Plans are under way to breathe new life into two infamous Alberta buildings - the King Edward Hotel in Calgary and the York Hotel in Edmonton. While neither is considered architecturally significant, both cities aim to wrap inner-city development around these restored commercial properties.
In both cases, there are economic reasons behind the decision to rejuvenate these older buildings, rather than raze and replace with newer, bigger facilities.
Built along 9th Avenue's "whisky row" in 1905, the plain, blue-collar King Edward Hotel managed to dodge the wrecking ball, even as more historically valuable Calgary buildings were reduced to rubble.
The King Eddy lived on, developing a remarkable national reputation in the '80s and '90s as Calgary's Home of the Blues. Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and other musical giants who toured North America, put the humble hotel back on the map - even if it was still on the metaphoric wrong side of the tracks.
By 2004, what appeared to be the final riff was played. Neglect, mould and asbestos problems closed the establishment, throwing 24 single men out of low-cost rooms. But as Muddy used to sing, the King Eddy could once again get its mojo working.
"It's a piece of our history, a place where a pillar of 20th century music occurred, the blues, a piece that was one of Canada's and certainly Calgary's gathering places for music," says Andrew Mosker, executive director of the Cantos Music Foundation, a charitable group focused on music.
Cantos looked at numerous locations when planning to build a 80,000-square-foot music centre. One of the factors that led the foundation to choose the inner-city area known as the East Village was the authenticity that comes with the hotel - and authenticity is a marketable commodity.
"That is what authenticity is all about," Mr. Mosker adds. "You can't just go to the store or the Home Depot or to architect X and say: 'Draw me authenticity.'''
The hotel, at 438 9th Ave. S.E., is set to become a central part of the project that will include the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, performance spaces, recording studios, instructional rooms and the Cantos collection of musical instruments.
Edmonton is hoping for a similar second act for the York Hotel, which has acquired a reputation as home to the city's most notorious nightclub. Police, fire and ambulance staff and liquor inspectors visited the establishment 1,226 times in a one-year period alone from 2007 to 2008.
City officials cancelled the hotel's nightclub licence last September, saying they wanted the bar closed before someone was seriously hurt or killed. The hotel owners appealed, but that appeal is on hold now that the city is negotiating to buy the property.
Edmonton's city council wants to incorporate the hotel, built in the 1930s, into a redevelopment plan for a two-and-a-half city block area in the inner city known as the Boyle Renaissance project. It would see the hotel at 10401 96th St. become a combination of studios and living space for artists.
"A lot of crime, a lot of nasty things happened in that area because of the hotel and the … lack of investment in the area generally," says Walter Trocenko, manager of the special projects office for the City of Edmonton.
For decades, he says, previous councils and the community have tried to turn things around and have failed. Private-sector developers have been unwilling to invest in the area. The Boyle Renaissance is "all about trying to shift the paradigm. You are not going to get private sector investment in the area with the activity that is happening there."
To encourage the private sector to step in, the city council has taken some bold initiatives, including strategically buying land and planning for affordable housing and other housing developments, Mr. Trocenko says. Once initial improvements to the area have been made, the hope is that private developers will be willing to embark on their own projects to create a blend of affordable and market-rate housing.
"It is about taking leadership, taking the first steps to making some good things happen, showing some confidence, making some initial investments with some government funding and then working with the private sector to position opportunities for the real market investments to proceed," Mr. Trocenko says.
Phase One of the Boyle Renaissance project - which will include 150 transitional housing units, a learning centre for disadvantaged kids, a family outreach centre and a daycare centre - is expected to break ground this summer. Phase Two will include an aboriginal centre. The York Hotel is scheduled to be included in Phase Three.
The cost of the project will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, coming from governments and private investments. Initially, the City of Edmonton plans to spend about $20-million on purchasing land. The 150 transitional housing units in Phase One have been subsidized by $24-million from a fund for affordable housing funded by the provincial and federal governments.
Meanwhile in Calgary, Mr. Mosker agrees that there are good economic reasons for preserving the King Eddy, as part of the larger plan to redevelop the East Village.
"We believe very strongly that having a cultural entity in East Village that repurposes the King Eddy and brings new life to it … will bring a return on investment for the city's investment in the neighbourhood," Mr. Mosker says.
For more than 40 years, the neighbourhood has been considered the wrong side of the tracks, Mr. Mosker says, but this project will restore confidence and bring renewed commercial investment.
The total cost of the music-centre project will be $120-million. The City of Calgary has approved spending $25-million, dependent on other levels of government coming through with funds. Cantos will have to raise $40-million from the private sector.
"I remain steadfastly confident that we will raise the total costs required to build this project as we have envisioned it," Mr. Mosker says.
Work is expected to start on King Eddy less than a year from now and will be finished in July, 2012. The whole project should be completed in 2013.
"Calgary has suffered from a 'rape, pillage and run' mentality that led to the loss of a lot of older buildings. There is very little in the city of Calgary that is worth seeing, if you're from Barcelona," he says.
"People look at the King Eddy now and say we can't tear this down. We have torn too much down. This place has a soul … Yes, it's going to cost money, but the benefits that it will bring long term I think far outweigh the costs up front for preserving it."