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The demolition of ‘The Lookout’

The downtown revitalization plan may mean more historic
buildings like El Mirador may be things of the past

Unlike many cities, Edmonton does little to preserve a blend of period architecture downtown. (Brett Holden)

By Brett Holden

BEHIND BLUE construction gates and metal scaffolding sits a vacant lot that once was El Mirador Apartments.

Excavators rumble across the ground, as construction of the new The Parks project begins. A once small community that housed 45 apartment units is turning into two high-rise apartment buildings.

Iowa native Ralph Henry Trouth  began construction on the El Mirador in 1935, erecting three storeys onto an already existing house on 108th Street. Deemed a “rare (perhaps unique) example for Edmonton of a Spanish Colonial Revival courtyard apartment” by the Commonwealth Historic Resource Management, El Mirador was unlike anything the city had seen. Enamelled in white stucco walls and a red Mediterranean tile roof, the building looked straight out of Southern California, rather than Central Alberta.

(photo via: Edmonton Historical Board - Gordon Hearn

El Mirador, a rare Alberta example of Spanish-style architecture, was recently torn down to make room for a highrise. (Edmonton Historical Board–Gordon Hearn)

“Edmonton used to be much more diverse in the styles of buildings that were there,” city archivist Kathryn Ivany says. “And we’re getting less and less, as things get redeveloped.

“Many of the historic buildings in the core neighbourhoods tend to be demolished by neglect.”

More and more historic lots downtown are in danger of being torn down or demolished because of the city’s downtown revitalization efforts, Ivany says.

“The zoning system and the taxes now kind of demand that it be much more dense than it has been in the past. It’s the move towards densification that will doom any historic buildings surviving in the downtown core.”

Named after a 2,000-year-old Mayan metropolis, El Mirador, translates as “The Lookout.” Its exterior was vibrant and distinct, but the interior couldn’t keep up. Residents complained of constant heating issues and drainage problems. Even neighbours complained about its condition.

“Near the end – like the last year – I saw a firetruck there at least twice a month,” neighbour Spenser Kantor says. “You could see the roof was coming in, the walls all seemed slanted, that thing was going to come down either way.”

Despite the constant noise from the tired building, Kantor says he and other neighbours are torn over its fate.

“I don’t know if I’m more upset about the building going down, or the skyscraper that is going up,” he says.

Demolition of the Spanish-inspired building began last October, making way for a new wave of architecture in the city. The Parks will have two towers standing 35 and 45-storeys respectively, with a “mid-rise ‘link'” between the buildings, 13-storeys up. This development will be a striking contrast to the one built by Trouth in 1935.

All that remains of El Mirador is a vacant lot, a chain-link fence … and a lot of fond memories. (Brett Holden)

“Location, location, location,” Ivany says. “A lot of downtown is over-zoned.”

The city’s tendency to put too many people in the core, she adds, causes historic buildings like El Mirador to come down.

Ivany and the Edmonton Historical Board have identified numerous other locations around downtown that could be in danger of facing a similar fate to the El Mirador: the Canada Permanent building, the McLeod building and the entire areas of Jasper East, and Oliver.

Most cities build around historic structures, leaving them in the mix with the modern and mid-century modern buildings, Ivany says.

“We’re one of the very few places in the world that doesn’t have a mix of 100-year-old, or more than 100-year-old buildings in with modern buildings.”

However, Ivany says she fears the City’s constant redevelopment is harming not only historical buildings – constructed even as recently as 50 years ago – but the local economy, too.

“The notion that we can rebuild and reformat our downtown area every 40 years is incredibly expensive and environmentally irresponsible. But it’s the mindset that we have – that we are a modern city – so we tend to look down on anything that isn’t modern by whatever that definition is currently.”

One may wonder what can be done to help preserve these historical buildings?

“It’s a bit about Education. Some of the buildings out of the ’50s are perceived to be ugly,” Ivany says. “Appreciate things that are old! … When [people] go out to visit other places, they often choose places that have diverse and historic architecture.”

Additionally, Ivany says, she thinks responsibility should lie with the city as well. The new city plan talks a lot about history and heritage – but in the “citizen and quality of living” section. However, it isn’t really there in the planning department.

“For some reason, people think that 40 years of existence makes a building obsolete.”

The Parks project is estimated to cost around $100-million to construct; and despite the building permit issued on Jan. 4, there is no scheduled completion date at the time it was printed.

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