Concrete steps, are in effect preventing—to turn the phrase—concrete steps being taken towards accessible and inclusive arts in Calgary, according to National accessArts Centre CEO Jung-Suk Ryu.
At issue for the NaAC is a set of entryway stairs located at the former Guides-Scouts Canada building in the community of Hillhurst.
The building, which was granted a historical designation by the City of Calgary in December of last year, was also the proposed new home for the NaAC, following the collapse of the Fairview Arena roof where the organization is located.
Speaking to LiveWire Calgary last February, Ryu called the potential to move to the Guides-Scouts Canada building an “exciting opportunity.” It was due to begin construction in late 2021 to early 2022. Now he said that process has been delayed due to the building being a designated historical building.
“We are constantly banging our heads around the fact that this building is now a formally-designated heritage building, with an incredibly ugly concrete staircase on the front of that building that’s now immovable, supposedly,” he said.
Ryu said conversations have shifted to building a side entrance for users.
“I implore the city, and all other partners to really think carefully about how this can be a real opportunity to push people with developmental or physical disabilities to the forefront of our city as active, creative and engaged citizens.”
Accessibility, and messaging of stairs at issue for NaAC
Currently, the staircase and abutting ramp as designed, don’t meet the needs of disabled and mobility-challenged artists, said Ryu.
“There are some unique features to that building that we totally understand are worth celebrating and respecting for the long run,” he said.
Ryu said celebrating stairs constructed for a location built in the late 60s, when there were different opinions on people with disabilities is frustrating.
“I think it’s a little insulting to those who are working in the disability movement,” he said.
What has been proposed by the City of Calgary is a new east-facing entrance way with modern code-compliant ramps.
A City of Calgary statement sent to LiveWire Calgary said an option is being explored to reorient the building from the current south-facing entrance to the east-facing side to “put an emphasis on the modern universal access principles.”
They said that this would allow for use of the building by the NaAC. It would also allow for the retention of the historical design and features that make up the historical designation.
Ryu said this would be a solution. But he also believed that this would have continued negative messaging for the disabled community.
“Stairs, especially today, are seen as an incredibly discriminatory design principle for somebody in a wheelchair,” he said.
“This concept of retaining that main entrance, and retaining the stairs, and retaining the architectural significance of that building facing Memorial Drive, and developing a side entrance, that conversation in and of itself is extremely discriminatory,” he said.
Ryu said that he believes that it invokes negative images of historical discrimination about who was allowed to use main entrances, and who was forced to use side entrances. He said that the optics of that for anyone driving along Memorial drive would be horrible.
“I’m not willing to let that kind of history repeat itself. I don’t want people to think that it’s OK because it just happens to be people with disabilities, and we’re not having that conversation about race.”
Stairs part of the heritage designation
The City of Calgary said there’s been a considerable interest to preserve the facility’s defining heritage elements.
Of those elements, the staircase at issue was referenced twice in the bylaw granting historical designation to the building:
“An austere central entryway accessed by a wide formed concrete stairway, is detailed with clerestory windows and vertical glazed panels, creating transparency and relief from the blankness of the structure.”
And again as a character defining element, stating “additional features such as wide formed concrete stairway with metal open balustrade.”
In that same statement, the city said that “NaAC has expressed interest in removing the stairs and this is not possible given the historical significance of that architectural feature.”
“The stairs have been identified as a historically defining element through consultation with the City’s Heritage Planning team and Heritage Calgary. Regardless, we are committed to finding a workable solution that highlights both accessibility and heritage in an elegant solution that leverages the existing historical elements and the current and future design configurations of the site.”
The city said that as a part of their Heritage tenant welcome letter, following the entering into an agreement with the NaAC, that the arts organization was made aware of the historical nature of the building, and the expectations of maintaining a heritage building.
Councillor Wong says two timelines on project
Ward 7 Coun. Terry Wong said that there are two timelines for the Guides-Scouts building.
“One is the engagement time to have a conversation and make sure we understand what the mutual aspirations and desires are, and I think that we could do that soon,” he said.
“I think to get people comfortable and ready to celebrate moving forward, I’d like to honestly do that sooner.”
He said that the construction timeline is based on how quickly that NaAC needed to move from the Fairview Arena. Similarly, the capital budget timeline for the proposed $2.5 million project.
Coun. Wong said that he hoped there would be a solution that would allow for the south-face to remain, but also meet the accessibility needs of the NaAC.
“I’m not a fan of turning the east-side, we’re taking away the what would be the elegance of what the south face looks like,” he said.
“There’s great opportunity to preserve the main entrance on the south side, especially when people drive along Memorial Drive back and forth.
He would be speaking to the City’s Facilities Management group based on Ryu’s concerns.
Wong said that there may be a way to keep the staircase but provide better accessibility at that entrance.
Conversation over disability arts in Calgary
Both the NaAC and the City said talks haven’t stalled on how to best move forward on the Guides-Scouts building.
Ryu and city officials have been having meeting every couple of weeks on the building. He is, however, concerned that by continuing to make the staircase an issue, that the city may eventually end the agreement with the NaAC.
He said that the disabled arts community has played an important role in showcasing Calgary, and Canada internationally.
“This is the country’s largest disability arts organization, period,” he said.
“Our artists have now gone on to exhibit works in, in every corner of this world. We are showcasing Calgary and Canada in a completely different way than ever before, especially from an arts and culture perspective.”
“Our organization—I believe of course, I’m biased—I believe needs to be seen as an incredible cultural asset.”