The Madness That Is Our Blind Quest For Progress| By Mike Royer

It is often said that history repeats itself. This is certainly true in Edmonton, at least when it comes to the way we deal with our heritage resources. One needs only to look at old photographs of Jasper Avenue, to see the array of  grand old buildings that once lined our streets. A stark contrast to the cold, soulless behemoths that have now taken their place.

In 1984 Mordecai Richler wrote “The capital of Alberta is a city you come from, not a place to visit, unless you have relatives there or an interest in an oil well nearby. On first glance, and even on third, it seems not so much a city as a jumble of a used-building lot, where the spare office towers and box-shaped apartment buildings and cinder-block motels discarded in the construction of  real cities have been abandoned to waste away in the cruel prairie winter.”

As someone who was born and raised here, I don’t entirely agree with his statement, but so far as his appraisal of local architecture is concerned, he is painfully correct. Over the hundred plus years since Edmonton officially became a city in 1904, we have rapidly gone from building edifices of stone, brick, steel and wood to structures of concrete, stucco, aluminum and vinyl. A city of intricate facades populated with shops, to one of blank walls and gravel parking lots. It would appear as though Edmonton was founded in the 60’s or 70’s, for the baffling amount of cold war era architecture that thrives at its heart. Faint memories and a spattering of plaques remain, to tell the story of what once was. Solemn reminders of the treasures we once had and could still be enjoying today if only we had possessed the foresight to retain them. The old Post Office, the McDougall Mansion, the Court House, the Arlington Apartments and the Tegler Building, to name but a few. The Tegler Building was declared an historic resource in 1981, but that designation was revoked by short sighted Councilors a mere three months later. I still feel sickened and disgusted every time I am faced with the smaller Bank of Montreal block, which was constructed in its place. A blatant insult to the classical and ornate Tegler, Edmonton’s first fireproof office building. Are we really so ashamed of those who preceded us, that we must obliterate every vestige of their existence at all costs? The tear it down lobby would have us believe that this is simply the cost of progress, but the funny thing about progress is, if you don’t remember where you came from, you really can’t measure how far you have come. How is the transition of our Downtown from a vibrant place of business to a wasteland progress? In Edmonton, we spend so much time tearing down and rebuilding, tearing down and rebuilding again and again, that it seems that we rarely make any significant progress in terms of meaningful city building.

The latest structures to be threatened by this trend are the Walterdale Bridge and Rossdale Power Plant.  These two local icons are visually interesting vestiges of our past, with rich histories and they were supposed to be protected. The bridge is listed on Edmonton’s much touted Register of Historic Resources and the power plant on the Alberta Register of Historic Resources. City Council recently requested that the Province rescind the Rossdale Plant’s designation, to pave the way for a potential demolition order. As for the bridge, in the City’s own words, the Edmonton Register contains “…buildings or structures within Edmonton that merit conservation ….” Having its name on the list meant that the Walterdale Bridge could not legally be demolished without City Council’s approval, which was of course, as in the case of the Tegler Building, easily obtained. How can we expect private home owners and businesses to bother with heritage planning, when our local government shows no real interest in following its own suggested best practices?

When one takes the time to examine the reports that were presented to Councilors, it quickly becomes obvious that the Walterdale is a bridge that can pay for itself. By the City’s own numbers, re-purposing it for cyclists and pedestrians has the potential to save taxpayers at least $11 million off the initial cost of the new bridge, that is to be built next to it, and yet this still isn’t good enough to save it. Instead, either by design, or through sheer incompetence, Administration doctored the report they released on November 15, 2011 and through smoke and mirrors accounting, created the illusion that saving the bridge would cost taxpayers money. Sadly this worked and for the most part Edmontonians are none the wiser. If you don’t believe me, examine this report for yourself, as it is freely available online. They failed to apply a consistent standard to both bridges, including the maintenance for the old bridge in the initial costs, while adding the maintenance for the new bridge as a mere footnote. Administration also conveniently forgot to include demolition costs in their initial scenario, which reduced the apparent cost of the new bridge by $4 million and that’s just the beginning. The truth is, that the Walterdale Bridge can very realistically continue to serve the people of Edmonton for another fifty or one hundred years or even more and that it would not cost us, but in fact put money back into our pockets in the process. The most important factors in the lifespan of a steel truss bridge are maintenance regime, environmental factors and the loads it is made to bear. All of these variables would swing substantially into the bridge’s favor, were it to be repaired, restored and made a part of the river valley trail network. No more heavy vehicles, no more road salt and a healthy painting every twenty years or so would mean a new lease on life for this structure. This work is not in addition to, but part of the restoration and maintenance estimates included in the City’s report.

