Near the corner of Jasper Avenue and 108th Street in downtown Edmonton sits an unlikely building: El Mirador. Built in 1935 and designed by Ralph Henry Trouth in Spanish colonial revival style (a rarity in Canada), El Mirador is a three-storey walk-up that was included in the City of Edmonton’s heritage building inventory in 1998.
Carlee Knight has lived in El Mirador since 2018. She was charmed by the character of the building, as well as its location and price-point. “I love being able to walk,” she says, noting the building’s proximity to her workplace, to the River Valley and “all that downtown Edmonton has to offer – public art, good coffee shops.”
Amid modern glass towers and parking lots, El Mirador shields residents in an oasis of whitewashed walls with art deco details and clay-tile roofing. The building’s 45 rental units enclose a densely vegetated courtyard where tenants and visitors congregate on warm summer days. An assortment of mismatched chairs protected by the shade of two mature trees evoke the diversity of the residents themselves.
“The courtyard is a huge draw,” Ms. Knight says. “It’s a space that we all contribute to. We garden out front. Last year we had a sculptor move in and he put a bunch of sculptures up.” And in the last year, the courtyard became much more important. “We can go out and be socially distanced in the shared area and get a bit of connection with other humans,” she says.
Dan Rose, a member of the Edmonton Historical Board and co-founder of Heritage Forward, says that “having that courtyard feature is good for mental health and human interaction” and allows neighbours to “look out for each other.”
Located in an area where the number of heritage buildings is dwindling, El Mirador is more than a beloved building where hundreds of lives have collided for eight decades; it’s also a successful example of “missing middle,” a term that refers to a scale of housing that allows for gentle forms of density conducive to vibrant communities – and many character buildings, including El Mirador, fit the bill.
“It really fits so many boxes of what good development should be,” Mr. Rose says. But after a successful rezoning application in 2018, El Mirador is slated for demolition to give way to the development of two glass towers comprising more than 1,000 residential units. Tenants are required to move out by June 30.
“A whole handful of my neighbours have been here over 10 years,” Ms. Knight says. “Long haulers that love the building but are having it ripped away from them.”
Often portrayed as an obstacle to housing affordability and community diversity, the conservation of heritage buildings is a complex process that can accommodate both preservation and growth. In Ontario, two pieces of provincial legislation help articulate these seemingly disparate goals: the Heritage Act and the Planning Act.
“Heritage and growth can co-exist. It’s just a question of guiding change, about understanding context and where growth can occur,” says Tamara Anson-Cartwright, a program manager in the City of Toronto’s heritage planning department. In Toronto, she says, “developers understand their responsibilities” and as part of the redevelopment approval process they have to obtain heritage act approvals.
By contrast, in Alberta conservation comes down to a property owner’s will and the ability of a municipality to compensate them. “The terms of the Historical Resources Act stipulates that financial compensation be provided to address any decrease in the value of the property because it’s been designated,” says David Johnston, principal heritage planner at the City of Edmonton. “It assumes that there’s going to be a decrease [in value], which isn’t necessarily the case.”
In Ontario property owners have to engage with municipal heritage authorities and try to reach an agreement, or appeal the decision to designate a property to the provincial tribunal. Whereas the compensation requirement in Alberta leaves municipalities at a loss. “We are one of the very few provincial jurisdictions in the country that have a financial compensation requirement enshrined in the provincial act,” Mr. Johnston says. “No municipality in Alberta has ever force designated a property without the owner’s consent, because of this compensation requirement that we have.”
Mr. Rose describes the impending demolition of El Mirador as “a larger symptom of how our city has approached redevelopment in our downtown for a long time.” Despite heritage policies being included in Edmonton’s strategic planning documents, these policies lack teeth. “We are bound by this provincial framework that gives us opportunities, but also has restrictions that can cause us challenges to intervene when we’re potentially going to lose a building,” Mr. Johnston says.
According to the city’s last assessment, the site where El Mirador sits is valued at $11,176,500. “The amount of money for a site like El Mirador – that property is worth millions of dollars,” Mr. Johnston says, noting that the amount the city would have had to pay the building’s owner as compensation would have been outrageous due to the “significant development opportunity attached to [the site].”
According to Mr. Johnston, between eight to 12 heritage buildings are demolished in Edmonton every year. “But we also designate and protect five to 10 buildings a year,” he says. Currently, Edmonton’s historic resource inventory comprises over 1,000 buildings, including El Mirador, but only one in seven buildings is designated and legally protected.
“The pattern of prioritizing vertical growth and the ‘boom’ mentality that have driven what seems to be a constant need to build new and shiny things is the primary reason we have such a hard time understanding and appreciating the historic buildings we have,” Mr. Rose says. “We just plow everything under and start fresh every time there’s a boom, and that’s been the pattern of growth as a city since the first settlers arrived here.”
In Edmonton, more than half of all buildings listed in the city’s historic resources inventory are located in desirable neighbourhoods such as Glenora, Westmont, Strathcona, Oliver and downtown, where high property values limit the construction of “missing middle” housing that’s also affordable. “The market will never build another El Mirador because the market cannot accommodate that kind of building,” Mr. Rose says. “It’s just a matter of economics.”
The presence of buildings such as El Mirador in coveted areas is beyond ornamental, as they house a population that would otherwise be unable to afford to live in the area. According to RentFaster, a one-bedroom unit in El Mirador used to rent for $795 a month, and a two-bedroom for $950 – a price hard to match by newer builds downtown, where a one-bedroom starts at $1,300 a month.
“If we just took a moment to learn and appreciate some of the things we have, we might have a better understanding of ourselves [as a city],” Mr. Rose says. “And perhaps we might not feel that constant reflex to just tear down and rebuild something new hoping that it provides that missing piece of our identity as a city.”
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