As heritage fund dwindles, Edmonton council sees positive signs

The City of Edmonton risks running out of money to help preserve old buildings but councillors and history buffs see it as a good news story.

Strathcona Hotel and Brighton Block may get annual funding from city

The 127-year-old Strathcona Hotel on Whyte Avenue and 103rd Street is covered mainly by scaffolding as Beljan Development continues to refurbish the building. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The City of Edmonton is at risk of running out of money to help preserve old buildings, but councillors and history buffs see that as a good news story. 

The city allocates $1.9 million a year to the heritage reserve, a fund used to rehabilitate and maintain the historic resources.

By the end of this year, that fund is expected to have a balance of $2.17 million.

With more buildings on the roster to receive historic designations in the next couple of years — the Richards Block on Whyte Avenue, Strathcona Garage and Douglas Manor to name a few — the balance is expected to go down to $725,000 by 2021. 

Coun. Scott McKeen said the higher demand for historic designations is a change in attitude for the city, which in the past was accused of being "lax" in preserving its heritage. 

"I think there's gaining awareness in Edmonton on the importance of preserving our story, in built form," McKeen said Tuesday. "These are areas that are cool and hip and we want to hang around them, whether that's 124th Street or Whyte Avenue, parts of the Quarters, parts of downtown."

Great cities have those spots- Coun. Scott McKeen

The dwindling reserve leaves little wiggle room for the city to help maintain old buildings already designated municipal historic resources. 

On Tuesday, council's urban planning committee rejected pitches to give Beljan Development $464,000 to maintain the Strathcona Hotel and to give Primavera Development Group $567,000 to help restore the Brighton Block on Jasper Avenue. 

Instead, councillors agreed the city should develop an annual funding plan to help the developers. 

"Rather than giving a lump sum, we would give it out over years," McKeen said. "They'll be able to borrow knowing that the city has committed to X dollars for their investment."

Chris Dulaba with Beljan Development said he was encouraged by the decision but noted the company is banking on a grant to help with restoration. 

"We do need to have some sort of understanding of what we may be eligible for, because that will have an impact on what we can do with this building," Dulaba said after the meeting.

In the meantime, he said, construction on the Strathcona Hotel, damaged by fire in March, will go ahead. 

"We'll work quite aggressively with administration to come to the table with the solution that I think is fair for both parties."

David Ridley, executive director of the Edmonton Heritage Council, said investing in more historic buildings will benefit everyone.

"These are the places where Edmontonians want to be," Ridley said. "So it really has a community and larger economic value."

The Brighton Block on Jasper Avenue retains the old sign named after Ernest Brown, whose photo studio was in the building. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

McKeen noted that places like the Strathcona Hotel and the Brighton Block are catalyst projects, attracting people and investment.

"We want to create these dynamic places where people can shop and dine," he said. "Great cities have those spots."

Ridley suggested that the original program was established mainly to encourage owners of small-scale residential buildings to preserve the heritage of the structures. 

He used the Brewery District as an example of a larger-scale project the policy wasn't set up for. 

"I think it's a credit to the program, to city administration and city council, they're finding a way to respond to those. But clearly it's under some duress."

The report prepared by administration also said the program has matured to the extent that it "must diversify beyond its core mandate of encouraging designation to ensuring the long-term stewardship of these resources."

Before 2003, the reserve was used "exclusively to provide rehabilitation incentives." 

The report outlined other costs taken from the reserve for consulting services, promotion, research, rezoning fees for historic resources and heritage areas and special projects such as the Neon Sign Museum.

Ridley encouraged the city to explore other funding options, such as creating endowments or trusts that people can contribute to — a practice he said is common in the United Kingdom and the United States. 

Councillors directed city administration to explore financing options to "encourage the preservation and restoration of our heritage buildings," with a deadline to report back by December 2021.



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