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Rising above Calgary’s recently rebuilt Fire Station No. 6 is a mixed-use development that includes market housing, affordable housing and office and retail space. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
Rising above Calgary’s recently rebuilt Fire Station No. 6 is a mixed-use development that includes market housing, affordable housing and office and retail space. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

Sometimes a fire hall is more than a fire hall Add to ...

Can affordable housing co-exist with a working fire station?

The city of Vancouver, with its proposal to build a fire hall with 29 new, low-cost rental units on the existing site of East 54th Street’s Fire Hall No. 5, certainly thinks so.

While a fire hall is not always synonymous with home sweet home – except of course, for firefighters and the occasional Ghostbuster – it has been elevated to a certain residential aesthetic over the past decade.

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With trendy firehouse conversions taking their cue from Manhattan readaptations of historical buildings (the Ghostbusters abode was actually Tribeca’s Hook and Ladder No. 8, which in the film was closed due to budget cuts and in real life was only saved by 11th-hour community opposition), many a condo dweller can now enjoy the vicarious thrill of having a living room with a pole running through it.

The Firehouse Condo project in Brooklyn houses seven units in a space where Engine Company 219 used to respond to emergencies, and in Fort Greene, 31 Felix St. went from firefighting to equity building for a lucky few owners.

Even reality TV has caught on to the trend, with Snooki and Jwoww – characters in a Jersey Shore spinoff – living in a converted fire house on Mercer Street in Jersey City – complete with a dangling rope swing.

In Halifax, the 1904-built No. 4 fire station closed in 1969 to become a restaurant and office space including the current home of Mac Interior Design Inc.

But across the Atlantic in Manchester, England, the old London Road Fire Station – a listed 1906 heritage building that once also housed a police station, ambulance station, bank, coroner’s court and gas-meter testing station, as well as housing for firemen and their families – offers a cautionary conversion tale. Maintenance costs shut the fire station down in the dog days of Thatcherism, and it still remains unused, mired in unsuccessful development proposals, including one for a hotel and residential tower that was never approved.

So the city of Vancouver’s proposal is not entirely without precedent. But it is one of only a few new purpose-built firehouses that also have a residential component.

While the city is playing coy about the final design, and a link on its website only reveals minimal architectural information about the proposed new development, former city planner Brent Toderian says that it is based on a Calgary prototype.

In Calgary, where rezoning allowed historic fire hall No. 4 to be converted into a single-family dwelling more than a decade ago, a shiny new residential tower, completed in 2010, rises up from the new Fire Station No. 6, perhaps a “heated” Calgarian take on the Vancouverist tower and podium.

Since the fire station and its new 12-storey affordable-housing and 21-storey market-housing towers, designed by GEC Architecture, are located across from the Bow River and the station also houses the Aquatics Rescue Dive team, it’s certainly become one of the city’s iconic structures.

Previous Calgary mayor Dave Bronconnier touted the project – a public-private partnership between La Caille Development and the city – as a response to both Calgary’s anticipated 61-per-cent increase in the downtown residential population and much needed new infrastructure.

Mr. Toderian, Vancouver’s former director of planning who now works as a consultant, champions the idea of building a similar project in Vancouver. (As does developer Michael Geller, who says that “conceptually it’s a good idea. I hope it succeeds.”)

Mr. Toderian hails it as part of a “typical Vancouver approach to look for new ways to mix things. We’ve been good at this for a long time – combining things that are not necessarily intuitively mixable; housing with light industrial use [Jim Cheng-designed] condos on top of a Costco, apartments and car lots – blending things that tend to be typically stand-alone use. This is an extension of that tradition.”

The proposed 20,000-square-foot project will consist of a 7,000-square-foot, grade-level fire hall, on top of which a three-storey, wood-framed housing structure will be built. The $6-million housing component will include 11 one-bedroom, 600-square-foot suites, as well as 18 400-square-foot bachelors, connected to grade level by an elevator and two stairwells.

Mr. Toderian adds, “There’s nothing inherently incompatible between a fire station and housing. Our automatic association is that fire is dangerous, but a fire hall is the safest place in the city.

“If you have to build a new fire hall, why not include new housing? People live above shops, churches and libraries, so why not a firehouse?”

According to an initial fire-hall housing and massing study by JDA Architects commissioned by the city and published on the city’s website, floor plans consist of six bachelor suites book-ended by larger one bedrooms. All suites have balconies.

An initial drawing shows a series of cubed bases connected to the three storeys of housing by an oblong rectangular shaft that contains an elevator; a gathering of modernist boxes delineated by different colours, indentations and reveals. Think modern-family fire hall.

For the city’s director of social development, Jim Dehoop, it’s a natural combination. “Public safety services need to be located where people reside, so fire halls need to be in residential areas.”

Any concerns about noise issues, he says, are mitigated by the same fire-hall protocol in place in other residential areas of the city, namely that “fire services not activate sirens until they reach major arterial roads.”

Mr. Dehoop notes that the site itself is “in a good location for combining multiple uses – public safety and affordable housing – because it’s near Killarney Community Centre, a school and a shopping centre, and near a major arterial with bus routes.”

Noting an existing fire hall with a library on top of it at 12th and Granville, Mr. Dehoop emphasizes that a key design priority will be to “optimize livability and ensure compatibility with fire-hall usage.”

The city is still involved in requesting proposals from potential affordable-housing operators, but Mr. Dehoop affirms that based on past experience, “the earliest you can get end-users involved, the better the design.”

The concept of multiple uses on a single site is one that “does work,” he says, adding that “potential barriers can be dealt with through the design process.”

When it comes to scarce public assets, he contends, “The more spread out the land use, the more separate you make them. Combining uses is much more cost-effective.”

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