Preserving History

Urban renewal is a well-researched topic in many circles, and there are countless sources that list time and again a key point: it is the local culture which defines what is special and unique about a group of people or a place, giving them their identity and making them last over generations, and making them of interest for others to visit. If we as a civic organization want our city to be a place where our families thrive, our businesses prosper, and our legacies to endure, as well as a destination for leisure, then we must protect what we have in the renewal projects that are proposed. The history of our city in its urban landscape, its stories, and its structures, must be considered as we grow, build, change, and refurbish. But, this never happens. Quite the opposite, in fact. And, the result is a sterile attitude to an urban centre, to a loss of place, pride, and ownership of areas, ambivalence of guests to our city, and disrespect by out-of-town developers, investors, and employers.

Look at the current example of the Harbin Gate downtown. This is a very specific and special monument, given to us by a sister city in another country as an act of friendship over thirty years ago. It is made up of hand-crafted ceramic tiles, uniquely made, with astounding architectural features, and was built to perfectly fit the road for which it was designed. Now, we are quick to take it down in the face of our flashy new LRT line, with no plan on where to put it, how to use it in the future, and no real consensus on how integral the entire structure can remain and how much damage it will sustain (this came from an interview with the Chinese Benevolent Association of Edmonton’s Michael Lee). So, we lose another monument in our city’s history to a new development, which may or may not work out well, is almost certain to be made of brutalist concrete or stone without the artistic beauty of the current structure, and without any intent on preserving anything else around of cultural significance. There is no appreciation from our councillors or from administration for the rich history that our city has in all of its purview.

Now, we are not without our desire to save our history. We correctly designated sections of Westmount Community and Whyte Avenue areas of special historical architectural merit. However, we still allow infill variances that are at odds with these designations. The destruction of one of the only pre-1900’s buildings on Whyte Avenue in 2015 (the old Etzio’s store) has caused people in the area to sarcastically state: “the only thing that will soon be ‘old’ in Old Strathcona will be in the name.” And, we do have several buildings around town designated historical landmarks. But not nearly enough. Even when they are designated historic, like the El Mirador apartments, developers still want to remove them and build something new full of glass. According to interpretations of those currently on council, facades are just as good as true historical preservation. The complete destruction of the Kelly-Ramsay building would never happen in an urban centre that values its history. History in our city is much more than a facade, or a plaque, or even a copy, like the Brewery development. As quoted from a prominent figure in downtown business in our city: “The [Brewery] project has so many problems, and city council had no intention of seriously considering any of them…there is no sense of preserving a landmark in the face of development dollars, regardless of the cost to the community.”

We need to make our history a priority while developing our older areas, but no one is held accountable to these feelings. I would absolutely be in favour of increasing support to local developers who take history as a priority, and ensuring that bylaw variances in respect to areas of historical importance be kept to a absolute minimum. Further, I would be vociferous to align our development plans with UNESCO’s guidelines on urban rejuvenation, which are well-tested, well-respected, and well-demonstrated in many communities in North America currently, even as close to home as Lacombe, Fort MacLeod, Victoria, Quebec, and Saint John, New Brunswick.