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Scarboro Community Association seeking unique protection for their neighbourhood’s unique design

The Scarboro Community Association is asking for heritage protection of their neighbourhood in a way that Calgarians haven’t seen before.

It’s hoping the entire community can get protection as a ‘heritage area’ due to its unique ties to the prestigious and historically important Olmsted design firm.

The City of Calgary’s Inventory of Evaluated Historic Resources lists less than 500 individual sites that have been evaluated for heritage protection, according to City.

Scarboro emerges out of Sunalta success

Scarboro’s roots can be traced to the Calgary real estate boom in the early days of Alberta’s history. In 1912, after tremendous success selling land in the neighbouring community of Sunalta, CP Rail developed loftier ambitions and sold large, irregular-sized lots on streets that were set out in curves carved into the hilly terrain. Large public parks were reserved throughout the area, after the British ‘Garden City’ period.

These parcels of land sold like hotcakes, and as development commenced, the neighbourhood that’s known today as Scarboro was born.

“The design prepared by a world-class landscape architectural firm, involving John Charles Olmsted, CP Rail and William R Reader, is what lends value to the entire neighbourhood of Scarboro as a heritage asset,” said Tarra Drevet, Scarboro resident and the Chair of the Planning Committee on the Scarboro Community Association’s Board of Directors.

Sunalta topographic map signed by the Olmsted brothers. SCREENSHOT

Olmsted coined the term ‘landscape architecture,’ and the Olmsted firm’s designs are renowned for their retention of natural beauty found in land. Scarboro was intentionally designed on a hilltop for this purpose.

Perhaps the most famous example of an Olmsted’s ‘landscape architecture’ is Central Park in New York City, which is like a sanctuary amid modern metropolitan life. Like Central Park, Scarboro remains a stones’ throw away from the conveniences of Calgary’s downtown core; the best of both worlds nimbly co-exist in this historic inner-city treasure.

Only three neighbourhoods in Canada can lay claim to a fully-developed Olmsted design – the other two located in Toronto and Victoria, BC, respectively. The one in Victoria acquired heritage area designation in 2018, and the Scarboro Community Association is asking residents to follow Victoria’s lead so that future development will only complement the character of this neighbourhood.

Area lens for Scarboro heritage preservation

A view down Shelbourne Street SW in Scarboro. HEIDI EXNER / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

“What we’re trying to do in Scarboro is something new for Calgary. We’re using an ‘area’ lens to talk about heritage,” Drevet said. She acknowledged that the communication campaign is just beginning, and she has not ruled out the possibility of seeking specific protection for heritage buildings as well.

“First and foremost, however, our campaign focuses on the area of Scarboro,” she said.

Though not familiar with the prestigious particulars of Scarboro’s historic ties, one resident, who asked to remain anonymous, has questions about what designation as a ‘heritage area’ means for his property.

While he’s concerned about limitations this protection might impose on potential upgrades or renovations to his home, he said, “it would be great to protect the neighbourhood’s character. There is a sense of history here that I want my son to be able to enjoy one day.”

According to Drevet, the pursuit of heritage area designation would mean that members of the community could define goals and lay out their vision for the neighbourhood as a collective.

Neighbourhood improvements, new developments, and individual properties would be compatible with the goals for preserving the character and history of the neighbourhood. Benefits also apply to streetscapes, pathways, and parks in the neighbourhood, as they could be enhanced with new plantings and interpretive plaques.

Additionally, new development would be restricted to single-family and non-commercial structures, with a house setback of 20 or 30 feet. This caveat is currently in place but isn’t enforced by the City. It’s only enforced by the Scarboro Planning Committee, at great cost and effort by neighbourhood volunteers. 

Unique history makes Scarboro special

Drevet said it’s important to preserve Scarboro’s unique neighbourhood history.

“’The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ is what we talk about when we refer to heritage area designation, Drevet said.

“Together, the parks, the streetscapes, the houses and the community’s use of them are what make Scarboro special.”