BMO demolition could pave way for Edmonton's tallest tower

A stone frame and hollow belly are what’s left of the former Bank of Montreal building on the corner of 102nd Avenue and 101st Street in downtown Edmonton -- for now.

'You're seeing a lot less opposition to density and height than you used to a decade ago,' developer says

Demolition of the former Bank of Montreal building at 102nd Avenue and 101st Street started in early January and is expected to be complete by April. (Art Raham/CBC)

A stone frame and hollow belly are what is left of the former Bank of Montreal building in downtown Edmonton.

Regency Developments began tearing down the structure at 102nd Avenue and 101st Street earlier this week. The company bought the six-storey building last March.

With the bank's operations slated to move at the end of 2017, Raj Dhunna, Regency's chief operating officer, said the company was looking for new tenants.

"We really had no plans to actually demo it when we first purchased it," Dhunna told CBC News. 
Construction crews strip out the inside of the Bank of Montreal building on 102nd Avenue and 101st Street on Jan. 6. (CBC)

The building was designed specifically to house a bank and he said it wasn't clear if the company could secure a single tenant for the entire building or have to divide it into sections. 

The situation changed before they could find a suitable tenant. 

With LRT construction starting along that section of 102nd Avenue, Regency learned it would have to demolish the building now or wait three years.  

"We had quite a bit of interest, but we had to make a decision to go one way or the other, really fast," Dhunna said. 

The city approved demolition and hoarding permits in late December.

Going up

Plans for the site are far from finalized but Regency has a vision of what will replace the old building.

The company is planning a mixed-use tower with commercial space on the main level, and a hotel and residential condominiums on top.

Ian O'Donnell, executive director of the Downtown Business Association, is in favour of Regency's plans to build a tall, high-density development on the former Bank of Montreal site. (Ian O'Donnell)

"Everybody knows it's one of the premier corners in the core of our city," Dhunna said. "So to bring density and height and shaping that corner, a lot of people are really excited."

Ian O'Donnell, executive director of the Downtown Business Association, approves of the demolition and Regency's plans for the land.

"It is a very prominent site," O'Donnell told CBC News. "It has a lot of potential and could contribute significantly to adding some more vitality and vibrancy to our downtown core."

He said the tall, mixed-use towers are a relatively new concept in Edmonton but exist in other cities. 

Two towers under construction in the Ice District near Rogers Place have mixed uses. Both the J.W. Marriott hotel and Stantec Tower have residences planned for their upper floors. 

O'Donnell said he'd like to see more projects like these in Edmonton. 

Shaping the skyline

If built, the new tower would be 45 to 50 storeys high, making it one of the tallest condo buildings in downtown Edmonton. 

Regency isn't afraid of heights and is no stranger to controversy. 
Regency Developments' Emerald Tower on Jasper Avenue and 114th Street got approval from city council in June 2016. (Regency Developments)

The company developed Pearl Tower on Jasper Avenue, and is behind the Emerald planned for Jasper and 114th Street.

Dhunna said when the company first proposed the 36-storey Pearl, there was a lot of opposition.

"It was shaping the skyline — the first of its kind. It was precedent-setting in design. It was precedent-setting in height," he said.

The company has rezoned several properties since then. 

"You see that mind shift and the lifestyle shift," Dhunna said. "So you're seeing a lot less opposition to density and height than you used to a decade ago." 

Historically bad reputation

Not everyone is happy with the end of the Bank of Montreal building. 

Coun. Scott McKeen lamented council didn't have much recourse to save the structure. 

Built in 1984, the building had no historic designation but was still unique for the city, he argued.  

"It's a majestic building," McKeen said. "You might love it or hate it but it's that kind of design that makes it stand out."

McKeen said the situation is a example of the city's past struggles to preserve historic buildings. 

Despite several years of debate, the historic Tegler building, dating to 1911, was demolished in 1982 to make way for the Bank of Montreal building.

"We don't have a strong record in Edmonton of saving buildings," McKeen said. 

Although there are proponents of saving older buildings, he said Edmonton as a whole has not developed a culture of "architectural appreciation."

"It's not a broad or embedded or ingrained value in Edmonton."

O'Donnell doesn't believe the Bank of Montreal building is in the same category as other historic buildings. 

"Many people would say that that building itself and that design was very cold and very stark in terms of being inviting and really contributing to street life," he said. 

Regency aims to complete the demolition by April and then build an underground parkade. 
Crews are tearing down the former Bank of Montreal building from the inside out. (CBC)

While this work is going on, Dhunna said the company will look at designs and reach out to potential commercial tenants.

The company aims to start building the tower in mid- to late 2019.

O'Donnell doesn't want the lot to stay vacant for too long, but is confident  the company will move forward as quickly as possible.

"Regency has a good track record of building," he said. 

Given the appeal of the site, O'Donnell believes there will be a lot of interest from potential tenants.

@natashariebe

About the Author

Natasha Riebe

Journalist

Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.