Paula Simons: Edmonton city council will need flexibility to save historic Brighton Block

PAULA SIMONS

Updated: June 15, 2018

I wanted to do it because I’m a glutton for punishment.
— Kenneth L. Cantor
 The Ernest Brown Block now known at the Brighton Block on Jasper Avenue and 96 Street in the days when horses and wagons were part of the downtown traffic flow. EDMONTON

The Ernest Brown Block now known at the Brighton Block on Jasper Avenue and 96 Street in the days when horses and wagons were part of the downtown traffic flow. EDMONTON

The Ernest Brown Block opened for business in 1912, the elegant Edwardian headquarters of Edmonton’s leading photographer, Ernest Brown. For years, the three-storey red brick and limestone building, later known as the Brighton Block, was one of the most iconic commercial buildings on Jasper Avenue, a symbol of Edmonton’s first great building boom.

But the block fell on hard times. It became a rooming house. Then it became a run-down rooming house.

In 2003, the Ukrainian Canadian Archives and Museum of Alberta bought the Brighton Block, along with the Lodge Hotel next door, with plans to turn them into a new museum. For three years, the museum board tried to maintain the Brighton Block as a rooming house — until health authorities deemed the place unfit for human habitation.

And then, the museum boosters fell on hard times. Without enough funds to get their museum built, they focused on the Lodge Hotel site. For more than a decade, the once-handsome heritage building sat empty and derelict until its roof rotted away and the building filled up with rainwater and pigeons.

It was ironic. The city’s heritage laws protected the building from demolition. But nothing seemed to protect it from being destroyed by the elements.

 Workers put in rebar in the stair core of the Brighton Block on Friday, June 15, 2018. GREG SOUTHAM GREG SOUTHAM / GREG SOUTHAM

Workers put in rebar in the stair core of the Brighton Block on Friday, June 15, 2018. GREG SOUTHAM GREG SOUTHAM / GREG SOUTHAM

Finally, in December 2016, the museum board sold the building to Primavera Developments, headed by Edmonton businessman Ken Cantor, for $1.875 million.

Now, Cantor and PCL Construction are hard at work on a rescue mission to save the outside of the handsome old building and turn it into the carapace of something new.

“I wanted to do it because I’m a glutton for punishment,” Cantor jokes.

In truth, it’s a massive and tricky job. Because the interior of the old rooming house had rotted out, the building needs to be completely gutted.

But PCL can’t demolish the interior until they complete a whole new support structure to keep the 116-year-old exterior brick walls from caving in. A new foundation. New support pillars. New poured concrete frame. A whole lot of rebar. That’s what PCL Construction crews are working on now.

Once the building gets a new skeleton to hold it up, PCL can get to work on removing the water-warped beams, the crumbling plaster, the splintering floors.

 Artist’s renderings of proposed additions and renovations to the Brighton Block also known as the Ernest Brown Block on Jasper Avenue and 96 Street. Courtesy Hodgson Schilf Evans Architects EDMONTON

Artist’s renderings of proposed additions and renovations to the Brighton Block also known as the Ernest Brown Block on Jasper Avenue and 96 Street. Courtesy Hodgson Schilf Evans Architects EDMONTON

The final plan is to retain and restore as many heritage elements as possible, but to build an entirely new building inside the exterior brick walls. And then? Then Cantor wants to add three storeys above the roofline, adding an additional 15,000 square feet of modern office space to the site — offices which will have stunning views of the river valley below.

Cantor says they hope to open for tenants next spring.

 

It’s not exactly a picture-perfect restoration of a heritage building. And adding three floors atop the roof to make a six-storey building would violate the zoning established for this part of The Quarters redevelopment plan. But given the catastrophic degree of interior damage to the Brighton Block, this creative facade-ism is the best chance to salvage what remains — and to give The Quarters another badly needed catalyst project.

Antoine Palmer is the president of Sparrow Capital, which pulled together the investment funds for the $14-million Primavera project.

 Dilapidated columns in the Brighton Block. GREG SOUTHAM / GREG SOUTHAM

Dilapidated columns in the Brighton Block. GREG SOUTHAM / GREG SOUTHAM

“We see the Brighton Block as an embassy for The Quarters,” he said. “We can’t just sit around and wait. What The Quarters needs is leadership and critical mass.”

 

Cantor says they’ve worked closely with city and the city’s heritage planners all along. Last week, the Edmonton design committee endorsed their designs for the site. City council is scheduled to hear an application to make significant changes to a heritage site June 26. Then, the rezoning application goes to a public hearing July 9.

Not everyone is going to love the idea of such a dramatic addition to a heritage building, or with granting a variance to The Quarters zoning. But with The Quarters redevelopment still spluttering along, I think this is too promising a proposal to turn down.

Which doesn’t solve the problem of the poor Ukrainian museum which was supposed to be built next door. No one from from the museum board was available to speak with me this week. But despite millions in government grants, and despite the proceeds from the sale of the Brighton Block, the museum seems no further along.

“We’d love nothing more than to see them finish and open at the same time we do,” said Cantor.

