Edmonton

Council approves Canadian National Institute for the Blind's pitch for new highrise on Jasper Avenue

City council approved another new highrise in Oliver, and the owner hopes it will be beautiful, even to people who can't see it. The 35-storey tower received unanimous after a public hearing on Monday, as councilors praised the inclusive and attractive design.

The building features unique design elements for the blind

The new 35-storey apartment tower would replace the Canadian Nation Institute for the Blind's current office location at 120th Street and Jasper Avenue. (Canadian National Institute for the Blind)

City council has approved another new highrise in Oliver, and the owner hopes it will be beautiful, even to people who can't see it.

The 35-storey tower received unanimous approval after a public hearing on Monday, as councilors praised the inclusive and attractive design. 

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind plans to replace its office on 120th Street and Jasper Avenue with an apartment building that would be accessible to the blind.

"Now this is what I'm talking about," said Mayor Don Iveson, comparing the CNIB building to the recently approved Emerald Tower in 114th Street, which Iveson decried. 

He called the CNIB's design an "A plus."

"This knocks it out of the park," he said. "And yes, it's a tall building, but if people will step forward and provide this kind of beauty ... then that's what I'm looking for."

The existing offices were originally designed as a place for CNIB clients to live. The new building will likely have spaces available for clients, and be an attractive option for other blind people.

"It's an opportunity for them to have the same quality of life that anybody else would normally experience when they rent an apartment in a brand new building," said John Mulka, CNIB regional vice-president.

The CNIB plans to use the bottom floors as its new office space, and rent the apartments on the upper floors.

A rendering of the new tower proposed by CNIB on 120th Street and Jasper Avenue. (Canadian Institute for the Blind)

The non-profit is working with blind architect Chris Downey on some of the unique features incorporated into the building's design.

Downey, who is based in San Francisco, lost his sight eight years ago after doctors removed a brain tumour near his optic nerve. Now he specializes in buildings that serve the blind.

A big part of appropriate design for people that are blind or visually impaired is that's it's multi-sensory.- Chris Downey, blind architect 

He said a lot of emphasis has been put on designing the entrances to the building, moving obstacles such as trees, using raised bumps on the sidewalk and even smell to help people orient themselves with the building.

"A big part of appropriate design for people who are blind or visually impaired is that's it's multi-sensory," Downey said.

He said focusing on more than just the visual aesthetic of the building will make it more appealing to the blind and to people with sight.

"It's about how … your body engages with it, how you hear the space," he said. "And by focusing on that, it's actually complete architecture as opposed to architecture that's designed to exist as if it were only in a magazine."

The building will also feature braille on doors, colour-contrasted flooring for the partially sighted, and audio prompts in the elevator.

"These are invaluable to a person with vision loss," Mulka said. "These little techniques and little design features that allow them to navigate and be independent in how they travel."

The architect also plans to redesign the street and alley with a new facade and drop-off zone in the back. Mulka said the changes will make the building attractive from every angle.

The approval includes a sunset clause of 10 years to give CNIB time to apply for its development and building permits.