Paula Simons: Edmonton city council will need flexibility to save historic Brighton Block
Updated: June 15, 2018
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.
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.
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.
“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.