What Does Better Look Like?

A City of Edmonton original podcast


Chris Dulaba, Placemaker, Beljan Development


[Narrator] Thanks for joining us for the final episode of Making Space. If you’re just joining us, we recommend starting with episode 1, but if you’ve been with us the whole time, we’re going to wrap up this season with the story of a building, an old brick building on the corner of 121st Street and 102nd Avenue in Edmonton, Alberta.

Because for most of this century this building has been, you know, standing right there. It’s had a very specific job to do, to in one form or another connect people. Designed by one of the architects responsible for the Alberta Legislature, which is about 15 minutes away, this building was one of Edmonton’s first two telephone exchanges, the physical infrastructure necessary to have phone service in Edmonton. 

While most telephone buildings back in 1913, when construction started, were the old pull and plug switchboard style, the kind that required a whole room of people to operate, this building was unique in Canada, a highly automated version of a telephone building built for Edmonton’s future. It was a building that from day one connected people. 

But times change, and the old telephone exchange fell into disuse. 

We’ve talked about a lot this season, whether it’s giving you a bird’s eye view of how things like zoning can impact the fabric of the city or a zoomed in, nitty gritty unpacking of something like discretionary use. We’ve tried to show how big an impact things like zoning can have on our communities. So it seemed worthwhile to end this season by asking: “What does better look like?” What does it look like when we get the kinds of developments that speak to some of these values we’ve been talking about? We’re going to zoom back in from a city, to a neighbourhood, down to a single building, a former telephone exchange building on the corner of 121st Street and 102nd Avenue that today goes by a different name. 

[Chris] It was a place where you had a whole bunch of telephone equipment that allowed people to communicate with each other. 

[Narrator] That’s Chris Dulaba with Beljan Development. 

[Chris] You know, obviously it was originally built in the early 1900s when the telephone systems started to expand in the city of Edmonton.

[Narrator] A few years ago the old telephone exchange building began a transformation into what it is today, a building that checks not all but a bunch of the boxes we’ve been talking about throughout this show … a development that brings mixed use into a mature neighbourhood. So we reached out to Chris to discuss this project, the future of zoning, and to try and answer that question: “What does better look like?”

[Chris] Then up until, you know, 2017 or so Telus was operating it primarily serving as kind of a data centre for, obviously, the new type of way we communicate with each other, through the Internet and other types and forms of, I guess, electronic communication. It really represented what the building did but in a different manner, associated with kind of community shops and community-oriented type services. Really, the journey to reposition the Oliver Exchange building, which was once known as the West End Telephone Exchange building, into what it is today was founded on the desire to create a little community hub in Oliver, which is one of our most dense and walkable neighbourhoods in the city. You know, we’ve got multiple access to transit. There are bike lanes. It’s a street grid, so it’s very permeable and connected from a walkability standpoint. 

One of the things that we really gravitated towards – obviously, there was a heritage element to that building, which we love and we typically find ourselves attracted to but the other major part was Oliver in itself. Even though it has all these wonderful attributes – proximity to the downtown core, proximity to the University of Alberta, MacEwan – it really is a community that never really had kind of a central type of area or something that helped define it. I mean, of course you have Jasper Avenue as a main street corridor with its collection of shops and businesses. 104th Avenue in itself is obviously something that’s more suburban oriented in its built form with a very traditional or, I guess, corporate and chain-dominated type of businesses, maybe your Safeways and all of your fast food restaurants and what not. Then that was really it. 

But you had all this density and a demographic that I think really supported some of these spaces that we developed, that typically are, you know, attractive to smaller tenants – the bakeries, the coffee shops, and whatnot. Really, the idea with repositioning Oliver Exchange was to create that little community hub, kind of an exchange so to speak, which fell on what that building once was and was until we purchased it. It was a place where you had a whole bunch of telephone equipment that allowed people to communicate with each other. 

[Narrator] We’re going to be talking about a couple of different concepts here, you know, heritage buildings, community hubs. But the first one that warrants some discussion is mixed use. So it’s worth getting just a quick definition from Chris about what exactly mixed use is.

[Chris] You know, I think mixed use comes in different forms. A lot of people assume mixed use is residential and/or commercial development. I think mixed use comes in various forms where it could be institutional tied in with commercial. You could have things such as, like, a YMCA incorporated into the development of a high-density residential building or an office building. Likewise, mixed use could be also a combination of office, retail, and residential or hotel. Again, it’s a variety of uses that are developed on a site that are somehow, some way connected with each other either in one single structure or multiple structures that have some sort of ancillary kind of benefit to each other. I think that’s really it. And it comes in various shapes and forms. You could have mixed use that comes in a two-storey type volume or 30 storeys. It really depends on the type of use and location. But, yeah, that’s really mixed use in a nutshell. It comes in various forms. It comes in various types of uses and various scales. 

[Narrator] So where exactly did this idea of mixed use come from? What happened to it in a modern context? And why is there a need to bring back these kinds of buildings into the fabric of our cities?

