Hangar 11 loss called a crucial moment for Edmonton architecture

Dan Rose swore as he watched the flames destroy Hangar 11 on April 22. "I was like, 'For Christ's sakes, we just can't catch a break,'" he told Taproot.

Hangar 11, built at the former city airport in 1942, is likely not top-of-mind for most of Edmonton, and that's Rose's central point about it. It bothers him that a building so integral to the city's modern origin story — from its role during the Second World War to its post-war air links to the Northwest Territories — could be forgotten. "You could pull a thread on each of those (narratives) and I think you'd end up at the same place with like, 'Wow, this was a pretty significant place in terms of social, cultural, (and) economic development of Edmonton as a region,'" Rose said.

That made the successful push to save the utilitarian but storied building from being flattened even more important. Rose, who once chaired the Edmonton Historical Board, had fought for years to save it, bugging councillors and shrewdly pushing the hangar onto the National Trust for Canada's annual list of the top 10 endangered buildings in 2017. Then, in 2018, he and others convinced city council not to demolish the asbestos-laden building and to sell the land to NAIT, as administration had proposed. Rose said it was the heritage community's first "big win" after decades of losses (from the Tegler Building in the 1980s to the Kelly Ramsey fire in 2009 to the loss of the Leamington Mansions in 2015).

Hangar 11's saviour was an idea from artist, author, and architect Tim Antoniuk of Architure, who bought the property from the city for $1.5 million in 2021, or less than half its assessed value. The proposal, estimated to cost up to $83 million, was to preserve but re-imagine the hangar as more than 200 student apartments mixed with commercial bays for shops. "We've got an opportunity here to introduce globally a new type of winter city design," Antoniuk said of the idea in 2021. "We've got this incredible hangar, you know, you don't really build something like this today."

From that point hence, Rose said, he and others intended to use Hangar 11 as the hopeful story about a new era for Edmonton. But the pandemic slowed the redevelopment project and made finding investment hard. And then came the fire.

The meaning of the fire, Rose said, is hard to accept. It erases more of Edmonton's built history, he said, but it could also accelerate losses in the future by accelerating indifference and disconnection. Meanwhile, the city's own tools to preserve buildings are simultaneously becoming antiquated, underfunded, and confusing for advocates or investors to engage with, he said.

"Every time we lose one of these generational components of our urban fabric, it just exacerbates the problem we had that got us there in the first place, which is (that) we actually have no fucking idea who we are as a city," Rose said. "To talk about history on that scale, we don't have a lot of just nice, big, architectural buildings of heritage quality to begin with, but especially ones with nationally historical significance."

Without changes and a re-awakening of Edmonton's history advocacy, big buildings "will continue to just be knocked down because there aren't sufficient tools or a regulatory framework to do anything with them," he said.

An excavator digs through the remnants of a building that has burned down

The remnants of Hangar 11 one day after the April 22 fire. Local historian Dan Rose said this loss could accelerate future historical losses. (Dan Rose)

The toolkit Rose alludes to is the city's Historic Resource Management Plan. When it was created in 2009, after significant community involvement, it won awards. But in practice, Rose said, it has been underfunded and misapplied.

And as of 2024, he said, it's now out of touch. "Fifteen years ago was the last time we updated the city's guiding strategy document on historic conservation," Rose said. "That tells you all you need to know about how equipped (city council) is to deal with a much different economic landscape, and probably a much more refined development community that's building much different things than they were building 15 years ago."

Anyone walking past the corner of 101 Street and 102 Avenue may know Rose's frustration. The former Bank of Montreal building, which replaced the storied Tegler Building, was knocked down in 2018 amid promises that it would be replaced by a mixed-use tower. But the lot remains empty and undeveloped.

Rose suggested council continues to approve rezonings that ultimately benefit developers and often result in a bare lot where once stood a reusable building.

"(Developers) always come with a nice fancy rendering, and the councillors say 'That's gonna be great.' And then literally a week later, after (developers) have gotten their property rezoned and upscaled, magically the economics don't work anymore. But they're sitting on a massive piece of (upzoned) property that invariably gets sold to a real estate investment trust, which is great for the investors … but terrible for the people of Edmonton, who now have to look at a literal garbage dump in the heart of downtown Edmonton," he said. "I can think of multiple examples where Edmonton's council has fallen for that."

Coun. Andrew Knack disputed the idea that council "falls for" this. "The challenge is, it doesn't matter who the owner is — in the public hearing process, our primary and almost exclusive job is (answering whether) the rezoning that is being applied for (is) an appropriate land use," he told Taproot.

Knack acknowledged that he sees lofty dreams outlined in rezoning applications and knows the landowner is going to put it up for sale immediately after council approves the application, but there isn't much council can do to stop that.

Coun. Anne Stevenson echoed Knack's assertion that rezoning is about land use only, and upzoning then selling is not always nefarious, drawing a comparison to a homeowner who renovates a house to increase its value before listing it for sale. That said, land speculation certainly can be against the city's interests, she added. "I think we have seen proposals in the past that are quite unrealistic and do potentially over-inflate the value of the land," she said.

What can be done?

It's at the city decision-making level that the future of historic preservation will likely be determined, Rose said. It boils down to how well council can work to preserve buildings that matter while also incentivizing new development.

He said recent city moves to postpone heritage preservation in Glenora and focus instead on going city-wide appears like new work on the heritage management plan. But, he said, he's worried this work lacks the force and vision of 15 years ago, and that the corresponding signal this sends out to those hoping to invest to preserve things is that the city is only partly interested.

Without a strong signal, he said, "we'll never see people like Tim (Antoniuk) again, who want to bring an idea forward."

What should Edmonton do? Rose has some ideas.

First, he said, we need a return to using sunset clauses on property rezonings. "We gave you a rezoning, you didn't build anything after the fact," he said, spelling out the scenario that leaves so many feeling so frustrated. Currently, there are no consequences for this. Council needs to ensure there are some, he said.

On that point, Knack and Stevenson agree with Rose. "What it means is that, yes, you get this uplift, but if you haven't taken any steps to develop the project in a certain timeframe, then those development rights go away," Stevenson said. "I think that's a really healthy way to ensure that we're not sort of locking in land to unrealistic expectations that make it harder to develop in the future."

Second, council needs to realize it can demand better from city developers, Rose said, rather than opting for new shiny things that overpromise and under-deliver.

And lastly, Rose said, we should seize the moment. The Hangar 11 fire should snap us awake, and the sheer number of new people moving to Edmonton could offer an opportunity.

"Maybe that's like a moment in time now where … people can start to appreciate Edmonton a bit more," he said. "I'll be clear: I don't think our city is an amazing or world-class place, but it's not a dump by any stretch. Like, there are nice things here … But I feel there's this … transience and an absolute inability to pinpoint any sense of pride or any sense of connection."

The consequence? "No one really cares when stuff happens to (the) urban fabric because no one's invested in it," Rose said.

For her part, Stevenson shares Rose's grief over the loss of Hangar 11, but she's not ready to give up hope that something good will rise from its ashes.

"I know the group that's been working on this is so passionate and committed to the project," she said. "I am excited that they're still committed to the project. We're looking at ways to continue that project moving forward, and I'm looking forward to what may come."