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Railway proximity: once a building boon, now a safety concern

The Fletcher Building, which will be home to Smithbilt Hats, will be subject to a new approvals process.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Brian Hanson unlocks a padlock on a chain-link fence surrounding a vacant industrial building that has seen better days. The small, weed-choked yard butts up against a busy section of Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.'s main line. Calgary's skyscrapers hover on the horizon just a few kilometres away.

Stepping over a pile of burned wood, Mr. Hanson, the vice-president of Smithbilt Hats Inc., which makes Calgary's iconic white cowboy hats opens a door next to a broken window. Inside, however, the building's construction has stood the test of time. His boots thud softly on a floor of 2-by-10 fir planks, laid together on edge.

"This is as strong a floor as you could ever have," he says, his black cowboy hat blending into the gloom.

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Built in 1914 by flour and feed merchant Thomas Fletcher, the structure used to include a 75-foot grain elevator, before it burned down in 1963. The remainder of the building has been sitting idle and empty for years in Inglewood, Calgary's oldest neighbourhood.

However, where some might see a derelict warehouse, Mr. Hanson sees potential.

"That's where the boardroom will be, where that old loading dock is jutting out." He points outside. "And that will be a deck."

Smithbilt has existed almost as long as the Fletcher Building. Established in 1919, the company is best known for producing the white cowboy hat that symbolizes Calgary's western hospitality. Visiting dignitaries including the Duchess of Cambridge and the Dalai Lama have worn them. Smithbilt hats are also used regularly in films and television productions, including Unforgiven and Hell On Wheels.

"We're still making them the way they did 100 years ago," says Mr. Hanson, who assembles most of the company's beaver felt hats himself.

"There are not many things left that are handmade in Canada, but we're one of them."

With yearly sales of 60,000 hats, Smithbilt has outgrown its current building, a combination of retail and factory space. In May, 2014, the company bought the Fletcher Building, with renovation plans that include expanded retail space and an industrial kitchen, to accommodate catered hat-making tours. Originally slated to be open in time for this year's Stampede, construction has yet to begin.

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"Everything takes longer than you think," Mr. Hanson says. "Permits take a long time to start with, but now they're being extra careful."

Mr. Hanson is referring to the City of Calgary. The planning department is adjusting to railway safety concerns, highlighted by the 2013 Lac-Mégantic disaster that killed 47 people. Last year, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities recommended a 30-metre setback standard for development along urban rail corridors, but Calgary has yet to determine an official policy.

"We've been trying to wrap our heads around how we'd employ that setback here," Calgary City Manager Jeff Fielding says. "Today, it's a one-off with each individual property."

Mr. Fielding, who was the city manager in Burlington, Ont., during a 2012 Via Rail train derailment that killed three people, says the planning department is still reviewing how to mitigate risk while balancing business concerns.

"In Calgary, we've waited years and years to have development interest adjacent to our rail lines. There are billions of dollars worth of value at risk in terms of how we apply a strategy on a setback requirement. Those are things we're going to have to discuss. Certainly it's going to end up at council, and I expect it's going to have to be a community consultation."

Development of pre-existing structures, especially historic ones like the Fletcher Building, could have different requirements than new projects.

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"I don't think you're going to see one-size-fits-all policy," Mr. Fielding says. "There's a variety of different ways that you could use things like crash walls and separation spaces for safety. We're not going to be knocking buildings down."

In the meantime, Smithbilt's construction plans for the Fletcher Building are still under review.

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