[Chris] Well, I think it came really – you know, mixed us  I think has been around for I would almost say thousands of years. Ever since, really, we’ve been creating cities and you’ve had people living above where they operated sort of a store or a ceramics place or a blacksmith. Like, I think it’s evolved over time obviously as we’ve all improved and advanced technologically and whatnot, but I think, really, mixed use has come a long way over the centuries that we’ve been developing in cities. 

I think a lot of it happened during the industrialization as we started to see the development of these really large urban centres, primarily in Western Europe and along the eastern parts of the United States, you know, that whole notion of living above the storefront. It was also during a time when most people didn’t even own real estate. You were either very wealthy to own a building or real estate or your own home. The majority of people had to rent. Your built form would just be de facto that, well, we’re a growing city along a rail line and an industrial city. We’ll put the main floor retail and commercial services, apartments above where people rent and then the industrial zones kind of do their thing on sort of the outskirts and it’s all developed around a major waterway, along a coastline, or a rail line. 

You saw that over the years develop, and now I think mixed use for the most part is most of our cities that were built obviously until really the 1950s and mass suburbanization. We saw decoupling of the mixed use, where we went back to single use, and that was primarily driven by, you know, the push to the single detached or low-density lifestyle, postwar. That was fuelled, obviously, by the development of, I guess, financial instruments such as the mortgage through federal housing, through mainly the federal government in the Canadian context or in the United States that help people afford a mortgage whereas they couldn’t prior to that because you either had to pay significant amount of money to buy a single detached home or the mortgages were a very small portion of it. You know, they, by creating the inverse, helped I think decouple that mixed use, and we went away from it. Well why do you want to live on a busy street when you could live on a nice little corner acre or a three-quarter acre sort of lot? 

And, in addition, the advent of the automobile. You could drive to the store so you didn’t have to sort of provide the mixed use sort of lifestyle or sort of building form because you could get to these uses in different modes and maybe the private vehicle. You just saw, really, ultimately, a decoupling of that type of built form, and we really started to build a low-intensity urban landscape, and that proliferated for decades up until the last, you know, almost 20 years here now where we’ve started to see a shift back to this to say: “Well, I think the pendulum has swung too far to the left or right. We need to maybe go back to creating these neighbourhoods and districts that are more walkable.”

I think that shift has also been fuelled by a better acknowledgement that these cities that are growing outwards are not sustainable financially and/or environmentally. I think even fast-forward now with the acknowledgement and focus on climate change and doing things to help, you know, sort of change the direction we’ve been going with our climate that cities are at the forefront of that change. How do we do it? Well, we’ve got to build more compact, resilient, sustainable cities. 

[Narrator] The Oliver Exchange building sits on the corner of 121st Street and 102nd Avenue in the heart of a neighbourhood called – you might have guessed it – Oliver. In trying to answer our main question, “What does better look like?” it’s not just about more of X kind of building in Y kind of neighbourhood. It’s not just slam a bunch of mixed use wherever you can and call it a day. It’s about thinking about neighbourhoods as whole communities, and instead of asking, you know, “What do we want to build?” asking, “What does this community need?”

[Chris] Oliver was a neighbourhood where, really, you know, a large portion of its built form was actually built in the 1950s and beyond. It was a low-density neighbourhood that transformed itself into a medium and high-density neighbourhood over the course of decades. We just felt that it was missing this kind of little gathering place, something where people of various demographics could meet and stay and enjoy and something that they can call part of it. “Oh, go to Oliver and go to Oliver Exchange.” Very much what Ritchie Market did for Ritchie. We’re hopeful that the substation 600 development on 124th Street will do the same thing. 

It’s trying to create these little pockets of these little nodes within some of these great communities that people can help define their community with, and it’s usually, again, businesses that are tailored to support that type of local neighbourhood need and demographic although obviously Oliver Exchange attracts people from I think all across the city. That was really it. It was saying, you know, let’s try to do something in the middle of this high-density community that is impactful, that has a sense of place and permanence and, really, ultimately, leverages all the existing attributes that are there today: the bike lane, access to transit, the density, the demographic. I mean, we didn’t have to create that. That was already there. It was just a matter of saying: “Here we have this physical space. Let’s reposition that space to essentially accommodate what exists and what has existed for a number of years in that community.”

[Narrator] We started this episode by talking about this building’s history, the Oliver Exchange, a bastion of connection for over 100 years. But that history, the fact that this is a historic building, actually complicated some things in very interesting ways. It makes some things harder, but it also presents really unique opportunities.

[Chris] You know, a lot of these buildings obviously were built over 100 years ago. They were altered and renovated or added onto over the years, and you don’t know what you’re going to get until you start peeling back the layers. That’s always one of the biggest risks in any heritage building repositioning or adaptive reuse is that unknown. It’s expensive. Really, for us the reason why we take on a lot of these projects is that we do know the City of Edmonton has grants in exchange for designating this space to a municipal historic resource. If our plan is to retain, enhance, and keep the building, why not designate it? I mean, we see no negative encumbrance by virtue of not designating since we’re basically going to renovate it and keep it as is and in fact enhance it, so why not designate it in exchange for funds to help us do that? 

