think about what it will be in the future, my guess is it will not be just one thing but a number of things – maybe public and private space.”

Suggesting a possible hotel to create profit, Zabinski also looked at using geothermal energy to fuel the plant. While developing his thesis, Zabinski worked for Dialog – the interdisciplinary firm in Edmonton. There, he collected advice from mechanical engineers – and Doug Carlyle, an urban planner who had previously worked on the site – about geothermal infrastructure. Zabinski now works at Dialog post-graduation.

“It’s new in development and requires a lot of money up front since you have to drill so far down to make it happen, but the payoff is that it’s always going to be there,” says Zabinski. 

“For every kilometre of drilled depth, you get a 30 degree Celsius rise in temperature, allowing you to get a lot from a single well.”

Even though Edmonton isn’t located in a thermally rich region of the world, advanced drilling technologies make the process possible. The site’s location is ideally situated near a water treatment facility and an electrical switch yard, which are important resources for production.

His calculations regarding exactly how much energy the plant could generate requires further research but, at the very least, it could power the site and the West Rossdale neighbourhood.

Blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor extremes, Zabinski toyed with a technique called faade extraction. He removed pieces of the wall and pulled parts of the perimeter outwards to open up the space and challenge what we consider shelter. “It’s like a front porch,” says Zabinski. “You couldn’t wear just a T-shirt, it’s not like pedways or West Edmonton Mall, where it’s a purely climate-controlled thing.” 

Instead of doorways, wide pathways wind in and out of the plant. These pathways are parts of the grand plan to better connect the site to the surrounding area. Taking the smokestacks off the top of the building, he relocated them to the river valley trails to create warming huts.

It comes down to accessibility and connectivity. Zabinski envisioned a destination where people can enjoy a day off work, go on a date or spend time with family. He allocated space for endless recreational activities including markets, restaurants, cafes, patios and skating rinks.

The blueprints built on the $35-million urban gondola idea discussed by the municipal government. It features a gondola swing going from the end of 104th Street down into the plant. Zabinski mentioned how it could be similar to the Forks in Winnipeg – a lively hub perched on river banks in the city centre.

Like the Forks, the Rossdale plant rests on aboriginal burial grounds and gathering spaces. In order to develop the Forks, which now sees four million visitors a year, planners and representatives from the aboriginal community allocated a reburial space. Phair believes, whatever the building becomes, it should have an aboriginal component to highlight the history of the area. 

As ideas surface for Rossdale, such as it becoming an art gallery, museum, condo or office space, the building still requires a lot of work. “Just to make sure the walls are stable, including windows which are triple-pane, plus heat and water, it’s going to cost $60 to $80 million,” says Phair.

No one proposal will determine the future of Rossdale, but it’s an architect’s job to show a city what is possible. “I think everything I proposed is doable, its just a matter of a lot of investment, will and passion to get it done,” says Zabinski. 

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