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Canmore's historic Settler's Cabin redevelopment approved by planning commission

“It’s very much meant to look like a building a mining town. We wanted to keep the historical reference back to the mining portion. We weren’t looking to treat this as a building in a tourist town.”

CANMORE – A historic downtown Canmore landmark will soon be a mixed-use building of retail and visitor accommodation – but with the intention of representing the character of the community’s mining past.

Canmore’s planning commission approved a series of variances at the Settler’s Cabin site on Main Street to allow for a three-storey development with two commercial retail units and eight visitor accommodation units.

Though the commission unanimously approved the project, a lengthy discussion on the building’s architecture and how it fits within Canmore’s history outlined how much flexibility for architectural guidelines projects needed to follow.

“If we look at those as too prescriptive, we could end up as a community where all the buildings look the same,” said public commission member Florian Jungen. “There are communities where at one point in time they were going to be Bavarian communities like Kimberley, B.C., so everything looks the same.

“I think it’s important when we discuss the architectural guidelines, we allow for a little bit of diversity and it says in the guidelines they’re intended to facilitate evolution. That’s sort of an evolution of what the community thinks is appropriate to build here, so I think it’s important we have some flexibility and let things evolve and not be too prescriptive and let people come with proposals that are new and entertain them.”

The applicant, Canmore local Barry Nestransky, asked for variances to increase the maximum height of the building, increase the maximum floor area ratio, allow for second- and third-floor balconies to be a consistent setback to the north property line and allow building design in relation to the land use bylaw for commercial and mixed-use building.

Under the land use bylaw, the maximum building height is 11 metres and the applicant asked for an extra 2.16 metres, which was due to an elevator shaft and stairwell to access a rooftop patio. The floor area ratio was a slight increase of 0.13 above the land use bylaw’s range of 1.25 and 2, while the façade design is meant to match Canmore’s mining period. There was also a request for a 0.6m setback from the property line for two balconies along 8th Street.

In addition, the design of the roof and allowing for less vehicle parking and loading space than under the land use bylaw in exchange for cash-in-lieu were also requested.

The commission also discussed the front façade and and how it fits to other parts of Main Street.

“Is it going to stick out a bit? Yes, but at the same time a little bit of diversity on the street front is not a bad thing,” said Jeff Hilstad, one of two council representatives on the commission.

Though the commission discussed potentially changing slight elements to the plan, it risked taking on too much of a redesign of a project on the fly and also potentially losing historical elements in the architecture.

“I think as we densify our community, buildings are going to get slightly taller. We’re going to three storeys here. It’s not a massive building,” Jungen said. “I don’t think the negative impacts are that great and there is a benefit to maintaining the architectural integrity. If you’re going to do the false front architecture, then do it and stick to it. I think we should be careful about making design decisions at commission.”

Nestransky highlighted to the commission the extreme lengths the company went to in preserving parts of the building or potentially moving it over the last year. He said they met with a historical group, Canmore Museum staff and had discussions with the Town on saving aspects of it.

“It seemed like every time we went down the road of trying to find a solution there was a U-turn coming back of either people didn’t want it or the logistics of finding land in Canmore to put the building didn’t make sense,” he said.

The original plan had a brick front, Nestransky said, but after talking with Canmore Museum staff it was noted it was very uncommon to see such buildings in Canmore’s mining era. He added they also purchased wood that was removed from the Canmore Engine Bridge that was going to the landfill and purchased by an American restoration company, so it could be added to the new build.

“Our whole intent was to try and respect this was a building with locals who opened a business in the 70s, who are well respected and we certainly didn’t want to come in and disrespect that,” Nestransky said.

Josh Kehler, president of SBL Contractors Ltd., added they applied for a plaque to be placed on the new building’s site to speak to the Settler’s Cabin history. He emphasized they will attempt to salvage as much as possible, but becuase it's a wood building with wood foundation, the bulk of it is rotted.

“I’m surprised it’s still standing. I think it’s being held up by tar and glue. … What we tried to do with this whole project is speak to the mining town that Canmore was and this will be very unique and stand out, but that is the intention,” he said.

“It’s very much meant to look like a building in a mining town. We wanted to keep the historical reference back to the mining portion. We weren’t looking to treat this as a building in a tourist town.”

Nestransky noted they “would’ve loved to do more, but it just isn’t feasible, unfortunately,” adding the reality of trying to save the entire building became extremely difficult due to its condition and their “best attempt is to tell the story,” of Settler’s Cabin.

A staff report stated the application aligns with the Municipal Development Plan since “it is a mixed-use development that intensifies an existing site in the downtown area,” and the land use bylaw. It also meets the Town’s Community Architectural and Urban Design Standards.

It further stated the Town Centre district is “intended to provide a combination of commercial and residential activities in mixed-use buildings, which offer a wide range of goods and services.” The report added retail and visitor accommodation units are allowed as uses.

Planning commission considered the application at its October meeting, but ultimately postponed making a decision to ask questions of the applicant, who didn’t have a representative at the meeting.

Commission members had previously expressed concern about how the architecture would fit downtown as well as how to best preserve historically important buildings and work with property owners to maintain them.

While a municipality is unable to force a landowner to preserve historical sites, incentives could be added to maintain part or all of it. However, the decision would ultimately be up to the property owner.

“The interesting thing about Main Street is when you can walk down there and see different eras, can see what people thought was the right thing to do at certain times,” Jungen said. “We’ve got an era where we thought we should be building Bavarian buildings in Canmore, so it’s funny now but that’s the interesting part of Main Street is to see that diversity.”

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