As for the old argument of progress at the expense of heritage, it doesn’t hold true for the Walterdale Bridge any more than it has for our downtown core, in fact quite the opposite is apparent. The City of Edmonton’s transportation master plan, The Way We Move, states that “A walkable, cycle-friendly city supports the creation of a healthy, barrier-free, age-friendly and safe city where active modes are a preferred transportation choice.” Re-purposing the Walterdale, to serve as a dedicated cyclist and pedestrian bridge would go much further towards making Edmonton a walkable and cycling friendly city, than incorporating a multi-use trail into the new bridge ever could. Even though efforts have been made to plan a comfortable walkway on the East side of the new bridge, the fact can not be avoided that the closer we place pedestrians to automobile traffic, the more they are exposed to the resulting noise, pollution, road spray and vibrations. Consequently, the less comfortable they will be. Were the old bridge to be used for pedestrians and cyclists, not only would it place them further away from the unpleasantness of motor vehicles crossing the new bridge, but it could also provide far more space and even a potential gathering place where an open air market could be held. The new bridge can never accomplish this on its own, and yet we are still charging in with the wrecking ball.

In the case of the Walterdale Bridge, the City would have us believe that building a fancy new bridge and demolishing the old one is a bold new vision that will move us forward. They are partially right, but really this is the same mistake we have made countless times already; we can do much better. Yes it is important that we start putting more care into what we build, but we also need to start showing more appreciation for what we already have. Cities desperately need old buildings and Edmonton is no different. Heritage resources are just that, resources and not a burden to society, as we have so often treated them. They encourage tourism, economic development and walkability and contribute to the character and appeal of our urban fabric. They remind us of our rich history and help us to better understand who we are and where we are going. Once they are lost they are gone forever. Not surprisingly, two of the most vibrant streets in Edmonton, Whyte Avenue and 104th Street Downtown, represent some of the densest surviving concentrations of old buildings in the Capital region. It is sheer madness to pay an additional $11 million or more, for an inferior product, when there is a better option, that would preserve our history, save us money, improve traffic flow across the river and go further towards making our city a vibrant and walkable place to live. It has been estimated that it would cost about $7 million to mothball the power plant for future development, so by that estimate we could preserve both structures and still save at least $4 million off the cost of building the new bridge. That is before we even factor in the utility relocation costs that could result if the old bridge is demolished. The City has estimated that these costs may potentially be in excess of $10 million! If we could minimize this expense through the retention of the old bridge, it would clearly mean saving even more millions of dollars worth of taxpayer money.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over an over again and expecting different results.” By this definition our relentless destruction of our own historic resources, in the pursuit of progress, qualifies as a form of madness. Yes we should be building a new bridge, but the old one cannot and should not be cast aside like a worthless pile of scrap. The Walterdale Bridge deserves to be retained next to the new bridge as a dedicated cyclist and pedestrian bridge. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose by doing this. In the words of one visitor to the Save The Walterdale Bridge Facebook page “Save the bridge, it only makes sense.”

Cover photograph of sahlgoode, CC on Flickr

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  • While I disagree that this bridge will be such a terrible thing, I do feel like the power plant does have potential. I’m surprised you made no mention what so ever of the birth of West Edmonton Mall. Building downtown is the last thing we should be worried about since the dt core has never recovered from the displacement of all retail and tourist traffic that WEM and other node based shopping centers caused.

    Also your reference to building materials… we never lived in a city made of stone, and never would have. Building methods had surpassed solid stone wall construction long before Edmonton ever became a city. To understand Edmonton, you must understand it’s urban context. It’s major construction boom happened during the oil boom that started in the 60s. We have some of the most beautiful brutalist architecture around. Just because it isn’t your taste, it still has value. We’re currently experiencing another boom.

    Don’t get me started on that arena… and using Whyte avenue as an example is brutal… its success does not lie in it’s architecture. It relies heavily on the large student population from the neighbouring international university. Without it, it would be nothing.

  • Come on man, the Einstein quote is so overused. Find a new cliche.