Developer Ivan Beljan poses for a photo in front of the now sold Strathcona Hotel at 10302 82 Avenue in Edmonton, on Friday, July 13, 2018. His company Beljan Development is planning a redevelopment of the historic building. Photo by Ian Kucerak/PostmediaIan Kucerak Ian Kucerak / Ian Kucerak/Postmedia


An Edmonton renaissance is happening, under our very eyes.

Hundreds of old buildings, most built between 1911 and 1915, are being “re-developed” by a new breed of developer.

Re-development is much more than renovation. Old buildings are gutted, stripped down to their bones and re-built, but in a style respecting historical roots.

It’s a beautiful thing: The Brighton Block, Strathcona Hotel, Williams Hall (the original downtown YMCA), Molson Brewery, Old Strathcona’s Crawford Block, Mercer Building, Gibbard Block (La Boheme), Substation 600 on 124 St, the Oliver Exchange, even the Camsell Hospital … the list of buildings being restored/re-built/re-developed goes on and on.

What’s different is the attitude of the new re-developers. They’re as hard-nosed and entrepreneurial as ever, and they are making money. But Ivan Beljan, Anton Morgulis, Devin and Kelly Pope, Antoine Palmer, Ken Cantor and a dozen other “boutique redevelopers” are mostly born-and-bred Edmontonians with a passion for the city, a social conscience and a desire to make old buildings beautiful again.

Older city developers have tended to be about suburbs, boxy high-rises and cookie-cutter homes.

These cats, these re-developers, are as interested in architecture, design and urban planning as they are in development. They have gained the trust of city hall and city planners, resulting in sensible land-use policy and rules to create liveable, character buildings. This is private enterprise with a human face.

So why is such a redevelopment boom happening?

The Brighton Block building is seen under construction in Edmonton, on Friday, June 15, 2018. Photo by Ian Kucerak/Postmedia Ian Kucerak / Ian Kucerak/Postmedia

“The market has changed,” says Cantor, who is re-developing The Brighton Block on Jasper Avenue East. “Tenants accept the value of re-development. They are prepared to pay new-building lease rates for the look, flavour and feel of fully renovated, A-class heritage space.”

Ivan Beljan’s Beljan Developments is the city’s re-development industry leader, with dozens of completed redevelopments such as the Oliver Exchange, the downtown Metals Building, and the micro-apartment Crawford Block. Beljan has just purchased the landmark Strathcona Hotel, to be developed, exterior intact, into retail, hospitality, office and residential spaces.

“My family came from Europe and I loved its historic buildings,” says Ivan. “On graduation, my friends were leaving Edmonton. They felt the city lacked character. Restoration is my way of improving my city.”

Beljan’s a keen sociological observer. Micro-apartment conversion is on his mind. “Today’s 20-year-olds don’t want cars and houses. They want ease-of-life and social experiences. They want furnished micro-apartments where all they bring is luggage.”   Hence Beljan’s purchase and conversion of the original downtown YMCA – Williams Hall – into modern micro-apartments.

Anton Morgulis bought the Holland apparel warehouse north of the Edmonton Cemetery and a few blocks east of 124 Street, promising the late Marv Holland that he would keep the name alive. Holland Plaza is a successful warehouse conversion into lofty, trendy, beautiful spaces such as Café Linnea and the Local Omnivore.

“Financially, it’s about lease rates,” says Morgulis, who’s now designing the conversion of Discount Jim’s furniture store on nearby 107 Avenue into an Amsterdam-inspired plaza to be called Manchester Square. “A warehouse fetches $7 to $10 a square foot. A first-class retail conversion brings in $20 to $50 per square foot.”

Developer John Day (Garneau Theatre, Enbridge Tower) and architect Gene Dub (Camsell Hospital conversion, the re-built Alberta Hotel) are the “godfathers” to this generation of re-developers. Both did re-developments long before they became trendy.

The view of downtown from the penthouse at the Charles Camsell Hospital, Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Greg Southam

“It’s great to see,” says Dub. “Re-birthing old buildings is good for the community, and there’s nothing more sustainable than modernizing aging building systems.”

Day takes his hat off to the re-development next gen. “It’s a tough, challenging business. Every old building is unique. Mistakes can be super-expensive. We de-constructed a lot of history in the ‘80s. It’s good to see the interest return.”

Good housing policy, bad housing policy:  Compare the caring attitude of re-developers to many “skinny-house” builders exploiting city council’s densification policies.

My neighbours engaged in casual conversation with a “skinny house” developer who, after tearing down the originals, was building four new houses on two nearby lots.

We concluded this developer, a new-comer to the city, had no interest in our community. He was only in it for the money, was building unattractive houses as cheaply as possible.

The city’s re-development policies are re-birthing architecturally relevant and historic buildings.

Densification bylaws are weakening neighbourhoods and encouraging demolition, not restoration.