And these grants can come in the forms of hundreds of thousands of dollars, which are absolutely critical for us to do what we want to do to these buildings. I mean, it’s more than just simply putting on a, you know, layer of paint and new windows. I mean, we go in there and do some pretty intrusive work and a lot of risk you take on by doing that. Knowing we have the City as, really, a partner in this is comforting and absolutely critical for the success of any type of adaptive reuse in buildings that have a heritage designation. 

Now, buildings that don’t … the City does have a number of other grants that you can tap into which are suited for that. Again, they have been very pivotal in allowing us to do what we do and make them, ultimately, a financial success, which they have to be. I mean, at the end of the day we have our own partners and investors that we have to provide a return for, and if we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our job and there’s no project. We can’t do this for a net gain of zero or a loss. It’s got to make sense financially, and, you know, every successful project allows us to do more of these. 

But without the City and their grant programs a lot of these wouldn’t be made possible. It would be much easier to simply demolish it and/or really reduce the amount of scope we take on when we take on projects like this, so that’s really it. We try to find ways that a) we are in an area that qualifies for some of the grant programs the City of Edmonton has, and b) if it’s a heritage building, does it make sense to designate it based on what we want to do? Really, the vast majority of the buildings that we have that have a heritage designation are all now formerly designated a municipal historic resource.

[Narrator] If we want more of this kind of project in our communities, we have to be really honest about what kinds of challenges they face. 

[Chris] The real interesting part of all this is that you’re going to have municipalities establishing a policy framework to encourage more compact growth and redevelopment, and then you’re going to see the opposite side, which is: “Well, how far is that pendulum really going to swing to allow some of those policies really to come into effect?” It’s going to be a combination of maybe resistance by the development industry or the builder industry, too, obviously changing the way that they’ve done business for the last 40, 50-plus years. Community acceptance on it: “Well, wait a minute here. You know, you guys are just forcing our neighbourhoods to change and densify, and we feel it’s too much.”

So there’s going to be a real interesting balance that will really fall on the shoulders of the decision-makers on how far they want to push that needle. It’ll be interesting to see how far or how progressive some councils get and whether that’s under the influence of the development industry, the community, you name it and say: “Well, we know we need to get there, but we’re going too far or maybe in some cases like we’re not going far enough and we need to make real wholesale changes and come hell or high water this is what we’re going to do.” A lot of these decisions … you know, obviously what we’re doing here, little old Edmonton in our little corner of this wonderful planet, I think it’s one small little speck in a multitude of places around the world that are going to all have to make these tough decisions moving forward. 

[Narrator] Tough decisions. This has been, in a way, a series about tough decisions: the tough decision to reimagine how we plan and zone our city, the tough decision to try and do something new, the tough decision to recognize that what we’ve been doing hasn’t always necessarily worked exactly as we’ve wanted it to, and to imagine what better looks like. 

The theme that keeps looping and repeating in so many of our interviews has been this idea that cities, like the people that occupy them, like the old buildings that fill them, will never stop changing, and the rules and guidelines that govern how cities build and grow need to recognize that fundamental truth. 

That’s kind of at the heart of the changing bylaw that we made this podcast to look at, so we’re going to end this season there with one last word from Chris on how cities grow and change and evolve. Thanks for listening.

[Chris] Well, I think anybody who believes that, you know, cities are static are just simply mistaken. They’re living creatures. They are organic. They change every day in many shapes and forms. Buildings get built, buildings get demolished, buildings burn down, buildings get added on to, uses in buildings change. Roads and bridges get built where there were none before and trains and LRTs. This was once an industrial area that’s now becoming a mixed-use community or repositioned to commercial. You look at the brewery district in Edmonton. It was once a brewery, which had rail lines running all around it so it was very much an industrial type of use, and now it’s changed to sort of a commercial and office development. You know, same thing with rail town. It was once an intermodal yard, really, a switching yard for CP Rail, and it was converted into a mixed-use community. 

You can’t think that, oh, this low-density lifestyle that we have in this community isn’t going to change by virtue of the development pressures that we’re going to face as a city that grows bigger. I just think you’re seeing a real shift, and we’re really going to start to see that happen as cities start to develop policies that help address climate change. I think land-use policies and zoning are going to be the biggest tools that municipalities will use in order for them to address it. That means building, again, more compact and efficient cities.

[Narrator]: Making Space has been a limited-series production of the City of Edmonton. It was produced by and with help from, in no particular order:

Sticks and Stones Communications
Carola Cunningham from Niginan Housing Ventures
Susan McGee from Homeward Trust 
Chris Hoit from A1 Pawn
Cherie Klassen from Old Strathcona Business Association 
Chris Dulaba from Beljan Development 

Thanks for listening.