Courtesy of cSPACE Projects

When the shuttered King Edward School was transformed into cSPACE King Edward, an incubator for artists, non-profits and entrepreneurs, it proved an ambitious example of the economic, environmental and social benefits of preserving, rather than demolishing, Calgary’s historic buildings.

“It not only created a great workplace that feeds creativity, but it’s an environmental story,” said Deeter Schurig, president of cSPACE Projects and one of the leaders of the transformation of the abandoned South Calgary school – built in 1912 with former Alberta Premier William Aberhart as its first principal and closed almost a century later in 2011.

“If you build new, even if it’s a sustainable building, it takes decades to pay for just the energy used. Instead, we have a beautiful building, built from what was a nearby quarry, that is a testament to an important time in Calgary’s history.”

The recently launched Heritage Inspires YYC campaign wants to encourage people to learn about, and get involved in preserving, Calgary’s history, whether through planning, advocacy, or support of rejuvenated heritage buildings like cSPACE King Edward.

Since its launch in mid-February, the campaign – a collaboration between the Calgary Heritage Initiative Society (CHI) and Calgarians for Heritage Districts, with funding from an Alberta Real Estate Foundation grant – has prompted more than 200 residents to write city councillors in support of heritage policy areas and tools that were part of March’s public hearings on the city’s proposed Guidebook for Great Communities.

“It’s the younger demographic, the millennials, you see walking through Kensington, Bridgeland or Inglewood, whether they live there or not. They visit, maybe dream of moving there, and even of renovating a house.” – Tarra Drevet, Calgary Heritage Initiative Society public awareness director

The campaign’s website includes ways to get involved, information about public policies that are in place or proposed, and historical profiles of Calgary communities. It also features examples of some of the city’s transformed historic buildings – funeral homes, garages, banks and old warehouses turned into restaurants, bars, craft breweries and co-working spaces.

Preservation of Calgary’s heritage doesn’t just mean reimagining old schools, churches and banks, but also residential buildings, streetscapes and districts.

A 2020 survey covering 26 Calgary communities identified more than 4,122 heritage assets. Yet, at end of last year, only 320 residential properties were listed on Calgary’s Inventory of Evaluated Historic Resources, and only 10 per cent of those were protected through municipal designation. Another 10 per cent have already been demolished.

Courtesy of cSPACE Projects

CHI communications director Karen Paul points to the Enoch Sales House fire in 2019 as a catalyst for Heritage Inspires YYC. The house, built in 1904, was one of the city’s last Queen Anne Revival-style mansions. Prior to the fire, there’d been a decade of unsuccessful attempts to preserve the house in the Victoria Park, where development has ratcheted up in recent years.

“We are not against densification or curbing urban sprawl,” said Paul. “But we have to balance that with heritage protection.”

Lorna Corderio, co-founder of Calgarians for Heritage Districts, had her own 110-year-old Hillhurst home declared a municipal historic resource in a two-year process. She says her decision encouraged other people in her community to follow suit, adding there are financial incentives, including a potential tax rebate, to encourage preservation.

For those who think only older Calgarians are interested in heritage preservation, CHI public awareness director Tarra Drevet says nothing is further from the truth.

“It’s the younger demographic, the millennials, you see walking through Kensington, Bridgeland or Inglewood, whether they live there or not,” she said. “They visit, maybe dream of moving there, and even of renovating a house.”

This year, cSPACE is launching a $4-million fundraising campaign to take the lessons from the King Edward School transformation and apply them to other historic spaces that could be repurposed as community hubs.

Meanwhile, with a municipal election coming up this fall and new civic heritage tools in development, Drevet says the need to engage Calgarians in conversations about heritage and the city’s growth strategy is at an all-time high and the Heritage Inspires YYC campaign is just getting started.