Mezzo no more: Lot off Whyte Avenue vacant as developer abandons project

A prime lot in the heart of Old Strathcona is covered with grass and dandelions, five years after city council approved a controversial condo complex for the site.

'Now we’re left with a mess,' Coun. Ben Henderson says

The lot at 81st Avenue and 105th Street has been vacant since the developer tore down the Strathcona Presbyterian Church to make room for a tower that's never been built. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

A prime lot in the heart of Old Strathcona is covered with grass and dandelions, five years after city council approved a controversial condo complex for the site.

Westoak Development planned to build a 16-storey tower called the Mezzo on 81st  Avenue and 105th Street. 

The company's real estate office across the street is vacant with blinds pulled down and a 'for sale' sign in one of the windows. 

City councillor Ben Henderson opposed the project when Westoak CEO Matthew McLash pitched it in 2016. 

Henderson argued it was too high for the historic Old Strathcona, directly behind the historic post office on Whyte Avenue. 

"Now we're left with a mess," Henderson said. "We just have an empty lot." 

Chris Dulaba, a placemaker with Beljan Developments, said the failed Mezzo reflects an inherent risk in the development game. 

"This is an example of one that ultimately couldn't get past the goal line," Dulaba said. "Here we are left with a site that has a hole and is fenced up and become a little bit of a pockmark in the neighbourhood."

The lot is for sale with an asking price of $5.3 million. 

Jones Lang LaSalle Real Estate Services, Inc. is the court-appointed agent designated to sell the lot. 

The Court of Queen's Bench retained JLL after the developer didn't pay its lenders, firm lawyers told CBC News this week. 

McLash could not be reached for comment. 

Cherie Klassen, executive director of the Old Strathcona Business Association, said she hasn't heard from McLash in a year. 

"It's unfortunate the project couldn't move ahead," Klassen said. "Our business association hopes that whatever is developed here has a positive impact on the community and the district."

The main carrot behind council approving the Mezzo was the affordable housing component — Westoak promised to include about 30 three- to five-bedroom suites in the 200-unit building, satisfying the city's goal to build more family-friendly housing in mature neighbourhoods, Henderson said. 

What now?

Henderson would like to see a smaller building go up on the lot but the current zoning means the next buyer must build something very similar to the failed Mezzo. 

Rezoning the lot added value to the land, Henderson said, making it more expensive to develop anything smaller.

"It's a mess because there probably is no going back," Henderson said. 

Dulaba said the cost of the lot is likely higher than what Westoak originally paid. He thinks the original Mezzo plan was reasonable for the area and wouldn't mind seeing something similar go up on the lot. 

"No doubt it has to be some sort of mixed-use building," Dulaba said. "I think the more you have people reinvesting and investing into new buildings is a good thing and that ultimately helps sort of raise all boats."

Beljan is redeveloping the old Scona Garage on 80th Avenue and 105th Street and supports having more development in the area. 

Plan Whyte 

Maureen Duguay with the Strathcona community league was one of many who spoke out against the Mezzo.

The developer tore down the Strathcona Presbyterian Church for the project. 

"We opposed it for the height, for the fact that it was going to change the whole character — there were so many things wrong with this," Duguay said.

Council had approved several large developments in the historic area of Old Strathcona and Queen Alexandra areas which Henderson called 'one-offs.' 

The approvals spurred the creation of 'Plan Whyte,' setting standards for building heights. The plan incorporated the tower on 10506-81 Avenue as it was already approved.



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