Sylvancroft's role in the modernization of Edmonton architecture

A residential development builds on the capital's past while pushing it toward the future

Chris Dulaba’s bio packs an idealistic punch you don’t often see on the websites of real estate developers.

It makes no mention of track records, whether his own or that of Edmonton’s Beljan Development, where he’s a partner and “placemaker” by title. There’s no reference to performing “on time and on budget,” no showing off of awards, no abuse of the word opportunity.

Instead, there’s this, full of hope on one hand, provocation on the other, and too earnest to be purely a sales pitch:

“I believe that this city is on the verge of redefining itself. There is a greater sense of optimism for what Edmonton can be. The next generation is demanding more, demanding better – better neighbourhoods, better housing, better design and a better city. Mediocrity is no longer acceptable.”

"This city is on the verge of redefining itself."

Since March 2012, he and company founder Ivan Beljan have been working on their own remedy for “mediocrity” in the capital. At its core is a 100-year-old, 575-square-metre (6,200-square-foot) mansion known as Sylvancroft, located on two otherwise empty acres just a few kilometres west of the downtown core.

If all goes according to plan, the Edwardian brick-and-stucco home will soon be surrounded by a collection of modern houses, net-zero ready and custom-designed by Jamie Thompson (Carpenter ’78) of the House Company, Beljan’s builder for the project.

Through that contrast of old-meets-new – and by creating a vibrant, pedestrian-oriented neighbourhood – Dulaba and Beljan believe a revamped Sylvancroft could help set a new tone for local architecture and raise the esteem of the city in the eyes of young professionals looking to have tickets stamped for Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary.

Sitting in Duchess Bake Shop, a few blocks from Sylvancroft in one of the city’s hip arts and shopping districts, Dulaba (Urban and Regional Planning Technology ’99) considers the issue over lattes with Beljan and Thompson.

“Edmonton has an image problem,” he says.

He thinks that’s due partly to the lack of recognition of inherent strengths and virtues, among them a strong post-secondary community that diversifies the economy and buoys local arts and culture, the parks and trails of the river valley, and summers many would be surprised by in a “northern” city.

But he also sees a more concrete culprit: weak planning and design that has led to suburban bloat and limited the walkable spaces that bring life and character to the world’s most notable cities.

In Dulaba’s mind, Beljan’s Sylvancroft “is a symbol that you can develop great buildings – great architecture– that mean something, that make a statement.”

With construction of the new homes underway, the statement is clear enough: Edmonton, long the victim of quick and dirty boom-time growth, can and will look modern and distinct. But can a few high-end houses bring us closer to the “better city” of Dulaba’s vision?

sylvancroft edmontonReinventing – and rebuilding – Sylvancroft

In Dulaba’s world of urban planning, “placemaking” is about listening and responding. It identifies the strengths of a site and works with the community to bring those forward to enhance livability. In its truest form, it’s grassroots, not top-down, development.

“It’s something that’s been overlooked for a decade” in Edmonton, he says, resulting in a “soulless” landscape. Now, he and Beljan feel Sylvancroft offers an ideal opportunity to help turn that around.

Next door to some of the city’s oldest and most desirable neighbourhoods, these two acres, once heavily wooded with oak, elm and evergreen trees, represent a somewhat romantic history of Edmonton.

According to historian Lawrence Herzog, original owner Harry Evans came to Alberta from Ontario as an entrepreneur, parlaying his mining success into finance and real estate, and generating enough wealth to let him import Sylvancroft’s stucco and trees from Scotland.

“The mansion quickly became an integral part of Edmonton’s upper-class social scene, and it frequently hosted dignitaries and visiting celebrities,” writes Herzog.

In the winter, the yard was flooded for hockey and skating parties. Add the fact that Evans gave back to the community through the Rotary club and served as mayor in 1918, and the story surrounding Sylvancroft becomes positively idyllic.

As such, it’s the anchor, thematic if not structural, of the Beljan concept. “It’s the vista at the end of the road, and a reflection of what this site was about,” says Dulaba.

“We could have gone in and rezoned the site for condos,” he says, his tone self-assured but not overconfident. “[City] council would have approved it because it’s infill.”

Instead, he and Beljan plan for about eight additional modern homes, some of them duplexes, along one side of a new road (Sylvancroft Lane) that loops back at the mansion. “If you put a bit more thought into it, you can create something special. It’s those special developments that become timeless.”

Achieving that effect will be easier with the new homes, designed and built from scratch.

“Everything we build is an individual piece,” says Thompson, who, as a partner and principal designer at the House Company, has been creating modern residential architecture for 25 years. The iPhone aside, he jokes, “You can’t design anything for everyone.”

“You can’t design anything for everyone.”

In addition to being built to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, the new houses will stand out for their hallmarks of modern design: flat roofs, clean and simple lines, and banks of windows to admit as much natural light as possible.

Starting at roughly $650,000 for half of a duplex, each home will be unique, “for people who want a house to be an extension of themselves.”

Working with the mansion in its current state of disrepair, however, will be challenging. In fact, its fate at the time of writing depended on finding buyers to commit to the costs of bringing the house up to code, let alone renovating it.

“You have to start by ripping the inside out completely,” says Thompson. The house has no insulation, which means opening up the walls. The windows retain little heat. The boiler is original, requiring replacement and new pipes. Then there’s the electrical.

All told, the work would cost around $2.5 million, Thompson guesses, on a property that listed, house and land, for $3.62 million in 2010. Saving it “would take a white knight,” says Dulaba, “somebody that has a certain sensitivity to redoing those types of homes.”

