See the above posts for information and photos of the heritage buildings on the EnCana site.
Will EnCana's twin towers make the most of our heritage?
Bob van Wegen / Calgary Heritage Initiative
For The Calgary Herald
Sunday, June 11, 2006
Calgarians have seen many new skyscrapers over the years, but rarely has a project been so anticipated as the soon-to-be-unveiled EnCana tower.
EnCana, riding a crest of resource revenue, hired internationally renowned architect Sir Norman Foster and sponsored an exhibit of his work at the Glenbow Museum to stoke expectations.
The involvement of the architect of London's famous gherkin-shaped skyscraper and France's ethereal Milau Viaduct has raised hopes that EnCana's building will be an instant icon of Calgary's future.
But what about the remaining icons of Calgary's past?
The EnCana site includes or is adjacent to five heritage buildings, two of which are known to have been purchased by EnCana. This is a significant portion of our downtown heritage buildings outside of the protected area of Stephen Avenue. What are the risks for heritage and what are the opportunities?
EnCana's project is expected to cover most of two blocks between 5th and 7th Avenues, from Centre Street to 1st Street S.E.
On the eastern edge of the northerly block are the city-owned No. 1 Firehall and the 1913 North-West Travellers Building. The latter was recently restored and designated a provincial heritage site, which gives it official protection. The city is considering similar protection for the 1911 firehall.
On the other block are three heritage buildings along 7th Avenue. EnCana purchased the 1930 York Hotel from the city, as well as the 1913 St. Regis Hotel. Neither is officially protected. The city-owned No. 1 Legion between the hotels is a provincial heritage site.
City representatives have said that EnCana's development may "go over or abut the Legion."
So the unprotected York and the Regis are presumably at greatest risk.
When an old building is sold to developers, that is often bad news for heritage. In some cases, the city or province may provide funding or tax breaks, or use overriding legislative power to preserve a building. But typically when heritage is at stake, there is a negotiation between the developer and public authorities. If a developer is sympathetic and can achieve what he needs on a site without destroying heritage, there is a good chance for a win-win outcome. In the case of EnCana, there are lots of reasons to be optimistic.
EnCana wants about 2.1 million square feet of space, reportedly in one or two towers, one of which would be more than 60 storeys. That's about the same floor space as the nearby Petro-Canada Centre, whose tallest tower is 52 storeys.
EnCana has assembled most of two blocks, but the northern block seems more suitable for a major building: With both 5th and 6th Avenues open to traffic, it has better access for underground parking. The city allows major parking facilities along routes such as 5th Avenue, but prohibits them along the LRT line. Also, the existing heritage buildings are situated on the eastern edge of the site, while the rest of the block is made up of surface parking lots.
The southern block is much more complicated. Along 7th Avenue, the protected Legion is in the middle of EnCana's properties. And while the York and the Regis are not protected, their heritage value is recognized.
The Regis sports a beautiful terracotta facade and the York boasts art deco friezes, very rare in this province. EnCana's news release at the time of the York purchase said the company "intends to carefully maintain the historical value" of the property.
If EnCana were solely interested in utilitarian office space, it did not need to purchase the York and Regis or hire Foster. So what is their interest in the frontage on 7th and how does Sir Norman tie in?
It's counterintuitive, but preserving heritage can help a developer build a bigger project. If the York and the Regis were to be preserved, they could participate in a "density transfer." This is a city policy that allows the unused development potential of a protected heritage building to be transferred to another site. A current example is in Victoria Park, where a density transfer is providing the Arriva condo project with added density and preserving two historic school buildings.
The city is also developing a similar policy that would allow heritage buildings to transfer unused "parking rights." To encourage transit ridership, developments in the core are allowed to build only half of their parking and must pay "cash in lieu" of the rest. Parking transfers from heritage buildings would allow developers of new buildings have more valuable parking onsite.
To achieve such policy benefits the preserved buildings must be substantially intact. While keeping the facade of a building may be "better than nothing" (a much argued point) the reuse and integration of whole buildings, such as the Lancaster Building attached to TD Square, is more satisfying. Historic buildings can also be successful as character office space that integrates old charm and new technology. The York and the Regis have many productive years ahead, if they are saved in the EnCana project.
EnCana has said it wants to create a "village," which suggests a variety of building types, activities and people. There have been talks with the Glenbow about relocating to the EnCana site.
EnCana recently invited arts, cultural and scientific organizations to submit proposals for the use of space in the complex. The 7th Avenue frontage on the Olympic Plaza Cultural District, with Art Central and other neighbours, suggests many opportunities.
With existing buildings providing historic character, EnCana's village could be the kind of cross-time showpiece that Foster is famous for.
Foster is noted for contemporary interventions in historic settings, such as the glass dome of Berlin's Reichstag and the courtyard of the British Museum.
Before London's Gherkin, his best known tower was the 1997 Commerzbank headquarters in Frankfurt, billed as the first ecological skyscraper. From a green building perspective, the casual disposal of heritage buildings is frowned upon, and Commerzbank includes restored or rebuilt historic buildings at its base.
Current Foster projects, the Hearst Tower in New York and Jameson House in Vancouver, also preserve and integrate historic buildings.
The same kind of opportunity exists here. The York, the Legion and the Regis, with a parking lot between them, today present a somewhat gap-toothed appearance along a seedy 7th Avenue.
But imagine the scene a few years hence, with a light glass and steel atrium stretched high across the gap between the York and the Regis.
Beneath the atrium, you could be sipping a morning coffee on the rooftop of the old Legion Hall, together with office workers, artists and veterans from downstairs, while commuters slip between the preserved brick buildings on their way to work. A futuristic EnCana tower complex with a historic storefront on Calgary's emerging cultural district.
In times of prosperity, cities are sometimes graced by architectural projects of enduring quality and style. Perhaps this is Calgary's time. Time for a private enterprise project that contributes to Calgary's public life and incorporates rather than demolishes our heritage.
EnCana has the means, the property and the talent. Now we can only wait and see.
Bob van Wegen is a director of the Calgary Heritage Initiative Society