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Mathew McLash is facing opposition to his plan to build a 16-storey mixed-use infill building just south of Whyte Avenue in Edmonton. (Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail)
Mathew McLash is facing opposition to his plan to build a 16-storey mixed-use infill building just south of Whyte Avenue in Edmonton. (Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail)

Edmonton developer’s Whyte Avenue proposal meets stiff opposition Add to ...

It takes a lot of chops as a developer to stand before Edmonton’s City Council and quote Henry Marshall Tory, the University of Alberta’s revered inaugural president. But that’s what Mathew McLash of the upstart infill company WestOak Development did last month to win hearts and minds for a 16-storey mixed-use building off the capital’s cultural hub, Whyte Avenue.

“The uplifting of the whole people shall be its final goal,” were the words the 41-year-old former lawyer opened with before launching into his pitch. In addition to 11 storeys of market-value apartments, he’s proposing four additional floors for affordable family housing backed by Habitat for Humanity, incubation offices for startups, abundant retail, a community theatre and possibly even a museum dedicated to the the world’s second largest fringe theatre festival, hosted by the Old Strathcona neighbourhood every August.

It’s a big idea, and in one key aspect, possibly too big. Mr. McLash’s plan to put a 16-storey project in a generally low-rise heritage zone has run into stiff opposition.

The development site – parcelled together from a church, a parking lot and a shoddy house – sits amid one of Canada’s largest inventories of first-generation buildings, an area of historical preservation implementing UNESCO guidelines. Mr. McLash’s building, the Mezzo, would stand out by standing tall: Since 1998, municipal bylaws have limited new building in the area to four storeys, unless it’s a hotel, which can be built to six.

“It was a long and hard discussion about what Strathcona was and what it’s going to be in the future,” said Shirley Lowe, a historian and member of the Old Strathcona Foundation, the advocacy group formed in the 1970s to stop a proposed freeway from destroying the main street. It succeeded in what Ms. Lowe calls Edmonton’s “Jane Jacobs moment,” then leveraged the historical architecture to turn the former derelict neighbourhood into Edmonton’s greatest urban asset.

The foundation, in collaboration with the city, formed strong guidelines on architecture and height that purposefully stifled redevelopment to preserve the character and keep spaces affordable for small businesses. According to a Cushman & Wakefield Retail report, the average cost per square foot on Whyte Avenue is $45, making it the most affordable high-street in the Americas. Opponents of the Mezzo, which includes the foundation, and some business-owners, fear it and subsequent towers would create a price surge untenable for the independent businesses that add to its character.

“Those buildings will go down like dominoes if you start up-zoning,” Ms. Lowe says. “You don’t mess with success.”

Mr. McLash counters that he’s trying to add to the cultural wealth of Whyte Ave. and the “greater good” of the city. “I’ve worked with lots of big developers who wouldn’t necessarily be seen as community-builders,” said Mr. McLash, who was previously an international deal-maker for Triple Five, the legendary creators of West Edmonton Mall and Mall of America.

His wife’s near fatal bout with a rare cancer prompted him to re-evaluate his career, he says. “There are certain catalysts in life that trigger you to do what makes you happy … I want to leave something my children can be proud of.”

Even his opponents have been impressed by his earnestness. “He has been the best developer that I’ve ever worked with, bar none,” said Murray Davison, executive director of the area business association. “He’s been upfront, he’s truthful, he’s laid everything out, every drawing and every iteration. He’s what I’d like every developer to be, but we just can’t support it.”

The Mezzo does have some support in several business-owners hoping his and subsequent towers will increase foot traffic, as well as people from the theatre community. “I’m confident that the Mezzo will add in a positive way to the cultural footprint of Old Strathcona,” said Jim McKillop of the Varscona Theatre, a historic venue currently under reconstruction.

For WestOak’s first and only project so far, which breaks ground in the Windsor Park neighbourhood this spring on a contaminated gas-station site, he offered an additional $100,000 for improvements to the neighbourhood’s aging playground in order to gain residents’ support on a 10-storey apartment building. In the end, it was Edmonton’s infill-friendly city council that approved it, not the local community league that protested its height.

If city council can be swayed again by Mr. McLash at the next public hearing in April, it could set a precedent for much larger corporations such as WAM, co-developers of Edmonton’s multibillion-dollar Ice entertainment district downtown, to turn a block of Whyte Avenue into high-density housing, and for the Canadian Pacific rails to charge a premium on 32 acres of adjacent land that’s been dormant for decades.

“We haven’t had this debate since I’ve been on council,” said Ben Henderson, the ward’s councillor since 2010. Councillor Henderson worries that changing the scale of Whyte Ave. buildings will end up undermining the very thing that makes it work. He is admittedly impressed with the affordable housing and cultural perks that WestOak is offering but said, “The next person to come along won’t bring those concessions to the table.”

“There are also people who’ve purchased some of the existing buildings, staying within the rules,” said Mr. Davison. “And they’re quite upset too because they wanted to go higher, but they didn’t. They didn’t even bother trying.”

However, he does believe a re-evaluation of height restrictions is long overdue and is pushing council and stakeholders to re-enter negotiations that would be more favourable to redevelopment. Over the decade, construction in Edmonton’s downtown core has turned many parking lots into retail and residential, but Old Strathcona’s empty lots have largely been stagnant.

Mr. Davison is conflicted about the tower proposals and faults the city of Edmonton for putting its own parking lot, kitty corner to the proposed Mezzo, on the market for more than $13-million. That’s about double what it could realistically get for a maximum six-storey building, he said.

Ms. Lowe, who also faults the city for setting a precedent with its pricey lot, argues that Whyte Ave. is already experiencing healthy redevelopment within the height constraints. “You can put more people and more amenities in there, you just don’t have to put them in 16 storeys,” she said. “But the minute you open that gate you sign the death warrant.”

This, to Mr. McLash, is just fear-mongering. “Inertia is a powerful force,” he said. “It’s easy to say ‘no’ when you don’t have to change.”

He argues that much of Whyte Avenue’s recent development has been low quality and that scale is necessary to justify using high-quality materials. “Four storeys is feasible if I build crap,” he says. “I’m trying to build something we’re all proud of. I’m trying to be a community builder.”

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