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Developer spares aging facility demolition as it embarks on ambitious refit to create food hall, gym and micro apartments, Sharon Crowther writes

Beljan Development will invest $20-million in repurposing the old YMCA building in downtown Edmonton over the coming year.

For more than six decades, Edmonton's downtown YMCA provided accommodation for those of limited means, alongside an aging fitness facility and dated office space. Then, in 2016, bosses declared the building and its operations were no longer financially viable and the wheels were set in motion to shut it down.

Many assumed the boxy, Brutalist structure would be demolished and replaced with something modern. But the 75,000-square-feet building was spared the wrecking ball thanks to a $3.5-million deal with Beljan Development, a local firm that believes the structure still has a future. It will invest $20-million in repurposing it over the coming year.

"It's a challenging project for sure due to its size and layout. This is our biggest adaptive re-use task to date in terms of floor-space," founder Ivan Beljan says. "But we're excited to reinvigorate it and bring it back to the public with some unique concepts befitting the current trend towards a sharing economy and collaborative spaces as well as a new apartment rental option for the city."

Many expected the old YMCA building to be demolished and replaced with something modern.

The deal with Beljan was put together in 2016. The YMCA of Northern Alberta then spent 18 months rehousing 120 tenants, half of whom had lived there longer than two years and some of whom had been residents for more than two decades.

Beljan took possession in December, 2017, and an extensive internal and external renovation commences this month, with local architects Hodgson Schilf Evans at the helm. Mr. Beljan estimates that demolition and abatement work will be complete by March and the building, rebranded Williams Hall for the English philanthropist and founder of the YMCA, Sir George Williams, will be open by the second quarter of 2019.

The developer's vision will transform the ground floor of the building, which is currently a fitness facility and office space, into a street-level food hall where a dozen individual chefs and restaurants will work together to create a collaborative dining and social space for the public.

A rendering of the street-level food hall, envisioned as a collaborative dining and social space.

On the second floor, they'll apply the same format to a health and fitness space, accessible via the Pedway – Edmonton's downtown enclosed pathway system – where independent operators will create a unique wellness destination. Above that, a boutique office space will bring small businesses together with shared facilities. The remaining floors will house 100 micro apartments.

"The apartments will be studio, one or two-bedroom ranging from 240 square feet to 450 square feet with no parking. They'll have integrated smart furniture where things will pull out and flip over so we anticipate they'll appeal to people looking for a minimalist lifestyle, downtown," Mr. Beljan says. "We'll be aiming to keep rent below the $1,000 mark."

Micro apartments are a tried and tested product for Beljan. Last year, they added 40 such units to the historic Crawford Block, creating a mixed use development in old Strathcona. While not without its challenges, Mr. Beljan says the overall experience on that project was a good one.

"We learned a lot from Crawford Block," he says. "It took a while, but it's now fully leased and doing well. We're lucky that we have a living, working model for this kind of project where space is limited and we're trying to achieve an economically viable residential aspect. Part of the process right now is taking feedback from Crawford Block to make sure we make the right adjustments for Williams Hall."

One lesson already being incorporated into Williams Hall will be more spaces for residents to make social connections.

"With Crawford Block, we had a smaller site to work with and to make the numbers work we had to add a certain number of units to the building, so the only social space we have there is the rooftop patio," Mr. Beljan says. "With Williams Hall, we're incorporating more of those kinds of spaces; a large communal kitchen for example. I believe spaces that create social connections in residential buildings are key to fostering happy long-term tenants."

Williams Hall will have spaces for residents to make social connections.

Mr. Beljan says creating a connection between the structure and the public realm is also essential to success. To that end, the building's imposing concrete façade will soon be replaced with an expansive glass front at street level and above.

"There's not a lot of beauty from the outside of this building right now," the developer admits. "When Edmonton was growing in the sixties and seventies, it was designed around cars and the Pedway system, so many of these older structures actually turn their backs on the street. This building is a classic example of that; currently it is literally a concrete wall against the sidewalk and there's barely any connection at all with the street.

"We're planning to change that dramatically," he says. "We want people to see there's life in the building because that will draw people onto the street. When our streets have more life, everyone benefits."

YMCA of Northern Alberta's decision to sell the building in 2016 came after a two-year long review of its downtown assets, which deemed the ageing facility to be at the end of its life. At the time they reported annual loses of between $100,000 and $150,000.

Building newer facilities such as the nearby Don Wheaton Family YMCA, opened in 2007, and the YMCA Welcome Village, an affordable housing collaboration which opened in 2012, strengthened the case for divesting of the asset entirely.

Mr. Beljan, who has volunteered at, worked for and sat on the board of the YMCA, says the purchase was a natural fit for his firm.

"I was on the committee when they were looking at what they could do with this building and, because of my background, I ended up leaving the board to be part of the tender process to buy it," he explains.

Repurposing the building was never a stipulation of the sale, but, Mr. Beljan says, members of the board at the YMCA have shown "considerable interest" in its future, although they were "ultimately looking for the highest return they could get to reinvest in their programs."

"When we looked at the building, there's a lot to reimagine and we know competing developers would have had a hard time making the numbers work at the level we were able to with repurposing," he adds. "In many respects, it would be easier to tear it down and rebuild it. You'd have freedom of design and no constraints, but we see value in the structure so were able to put together a fairly aggressive offer. There's also salvage value and you can move a lot faster on a project if you're using the existing building."

Some features of the existing building will be retained as added value while others, such as the swimming pool and squash courts, will be erased to ensure the space achieves the highest return for its new owner. One feature that Mr. Beljan says will certainly be staying is the old gymnasium.

"Having a full-sized gymnasium in a building is kind of neat. I don't think any private developer would build that into a new condo today and we see features like that giving this development an edge. It'll be open to the public but residents can also use it for dodgeball nights and things like that."

Williams Hall is one of 11 projects Beljan Development has planned for 2018. They're currently converting Edmonton's old telephone exchange, which they purchased from Telus last year, into a boutique office building. They'll soon start work on the old Alberta Dental Association building, which will be converted into retail. In December, they purchased an office building on Whyte Avenue, which will also be converted into retail space but with three stories of residential added to it.

"The time may come when there aren't so many of these buildings to work with in Edmonton or we face stiffer competition for projects," Mr. Beljan says, "but until then, we'll continue to take on as much as we can to revitalize our city's core by using what's already there and preserving its stories."