Thompson, with roughly two decades more experience than his young-gun partners, isn’t bothered by the prospect of modernizing the mansion. Instead, it fascinates him. “In the end,” he says, “I think it would be a great project.”

sylvancroft development design planThe challenge for Sylvancroft

If well executed, it could certainly address Dulaba’s concerns about mediocrity. And perhaps others’ worries as well.

Before the downturn, Edmonton architecture had reached such a point of underachievement it drove Mayor Stephen Mandel, in 2005, to issue one of his most memorable proclamations: “Our tolerance for crap must be zero.”

For how frequently he’s quoted, it’s as if he intended to create the atmosphere of self-consciousness that now guarantees public scrutiny of nearly every new proposal, as seen with designs for the new Royal Alberta Museum.

Sylvancroft is no exception.

One of Beljan Development’s guiding principles is what Ivan Beljan calls “sensitive density.” It’s driven by infill, putting existing space to work bringing people back to the core, rather than exiling them to ever-expanding suburbs.

But it also recognizes context, in this case the surrounding upper-tax-bracket neighbourhoods of single-family dwellings. With a handful of new homes and families where there was once just Harry Evans, wife and five children, Beljan sees Sylvancroft as a solution to what Dulaba calls “a low-density problem in the city.”

However, urban planner Myron Belej, who completed a Business Management certificate at NAIT and a geography degree at Western University, believes the project could do more. He wonders about its potential impact on the city as a whole, particularly in terms of environmental sustainability.

In his view, the potential density increase doesn’t represent much gain for the downtown periphery. A few minutes northwest of the core, the proposed airport lands redevelopment could see more than 135 people per hectare, he points out – a number Sylvancroft isn’t even trying to approach.

What’s more, he questions the company’s efforts at placemaking, calling them too localized, and even exclusive.

“Placemaking is all about creating reasons for people to use that particular space,” he says. He’s not sure who would use it other than those who live there, especially if the mansion were converted to private residences, rather than a public resource, should it be saved at all.

If you take the mayor’s standards at face value, however, Sylvancroft is positioned to be a leading-edge, forward-thinking Edmonton neighbourhood.

“The development as a whole is going to be very different by making it modern in spirit,” says Kevin Porter, chair of NAIT’s Architectural Technology program.

Over the years, modern style homes have popped up as infill projects throughout the city, he says. But they’ve seldom appeared en masse like this to make the kind of visual impact necessary to inspire a wave of imitation. “I think that’s a very positive thing.”

Porter sees Sylvancroft as keeping with a venerated tradition.

Porter sees Sylvancroft as keeping with a venerated tradition. Modern architecture, he explains, with its history reaching back to the end of World War II, is a reaction to the neoclassical buildings that preceded it (the Alberta Legislature, for example).

“It’s culturally related,” he says, noting how it emerged to address certain “social ills.” Critics link the stripping away of ornamentation, for example, to efforts to move society away from class structures, or toward the promise of technology, rather than the comfort of unquestioned tradition.

Cities planned and built entirely in the modern style, including Brazil’s federal capital of Brasilia and northern India’s Chandigarh, are sometimes seen, positively and negatively, as striving toward utopian visions.

Sylvancroft’s purpose isn’t to right the wrongs of the capital, but it is a deliberate departure from decades of staid design and sprawling suburbs. In terms of residential construction, says Porter, call it a reaction to “the cookie-cutter house that’s all across North America.”

sylvancroft streetviewWhat Sylvancroft might mean

Perhaps it’s a byproduct of adapting to the boom/bust cycles of a resource-based economy, but Edmonton has a history of embracing disruption. At times, it has made the city seem insensitive to the past; at others, it has appeared – perhaps unexpectedly for a relatively isolated Prairie city – ahead of its time.

“In the mid-’60s there was all sorts of cutting-edge architecture,” says Thompson. “There was this attitude in little Edmonton that modern architecture was great stuff. There was a real movement.”

It spanned nearly every facet of construction, he points out, much of it still standing.

The style turned up in everything from the dome and circular structure of the original planetarium in Coronation Park to the undulating concrete roof of the Westwood bus barns. It produced the first of the shimmering, curtain-walled skyscrapers that now dominate the skyline. Then there are the homes Porter mentioned, with the flat roofs and banks of windows that mark Thompson’s designs today.

The movement ended, Thompson believes, with the arrival of fast oil money, backer of “cheap and poorly thought-out stuff.”

“Once I figured that out I didn’t want to leave. That’s what makes a city.”

For Dulaba, new places are renewing that sense of attraction. He has to raise his voice to be heard above the buzz of conversation at Duchess Bake Shop, packed mostly with what would pass as the young creative set in any city in North America – skinny jeans, cardigans, oversized glasses – here for a bit of sophistication that comes from French-press coffee and pastries made with imported butter and chocolate.

“This wasn’t here two, three years ago,” says Dulaba. “Now it’s one of the most popular places. What created that? What’s drawing people here? People love this place. It’s got character, authenticity, substance.”

"People love this place. It’s got character, authenticity, substance.”

That’s what he wants to achieve with the company’s developments, Sylvancroft included. He and Beljan could more easily build and lease retail space in the suburbs, he says, but “There’s a new generation of people that are looking for more than just a South Edmonton Common or West Edmonton Mall.”

And in time, he hopes, a place like Sylvancroft might influence future development in the city.

Which could be good, because that new generation isn’t likely looking for Sylvancroft specifically, given the price. But it might be looking for what it’s supposed to stand for.

A century ago, local media heralded Sylvancroft as “the beginning of a new order of things as regards homes at the Capital.”

For a while, perhaps, it did represent the start of something better for Edmonton. Reincarnated, maybe it will again. If nothing else, it speaks to a city where people see the past as something to both build upon and break with, and where an open space is a perfect place for exploring a new idea about what it means to be modern.

Should Sylvancroft be saved?

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