The Peculiar Thing About Downtown Banff
The peculiar thing about downtown Banff’s 204 Wolf St. isn’t so much its mere 693-square-metre footprint or its irregular, five-sided polygon shape. It’s how the site’s one-storey Italian restaurant is almost completely surrounded by soaring three-storey concrete walls.
During the late 1980s, a lone property owner refused to sell to the developer of Cascade Plaza, a sprawling retail complex that dominates most of the city block. So, the developer simply built right up to the 204 Wolf St. property line, skirted around it, and kept going down the street.
More than 20 years later, the town has moved a step closer to fixing the blunder. It has conditionally approved a development permit application put forward by SDR Management of Calgary, which purchased the lot in 2004, that would result in a more harmonious streetscape while meeting Banff’s strict commercial property redevelopment rules.
“The 1970s and 80s was a period in time in architecture when … what was going to stand the test of time seems to have been lost on a lot of people,” says Randall McKay, manager of planning and development for the Town of Banff. “When the town incorporated in 1990, it adopted fairly stringent urban design and building design guidelines.”
Despite its awkward shape and a street front of less than 18 metres, the property is particularly attractive to developers because it sits where Wolf Street meets the north end of Bear Street, and boasts a south-facing unobstructed mountain view that’s rare in the downtown area.
SDR plans to make the most of it by erecting a three-story, mixed-use commercial building with retail and dining on the ground floor, and a larger second restaurant and private function space on the second floor and third-floor mezzanine, says Ron Poon, architect and vice-president, business development, NORR Architects Planners, Calgary.
“We’re still at a review and evaluation stage, scoping out cost and future revenue data to see if this can be a financially viable redevelopment project. If everything goes well, we may see construction start in early 2013,” says Josephine Tsu, a partner in SDR with Annette Fung. Ms. Tsu estimates construction costs alone could top $4 million.
The town holds commercial developers to a strict and challenging set of rules. For starters, no one can own land in Banff. All land is leased from the federal government, Mr. McKay explains. Banff is unique in that it’s inside Banff National Park, and is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “Land development in Banff is a privilege; it’s not a right,” Mr. McKay adds.
Under the 1998 Banff Community Plan, the town is allowed to allocate a maximum of 350,000 square feet to commercial lessees or property owners, Mr. McKay says. While the entire amount has been allocated, a handful of allotments have expired because the recipients failed to proceed with redevelopment within a five-year period. About 200,000 square feet of new commercial development has been constructed since 1998, and the town is deciding how to reallocate the square footage that has expired or has been returned to the pool, Mr. McKay explains.
Banff further controls the rate and amount of commercial building that can take place by using a complex allotment lottery process. “There are no vacant lots to develop… All development in Banff is actually redevelopment,” Mr. McKay says.
In its proposed design, NORR reflects an authentic mountain style while attempting to harmonize with Cascade Plaza’s Bavarian-flavoured adjacent buildings. The new building would use rustic materials such as rundle stone, rough-sawn wood and concrete roof tiles. Banff’s Municipal Planning Commission has asked SDR to extend the roofline of its proposed building at 204 Wolf St. so that more of the adjacent concrete wall is hidden. “The street has every type of shape and many different materials. We could have simply duplicated what’s on either side of our proposed building, but we’re trying to be much more restrained in look and feel,” Mr. Poon explains.
When designing the building, NORR had only 954.5 square metres of gross floor area to work with – and no more. Mr. Poon says designing for the space is akin to “playing with a jigsaw puzzle inside a bag.” And working within a very restricted amount of allowed floor space isn’t the most efficient use of the site, he admits. “If we could get another floor on that site it would make more sense in terms of streetscape. It’s a very humble little building that satisfies a number of issues. It’s not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a solution that works.”
The commission favours projects that will stand the test of time “in terms of connection to the town and the type of mountain architecture we desire in Banff,” Mr. McKay says, citing The Banff Centre’s Kinnear building, the Bison Courtyard and the Fox Hotel & Suites as stellar examples.
Built in 2007, the Fox Hotel features an all-natural stone exterior, and an interior hot pool re-creation of the area’s Cave and Basin National Historic Site.
“The Fox site used to be a service station, so right at the start there were additional costs associated with environmental cleanup,” says Gordon Lozeman, president and CEO of Banff Caribou Properties Ltd. “Then there was the process of waiting for cap allocations and just working through Banff’s unique and comprehensive development bylaws and design guidelines. Things like fake stone and neon signs are just not allowed here.”
Still, Banff’s rules are, for the most part, a good thing, says Mr. Lozeman, whose company is redeveloping the town’s century-old Canadian Pacific Railway station. “I suppose it goes with the territory – Banff is a pretty special place.”
This article was originally written for the Globe and Mail newspaper.