Proposed Old Strathcona highrise sees opposition from neighbourhood

A battle is brewing over a proposed highrise apartment building in Old Strathcona, which some locals say will damage the historic character of the neighbourhood.

Mezzo tower would require rezoning from city council due to height restrictions

The 16-storey tower would also include commercial space on the ground floors. (CBC)

A battle is brewing over a proposed highrise apartment building in Old Strathcona, which some locals say will damage the historic character of the neighbourhood.

The 20-storey Mezzo tower, proposed by Edmonton-based Westoak Development, would sit at the site of the closed Strathcona Presbyterian Church at 81st Avenue and 105th Street. 

Westoak CEO Matt McLash told CBC News he hoped to build a facade that would help the 200-unit apartment building fit in the rest of the historic neighbourhood.

"You notice a lot of red brick and glass -- red brick, glass and Tyndall stone," McLash said.

The building is also designed to include commercial space on the lower floors.

To turn his design into a reality, McLash will have to convince city council. The Old Strathcona Redevelopment plan, which council passed last year, sets a maximum height for new apartment buildings at four storeys. To get around that, the developer would need to to have the lot rezoned.

The thought of living in the shadow of a highrise does not sit well with many in the community. Old Strathcona Foundation executive director Karen Tabor said the tall tower would look out of place among the smaller homes and walk-ups, and could destroy what makes the neighbourhood unique.

"It is these very things that make this a very vibrant place," she said.

"If people stop coming, they will not be filing those apartments. And that's our primary concern."

Tabor isn't opposed to the development itself; she said she agreed with McLash that Old Strathcona would benefit from infill projects and higher density. But the proposed tower would be more than three times the height of the buildings around it. The height restriction helps keep the intimate feeling of the neighbourhood, she said.

"[Infill] must be done in a way that's compatible to the character of the area," she said.

McLash argues the height restrictions need to be eased if the neighbourhood wants to see well-designed buildings. High-quality materials are expensive for developers, he said. The bricks he wants to use for the Mezzo's design cost "a significant amount of money" over a cheaper wooden facade.

The only way to recoup the cost is for developers to be able to sell more suites.

"Anything between six and ten storeys is called 'No Man's Land'," he said.

"You're not ever going to make your money out of it."

While he agreed with Tabor over the need to keep the neighbourhood's aesthetic, he disagreed that the tower would be harmful. Instead, he argued that providing more options for renters in Old Strathcona would force other landlords to make improvements to their own buildings. McLash noted the vast majority of apartment buildings and homes in the neighbourhood were more than three decades old.

"We're really fortunate to have this wonderful cultural heart in Edmonton that has a lot of demand for people to want to live there and be there," he said.

"That results in landlords often not having the pressure to maintain, to otherwise improve their property, as they would if there was less demand [for rentals]."

McLash said he plans to apply next week to city council to have the lot rezoned, although he said he is open to making changes to the building's design in light of concerns from the community.

"We're looking at all aspects and all avenues, believe me."