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'Frozen building' ready to thaw?

There is fresh optimism afoot for the building with a troubled history and zero tenancy for a full decade. St. Albert Crossing was constructed in 2009 and yet has never seen a single business day. That could change as a representative was in town to establish an occupancy permit. Here's a comprehensive look at a controversial commercial space that still might find a positive place in the city's business community.
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Correction

This article originally stated that former Planning and Development director Curtis Cundy said protection of Grandin ravine wasn’t necessary for the St. Albert Crossing project to proceed. Cundy actually indicated in 2008 that a natural areas assessment was not needed because most of the trees were removed by the owner before the development application was filed.

There is renewed energy and fresh optimism afoot for a building with a troubled history and absolutely zero tenancy for the last 10 years. St. Albert Crossing was constructed in 2009 and yet has astonishingly never seen a single day of business over that decade, even in a city that has long struggled with available and financially feasible office space.

The only significant activity previously noted at 214 St. Albert Trail during those long years includes the occasional rental of parking by a neighbouring car dealership and the few times that the ‘for sale’ banner has changed. True, it has gone through a few hands in its quiet life, the last being in 2014 when Calgary’s Prime Real Estate Group bought it out of receivership. Its listing price then was $8.5 million. Its purchase price wasn't disclosed.

That decade of delayed opportunity might be a thing of the past as Prime’s project director was in town this week to establish – finally – an occupancy permit.

“The stigma got attached at why this building is sitting there doing nothing. It was totally due to, I guess, the market ... but the marketing itself as well,” offered Happy Mann, suggesting that the original ideas of it being a medical professional centre or having a single tenant were short-sighted for the nearly 5,600-square-metre structure.

While touring the building with its still current modern design – high ceilings, lots of windows and indoor glass, and a back patio facing into serene trees – Mann suggested restaurants, cafés, boutiques, workout centres and more would find excellent homes at St. Albert Crossing, along with those still sought after medical professionals and others looking for commercial real estate.

“We are very hopeful that the council and the city staff will view that this building needs to be occupied: this building needs to be rented or sold. We have about two or three different plans. We're definitely looking for now a single tenant or we can go three different tenants or even demising and selling.”

Excavating a lot of dirt

The development permit for the three-storey building was granted around 2008, with controversy already laid on thicker than the structure’s eventual concrete foundation. Protests arose when the developer was given a permit to strip and grade the site, which included a portion of the otherwise untouched green space of Grandin Ravine right behind it.

Some people argued the permit went against the city's municipal development plan, while others stood up to protect the natural area as one of three wildlife corridors used by migratory birds. The Grandin Ravine Support Group was organized to stop the project.

At the time, the city's then-Planning and Development director Curtis Cundy said a natural areas assessment was not needed because most of the trees were removed by the owner before the development application was filed. The green light was given.

Former mayor Anita Ratchinsky lived in Grandin facing the other side of the ravine, though not directly behind the area in question. She had a fine appreciation for the otherwise untouched gem of nature so close yet a world away from the hustle of traffic on St. Albert Trail. So did the local wildlife, too.

“That ravine is quite deep, and for most of the year, there's water running along the bottom. I think the feeling was at least from older administrations that that was a deterrent. I mean, who's going to use it? It used to be a horse path,” Ratchinsky said, referring to wild horses that, in days long since gone, once made trails through there, certainly foraging on leaves and slurping up the stream water from the brook.

Those wild horses have long since slurped their last, but foxes, coyotes and rabbits have been spotted enjoying the relative privacy of the verdant tract. It’s a precious little ecosystem and an unnoticed, undisturbed oasis of sorts.

“I think it should be preserved as a city park reserve, like a natural habitat,” she said.

Construction nevertheless proceeded and an approximate 20- by 30-metre section of the forested ravine was cut out to provide all of the space that the developer requested, the innermost edge of the construction even coming within a few metres of that stream. That developer paid the city $84,000 in exchange for the right of way land and the building promptly sprouted out of the dirt.

There were some concerns that perhaps the building sprouted too fast.

Robert Gallant, a civil contractor with Meadow Construction, was involved in grading the site but kept his eye on the project as it was built up. The how and when the concrete foundation was poured and cured gave many people pause. He once called it “the frozen building.”

“At the time they called us in, the foundations were up, winter was coming. It was a lot of winter construction going on: a lot of freezing and a lot of thawing. They really had a hard time,” he began. “I don't think they maintained the heat in the basement. It was a pretty rough go with that building for a long time until they got it enclosed. It was super cold and… they got no heat in the building. It was exposed to the winter conditions.”

He expressed some doubt about how structurally sound the foundation is but said that certainly the city’s inspection would have already checked that off the list and given it approval, especially with the occupancy permit now being considered as the last detail.

Full completion of the building stalled in 2012, however, when a class action lawsuit was reportedly filed against Edmonton’s Paramount Group of Companies, a former general partner of the project. Alberta Securities Commission documents showed Paramount's owners had distributed and traded securities and limited partnerships on numerous building projects without necessary registration.

