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Pedestrians walk along Stephen Avenue during lunch hour in downtown Calgary on Sept. 1. Three dozen commercial buildings along Stephen Avenue were built between 1880 and 1930, and many are built out of the distinctive beige sandstone native to the area.Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

A proposal for a large mixed-use development in downtown Calgary that would include the tallest building in Western Canada could transform a stretch of the city’s historic Stephen Avenue but it has prompted concerns from a local advocacy group over what it describes as the dismantling of heritage sites in the area.

Real estate firm Triovest has submitted a permit application to the city for a project called the Stephen Avenue Quarter. The development would include three towers, including one standing 66-storeys high, of housing, shops, office spaces, residential units and a hotel over an area that would cover nearly a square block.

The current plan would result in changes or the complete demolition of a number of historic buildings in and around the area of the popular Stephen Avenue, which is lined with shops, restaurants and bars, and which has undergone redevelopment in recent years to be more pedestrian-friendly. The street was named a national historic site 20 years ago.

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No decision on the plan has been made, although Triovest says news on the development will be coming in the next two weeks.

In some cases, such as the old Bank of Montreal building on the west end of the block, facades of the structures would be maintained while the internal spaces would be gutted and replaced. This type of design has been implemented before into some nearby buildings, such as the Hyatt Regency, which retains the facade of the original Lineham Block building from 1886. On the eastern portion of the plan’s perimeter, however, many of the buildings would be completely demolished.

“In a city that hasn’t necessarily been great at retaining their heritage structures, this would be a huge loss,” said Chris Edwards, president and co-founder of the Calgary Heritage Initiative Society, one of the leading groups raising noise about the proposal.

Originally built in 1912, the Hollingsworth Building has now been incorporated into the Bankers Hall towers along Stephen Avenue.Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

Since some of the buildings identified for alteration or demolition by Triovest are designated as protected heritage sites, Mr. Edwards argues the redevelopment of those sites could set a worrying precedent for similar sites across the province, as the city would have to either bypass or revoke those designations in order to approve the construction of the proposed complex.

“If this is looking at stripping seven heritage designations at once, just because a developer would prefer that goes away, in my opinion, that would destroy the whole heritage designation system, not only in Calgary, but in Alberta,” Mr. Edwards said.

“What kind of effect would that have on all the other municipalities if they look at Calgary stripping entire blocks of designation away?”

Stephen Avenue, where office towers such as Bankers Hall are mixed with century-old sandstone buildings including the city’s flagship Hudson’s Bay Co. store, was designated a national historic site in 2002. The description in Parks Canada’s registry of historic sites notes that the street’s “distinctive character,” as a late 1800s streetscape, tells a story of Prairie urban development in a city built around a railway and gridiron planning. Parks Canada also says Stephen Avenue demonstrates the “central role that such retail streets have played, and continue to play, in the Canadian urban experience.”

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Ryan Schott, vice-president of marketing and communications at Triovest, said the company’s plans would retain the essence of the buildings’ original design, but did not address whether the company would ask the city to revoke heritage designations.

“Triovest’s approach to Stephen Avenue is to retain maximum heritage value while enhancing the economic, social and cultural vitality of this portion of the commercial downtown core,” Mr. Schott said in an e-mail.

“The new development integrates the historic buildings into its design, honouring their original shape, form, layout and boundaries, and ensures that the look, feel and function of the avenue and street-level commerce remain. In cases where significant heritage fabric exists, the project team is exploring opportunities to retain more than just the facades, including the massing [shape and form], the spatial configuration, and the finishes of existing heritage buildings.”

Mr. Edwards of the heritage group also raised the potential disruptive effects of multiyear construction on the local economy, and contended that the addition of more office space, which is already controversial because of a high number of vacant offices in Calgary’s core, is an indicator of poor judgment by the developers. In response, Mr. Schott reiterated that Stephen Avenue Quarter is designed to be a “truly mixed-use, community-focused campus.”

The 1913 Hudson Bay building along Stephen Avenue in downtown Calgary with the new Telus Sky building in the background.Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

Ward 7 councillor Terry Wong, who came into office last October, said he hears the concerns of people like Mr. Edwards, but emphasized a need for more nuanced conversation in the balance between heritage sites and development.

“One of the important parts of Calgary is its rich history and heritage architecture. Having said that, the other aspect of what’s important for Calgary is its growth, development and a revitalized vitality for the downtown core, so maintaining a balance between the two is critical,” Mr. Wong said.

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, who had worked as a member of Calgary’s planning commission and later as a councillor of Ward 3 before taking the top office last October, echoed Mr. Wong’s sentiments, adding the ideal result of any redevelopment is to respect the history of a building while allowing the site to be reimagined for modern needs.

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Ms. Gondek pointed to the Telus Sky Building – another skyscraper along Stephen Avenue, which finished construction in 2019 – as an example of how multiuse buildings that displace existing architecture can be an enhancement to an area, and cites New York as a model for how cities can maintain facades of old buildings while still developing new structure on top.

“I think we became incredibly entrenched in what will work and what will not work when it comes to imagining a downtown and when it comes to imagining commercial real estate,” Ms. Gondek said, pushing back against the idea that city design is a black-or-white issue, where planners either honour old structures or demolish them without regard for their history.

“We forgot that there is a whole new opportunity with a generation of people that don’t share those beliefs. There’s a lot of people right now that are interested in doing some pretty innovative things, and they’ll take the space that’s available and accommodate that space to meet their needs.”

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