‘It’s heartbreaking’: Calgary may lose heritage site to mixed residential high rise

Few details on what a proposed new building would look like as the development permit hasn't yet been sought

The Area on 4 Street and 15 Avenue at risk of being demolished for a new mixed commercial and residential building. TWITTER

A proposed new development in the Beltline is raising concern it will demolish area historic buildings that are still in use.

The R. H. Williams Block at 4 Street SW and 14 Avenue SW currently operates as Red’s on 4th and the Winston Manor apartment building.

Jeanie Gartly is a consultant that specializes in heritage conservation, and downtown and established community revitalization. She evaluated the Williams Block for the city.

“Every [building] that we lose for something new means you’ve lost the history, the stories, the character of a community.” 

Significance of the buildings

The Williams Block features a brick facade, flat-roofed, two-storey buildings, designed in the Edwardian commercial style. It has a 45-degree corner at the confluence of 4 Street and 15 Avenue SW with an entrance door.

The building sported green canopies over the full-length retail windows – a common addition at the time.

The Williams Block has a rich history, going back to 1926. R. H. Williams set up Calgary’s first independent dress shop here. He was an expert ladies tailor who made clothing for King Edward VII’s wife, Queen Alexandra before immigrating to Calgary.

GLENBOW MUSEUM WEBSITE

In the 1940s and 1950s, Eva Reid lived in the Williams Block apartments. She was a social reporter for the Albertan, the predecessor of the Calgary Sun. Reid covered police and society beats and is considered a pioneer female journalist.

It was kept in title by the executrix of the Williams’ estate upon his death in 1958 – Barbara Haycock. It stayed as a part of the P.W. Haycock Holdings Ltd. until 2015.

The City of Calgary recognizes the R. H. Williams Block as a historic resources in its inventory.

The Williams Block building. / CITY OF CALGARY.

“Those are the kinds of heritage values that these buildings have,” Gartly said. 

Winston Manor’s community importance

Kelly Mandeville has lived in the Beltline area for over a decade, and used to live in the Winston Manor for nine years.

“I feel like Calgary is chipping away slowly at anything we have left that represents where we came from and the great things that have happened here in the past,” she said. 

Mandeville said the Winston Manor is extremely important to her. She talks about the community connection it had in times of distress. 

She mentions the painting After the Flood by James Wyper, an artist who lived in Winston Manor at the time of the 2013 flood.

“He painted it because he knew how much [the flood] impacted that community and our city as a whole.”

After the Flood by James Wyper | @JAMESWYPER on Instagram

Gartly said both the R. H. Williams Block and the Winston Manor are still structurally sound buildings of good quality. They have not been neglected and can be adapted and reused. 

“To just knock them down isn’t responsible. It’s heartbreaking for me to watch these buildings be demolished, especially buildings that are perfectly fine. If it’s being used that’s even more sad,” she said.

Heritage value of the Williams Block

While heritage sites and values are documented, Gartly said it is more interesting for people to have the site still standing to learn about them.

“When those buildings are gone that corner won’t ever feel the same. It’s not gonna have that connection that people walk by and think about. People won’t be interested,” she said.

Gartly has done urban planning for the Beltline area. She said that while the Beltline is densifying, heritage buildings can still coexist with new developments. 

“There’s no reason that [heritage] buildings can’t all be staying amongst the new density.”

Gartly said it’s not onerous to preserve historic buildings if they’re maintained.

“It doesn’t cost any more than it would be if you’re maintaining anything.”

Plans for redevelopment of the Williams Block site

There are few details on exactly what a new building (or buildings) might look like – or if they’ll keep any of the original historic structure intact.

We called both the listed name on the development – Cyril Tomlinson, and the developer handling the land use redesignation, o2 Planning + Design. Multiple calls were made and messages were left, but no calls were returned.

The land use application proposes to change the designation of the properties to allow for a maximum building floor area of 28,000 square metres – up from the current max of 23,000 square metres.

The City of Calgary’s development website says that the design, layout, mix of uses and parking will be done through the development permit.

The website also says they are currently accepting comments on the application while it’s under review.

The entire shaded green area will be developed if the application is approved. / CITY OF CALGARY.

Affordability at risk, said Gartly

Gartly said that the new developments are also making the currently affordable area less affordable.

“It’s not intensifying in a way that people can actually live here,” she said.

Mandeville said the area doesn’t need another high rise. Many high rises have stayed empty for long periods of time, even years, because nobody can afford to cover the cost.

She said it’s concerning that this development would continue despite going through a recession.

Gartly agrees there isn’t a need for it right now.

“This isn’t the time to be knocking it down and losing it all without any thought going forward,” she said.

Why have a heritage inventory?

Gartly said the architecture is important because new buildings lack the attention to detail that older buildings have. 

“There’s character-defining elements down to the coursing of the brick; architects don’t design that kind of detail anymore,” she said.

Mandeville questions why the city even has sites in the heritage inventory if a developer can simply build over it after paying an additional fee.

She said that expansion of the city should not come at the expense of destroying things that have historical relevance.

“If we’re willing to tear down one of the last remaining oldest blocks of the city, then where does it stop?”

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