There was proof that the company had raised more than $30 million from investors on different developments around Edmonton including the St. Albert Crossing building in 2007. Land titles documents, however, proved the company owed more than $4 million in liens to various individuals and companies involved in the St. Albert Crossing project. Some of the local contractors weren't getting paid and that's never good for business.

The building then changed hands to Avenue Commercial, a Calgary company known to turn around troubled real estate. Avenue said it was considered 95 per cent complete at the time and construction to finish the rest was expected to resume in July 2013.

When Prime took possession in 2014, there were still issues including the building’s HVAC system and a leaky roof that needed repairing. Nick Moore, Prime's then vice-president for real estate developments, was quoted as saying the building was a “distressed property” that was actually only 75 per cent complete. An architect was needed to finish the job long left untended.

Those issues don’t exist any more, Mann insisted.

“We are open for any business.”

There aren't even any back taxes. The property assessment report (found using the property search function through the city’s website) indicates the building’s annual tax levy is $112,462.75, which is down from nearly $170,000 from only a few years ago. The building is currently assessed at $7.72 million, down from $11.8 million in 2017. The property’s underlying market value assessment has been dropping primarily due to the "chronic and excessive vacancy situation," explained Greg Dahlen, the city's senior manager of assessment and taxation.

It seems reasonable to guess that its cumulative tax levy for a full decade would be at least $1 million.

Ratchinsky explained that in situations when a building is vacant, the taxes could go unpaid and would accumulate with the sum total going against the property’s value, meaning whoever buys it must assume responsibility to cover the debt. Whoever holds the mortgage, holds the bag.

Mann, however, assured the Gazette that everything has been squared up.

“We are up to date for everything,” he averred.

There is, however, the lingering concern of access and parking for the building. Right now, only southbound traffic can get to the entrance but some might find it easy to miss right after the Esso station. The entrance to Socrates and the Sleep-Inn Motel is much more noticeable but it’s also more established as a destination for drivers.

St. Albert Crossing might have already become an elephant in the room: colossal in size yet out of mind. To some, it’s an eyesore. To others, it’s simply a dead mall. Thousands of drivers zoom past it every day: the big, narrow glass building becoming a simple blur of reflected light.

With all that glass, St. Albert Crossing could pass for the closest thing to an iceberg this city will ever see. Its long faces on its rounded northern and southern sides sure help that imagery. Perhaps the nickname ‘the frozen building’ is an apt one.

To rectify the problem of access, Mann has asked the city to extend the northbound turnoff through the median strip that leads straight to Socrates, giving drivers more of a chance to catch both entrances. Doing so would then allow both directions of traffic access and that's crucial progress. Mann said it would be a great benefit for the building, and in turn for the city, as it starts to generate revenue through its future occupants.

Once on site, there is enough parking outside for 31 vehicles but they are unfortunately on the opposite side of the building from the front door, which is also set back approximately 15 metres from the front of the structure.

There are another 46 spots in the underground parkade, which can be accessed through the garage door at the rear of the building.

Former vice-president Moore admitted it was “underparked for a medical opportunity.”

“With clinics and so forth, you just need a lot more parking,” he said in 2014.

Another option is St. Albert Transit. A bus stop right at the Esso gas station (next to it on the north side) means a short walk to the front doors.

Ratchinsky wondered aloud about the placing of the front door, contemplating how much better it would have been if it was closer to the parking or at least the side facing straight onto the Trail.

She also expressed her deep hope for the future of St. Albert Crossing. There’s a lot riding on it psychologically, she said.

“I'd like to see it occupied because I think as much as people say we've got enough stuff going on, I think those kinds of buildings create an atmosphere in our city that is maybe better than it was before. If somebody could get it back and get it up and running and going, then the message is, ‘We came out of the economic downturn. We're starting to move again.’ I love my city and I don't like to see things like that that go bad.”

The worst-case scenario, at least for Prime Real Estate, would be that nothing ever happens and the building gets torn down.

“The building really holds the value, no doubt. The replacement cost of this building is huge. It could be easily close to $18 million,” Mann said.

Every deep freeze is just a part of the cycle

With Mann’s occupancy permit meeting this last week, it seems like the thaw is upon us. He was pleased to share that the building passed its final inspection and discussions are underway about fixing that median. Those front doors, as he promised, are open for business.

Walking through them, it’s easy to see the building's possibilities with all that open space and all that glass. It practically screams of wanting something to do, somebody to bring their business in and breathe life into it.

A quaint modern café would be perfect for the small space on the main floor facing traffic. A romantic restaurant with a patio to the ravine might be lovely, too, though houses on the opposite side are close enough to be visible. The upper floors could easily benefit from dentists, therapists or office workers who like a good view. Even artists would love to have their studios basking in the wealth of natural light surrounded by the unique architectural lines of the steel, concrete and glass.

Times have changed slightly, though. Back in 2009, office space was a lot tighter. Now in 2020, there are more than 30 separate buildings with vacancies for offices, according to a property listing search on the city's economic development webpage. The building that's listed right at the number 1 spot: St. Albert Crossing.

In his book Shoeless Joe, W.P. Kinsella famously wrote, “If you build it, they will come.” Perhaps that’s true even for St. Albert Crossing, but no one said how long it would take for them to arrive.




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