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Feature Article

A NEW FUTURE FOR THE ROSSDALE POWER PLANT

Written By: Lawrence Herzog
Published By: Real Estate Weekly
Article © Copyright Lawrence Herzog
2004-11-25

A New Future for the Rossdale Power Plant

Its amazing the difference just a few years can bring. Earlier this month, Epcor announced that its Rossdale Power Plant will be decommissioned by 2009 and will no longer be used to generate electricity.

The historically designated buildings on the site will be preserved and, after the decommissioning, they could be used for so-called non-industrial options or converted into green space. Water treatment and power distribution will continue on the eastern portion of the site.

The plan is a complete turnaround from just a half dozen years ago, when Epcor (formerly Edmonton Power) pushed grand plans to expand the Rossdale Power Plant and began work to demolish some of those historic buildings. At the time, I was a member of the Edmonton Historic Board and chair of its Historic Resources Review Panel.

When city council refused in 1999 to hear from its own Board on our unanimous vigorous opposition to the proposal (despite giving Epcor the chance to present its plan and obtain its approval) I resigned in disgust and several other Board members soon followed. Hindsight is 20/20, it is said, and in hindsight those of us who fought to save the historic buildings were exactly right.

Although Epcor needed to be dragged kicking and screaming to its senses to realize that the heart of the city is not the place for power generation in the 21st century, the company is to be commended for eventually doing the right thing. Epcor was poked and prodded along the way by community groups including Conserv and the Rossdale Community League and heritage groups such as the Edmonton and District Historical Society.

Yet, this was a David and Goliath story from the beginning. With a city council that was ready to ignore the heritage significance of the site, the historic buildings were doomed. It was only the intervention of archeology that altered the course of events.

The site, at the foot of the Walterdale Bridge, represents the vast sweep of Alberta history from early evidence of human occupation dating 8,000 years ago through fur trading, early settlement and 20th century industrial history. In 1999, some of those remnants (human and otherwise) were unearthed during excavation for new construction on the site, bringing the work to a sudden halt.

Within months, an archeological team had uncovered parts of the palisade walls of a 200-year-old Fort Edmonton, tools, flints and remains of bodies. The past had spoken suddenly and decisively, and it would shape the future.

In 2001, Community Development Minister Gene Zwozdesky announced the designation as Provincial Historic Resources the three parts of the Low Pressure Plant as well as the Administration Building and Pumphouse No. 1. Minister Zwozdesky noted the buildings are fine examples of the evolution of power development within the province and the Low Pressure Plant is the only remaining structure of its scale in Alberta. The designation protects the buildings from any kind of alteration, repair or destruction without the written approval of the Minister of Community Development.

The following year, Edmonton City Council, fitted out with several new councillors who understood the value of heritage, placed the three buildings back on the citys Register of Historic Resources. All the while, work continued on the site, uncovering the story of this place -- the very birthplace of the city.

In the early 19th century, the North West Company and the Hudson"s Bay Company established forts here. Fort Augustus and Edmonton House, which are now referred to as Fort Edmonton versions two and four, occupied this site between 1802 and 1810 and again between 1813 and 1831.

Some 60 years later, the story of Edmonton power began when a telegrapher named Alex Taylor contributed $10,000 to start Edmonton"s first power generating facility. Called the Edmonton Electric Lighting and Power Company, his little venture was located on the bank of the river, near where the Low Level Bridge is today.

In 1902, the plant was relocated to the current location and Taylor sold his company for $13,500 to the city. That"s how Edmonton Power was born.

Masonry buildings constructed for power generation in the early years of the 20th century were gradually replaced as the Low Pressure Plant grew. It is a large flat-roofed complex built of steel framing and masonry and its three clearly defined but interdependent buildings are situated side by side, running perpendicular to the river and all oriented in a north-south direction.

Some of the six phases, built over 26 years beginning in 1930, were designed by prominent Alberta architect Maxwell Dewar and have a uniform and consistent look, making one part difficult to tell from the next. There is no other Edmonton building like it left. "The cumulative effect is imposing and yet, at the same time pleasant, the massing of the structure and the arrangement of the in-line smokestacks being more reminiscent of an ocean liner than an industrial site," states a report prepared for Edmonton Planning and Development.

The 72-year-old Administration Building has been in continuous use as an office and has had little alteration, other than minor inside reconfigurations, updated lighting and finishes. Alberta Historic Sites calls it a simple, flat-roofed, two-storey rectangular brick building with reinforced concrete structure. It was designed to house administrative office functions for the power plant, which is does to this day.

Pumphouse No. 1 was constructed in 1937 as part of the water intake facilities for the Low Pressure Plant. It is a small, one-storey reinforced concrete "T" shaped structure, situated on the bank of the North Saskatchewan River. The building has several lower chambers and reaches down 50 feet below grade, connecting well underground to the Low Pressure Plant complex.

Although the site wont be decommissioned this year as the community had hoped, the decision by Epcor to cease power generation by 2009 recognizes that Rossdale is worth far more as a historic resource then it will ever be as a place of electricity generation. Electricity can be generated and distributed from any site; there is only one site that is the very birthplace of Edmonton.

The decommissioning fits perfectly with the intent and spirit of the North Saskatchewan River Valley Bylaw, which calls for parkland and recreational uses ahead of industrial ones. The possibilities for the buildings themselves are exciting. Imagine a city museum, which Edmonton desperately needs, a market like Vancouvers Granville Island or a sensitive people-focused development, like The Forks in Winnipeg.

I can hardly wait to see what will happen in 2009.

If you'd like to offer your thoughts, please drop me an email at lawrenceherzog@hotmail.com

For information on reprints of previously published articles, check out my website at www.lawrenceherzog.com


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