City council approved a controversial 16-storey tower just off Whyte Avenue in Old Strathcona, despite protest from the community that the building would change the character of the historic neighbourhood.

The Mezzo tower, proposed by Edmonton-based WestOak Development, will sit at the site of the closed Strathcona Presbyterian Church at 81st Avenue and 105th Street.  

"I'm really angry," said Coun. Ben Henderson, who represents the area.

"I don't understand why we do planning if we're just going to ignore it for these one-off things."

Henderson was one of only three councillors who voted against the development. He said the roughly 200-unit tower would change the scale of the neighbourhood, which generally consists of buildings with only a few floors.

"It creates a different kind of feel," he said. "I think we put that at risk."

'I hope there are many more,' planner says

Councillors who voted in favour of the development said the podium the tower will be built on is well designed and in keeping with the historical look of the area. They also liked the developer's commitment to include 29 units of affordable housing ranging from three to five bedrooms.

Henderson said he liked all those elements, too, but only if they fit in with the feel of Old Strathcona.

He said Edmonton has been lucky to have preserved the character of the neighbourhood for so long, and that should be protected. This decision, he said, will open the door for other developers to build large towers.

"I'm hugely worried about the precedent," Henderson said. "We've basically said now, 'This is fair game.'"

Simon O'Byrne, a Stantec planner representing the developer, said that's exactly what he would like to see.

He knows of three similar potential developments that could be looking for approval in the next few years.

"I hope there are many more," O'Byrne said.

He said 90 per cent of the housing in the area was built before the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup in 1984.

He said newer housing is needed in such an important employment and transit-oriented part of the city, and that Old Strathcona shouldn't be a "living museum."

Now that council has approved the zoning for the project, the developer will have to apply for a development permit. At that point, the design will be reviewed by the city's design committee.

Residents want Whyte appeal maintained

Some people who live and work in Old Strathcona are backing Henderson.

Ashley Dryburgh walks down Whyte Avenue almost every day and says she's worried the highrise will block light from the street and bring more cars to the neighbourhood.

"There's already no parking, so if they could create six storeys, five storeys and still have that density and still have that market housing and still maintain the spirit of the plan and fit into the feel of the neighbourhood, I think they'd have a lot of success," she said. 

"But I think it's opening a lot of doors and I'd hate to see this neighbourhood turned into one that's just full of condos and high rises."

Ashley

Ashley Dryburgh is concerned the highrise will block light and bring more traffic to the area. (CBC)

Brian Dooley works in the local theatre community. He describes Old Strathcona as a quasi-heritage environment, and says a modern highrise would detract from that appeal.

"I think that if you start to create or build things that are going to mar the physical appeal, the physical look of the environment, I think it's going to have a detrimental effect," Dooley said.

"I think it's best to try to preserve what you have as best you can and to try to build on that. I am not anti-development in any way, but it's just that I think they should give it a greater thought."

Dooley

Brian Dooley wants to see Whyte Avenue's character maintained. (CBC)