But as Cantor’s own project demonstrates, it’s hard to save a heritage building without a lot of investment capital — and a lot of construction savvy.

Adam Cantor
Edmonton developer wants to bring life back to east Jasper Avenue area with purchase of Brighton Block
 WATCH ABOVE: The future appears to be bright for a historic building in Alberta's capital. Over the years it's been a lot of different things from a photography studio to a rooming house. Vinesh Pratap has more on its past and present.

WATCH ABOVE: The future appears to be bright for a historic building in Alberta's capital. Over the years it's been a lot of different things from a photography studio to a rooming house. Vinesh Pratap has more on its past and present.

Those who have been on the east end of Jasper Avenue recently have seen a building covered in shrink wrap.

By Slav Kornik Web Producer  Global News

If you have good knowledge of Edmonton, you’ll know that what’s underneath the wrap is part of the city’s history. It’s the old Brighton Block which has been around for more than 100 years.

The Ukrainian Canadian Archives and Museum of Alberta is selling the property to local developer Ken Cantor and his company, PRIMAVERA Development Group.

Cantor has promised to bring renewal to the building and life back to the quiet area of Jasper Avenue, helping with The Quarters redevelopment efforts.

“It’s been a wonderful part the street edge and urban edge on Jasper Avenue for a long time and we’re looking forward to bringing it back to that sort of prominence,” Cantor said.

Although the building is listed as a municipal historic resource, Cantor said he won’t be seeking public funding for the restoration and renewal efforts.

“It’s the exterior of the building that has the heritage designation, so that’s basically all four exterior walls,” Cantor explained.

“We’ll be looking at the small addition at the top, probably a fourth and maybe a fifth floor. It’s been set back from the street so you won’t see it from the street.”

Martin Pawlina
Paula Simons: Ukrainian museum to sell heritage Brighton Block to local developer Ken Cantor
 Developer Ken Cantor is in talks to buy the Brighton Block. The building and the neighbouring Lodge Hotel are currently wrapped in white plastic. Image taken Wednesday, Dec, 28, 2016. GREG SOUTHAM / POSTMEDIA

Developer Ken Cantor is in talks to buy the Brighton Block. The building and the neighbouring Lodge Hotel are currently wrapped in white plastic. Image taken Wednesday, Dec, 28, 2016. GREG SOUTHAM / POSTMEDIA

As a city, let's resolve to take the future of our past more seriously.

PAULA SIMONS, EDMONTON JOURNAL

The long-derelict Brighton Block — a Jasper Avenue heritage landmark — may soon have a new owner. And a new future.

The building’s current owner, the Ukrainian Canadian Archives and Museum of Alberta (UCAMA), has just come to an agreement to sell the 1912 building to Edmonton businessman Ken Cantor and his company, Primavera Development Group. 

The list price for the property at 9666 Jasper Avenue was $2.35 million, but Cantor and UCAMA won’t reveal the final price until the sale closes in April. 

The deal, Cantor says, is still conditional on getting support from the city for his plans. He’s not asking for any grant money, he says. He does want the city to allow him to add a fourth floor to the three-storey building and to create a few more rear parking stalls. 

UCAMA, which also owns the old Lodge Hotel building next door, had originally intended to renovate both buildings, using the Lodge as a museum and using the Brighton as a revenue property to help pay for the museum. But the well-meaning museum volunteers are — to be blunt — in over their heads. While they did get federal, provincial and municipal grants of $9.25 million, in the last 14 years, they’ve only been able to raise $1.9 million from private donors — with more than half of that coming from a British Columbia donor. All renovation work stopped in late 2014. For two years, the buildings sat open and exposed to the elements. Only this month was UCAMA able to put on new roofing and wrap the buildings in protective tarp. 

President Paul Teterenko says UCAMA hired a professional fundraiser last month, and hopes to launch a new $20-million fundraising campaign sometime early in 2017. Teterenko says UCAMA plans to restart construction work within the next two years.

The Brighton Block, left, and the Lodge Hotel, right, shown in June 2016. Both buildings are now under wraps, literally. GREG SOUTHAM / EDMONTON JOURNAL

Meantime, the sale of the Brighton Block will help to pay for the costs of heating and maintaining the museum site next door. 

Cantor has his own plans for the Brighton. There’s been so much water damage to the interior of the building, he says, there’s almost nothing worth saving. 

“The only things now salvageable are the exterior walls and the frontage,” he says. 

He wants to save the striking outside of the building and rebuild the inside, leaving a few grace notes, such as the interior brick walls. He plans retail and commercial space on the main floor, and offices above. The site, a block from the courthouse, he says, would be perfect for a law firm or two. But he’d also like to attract tenants such as architecture or software firms who might be interested in “bespoke” offices in a cool building with a river valley view.  

Certainly, it’s an appealing vision, a classy project that could nudge along the painfully slow evolution of The Quarters. And Cantor, who spent 18 years as vice-president of commercial development for Qualico, certainly knows the downtown real estate market. But there have been so many promising projects for Jasper East over the decades, big dreams that never came true. After so many false starts and dashed promises, it’s hard to break out the champagne and pop the corks just yet.