Calgary accessible arts group faces entry challenges after heritage designation

The 11 steps of the staircase leading to the front door of the West Hillhurst Civic Building turned into a bigger than expected barrier for the National accessArts Center (NaAC).

The group reached an agreement with the City of Calgary in July 2021 to move into the former Scouts Canada building after learning that their current home adjacent to the Fairview Arena was to be demolished.

The roof of Fairview Arena collapsed in 2018, rendering the community hall the band operated from no longer unfit for the long term.

However, NaAC CEO Jung-Suk Ryu said that when the city offered them the space, along with a promise of $2.5 million in upgrades, he didn’t realize the the building’s impending heritage designation would make the front stairway real property.

“I think this presents a very visible and very real challenge as a disability organization,” Ryu said.

Jung-Suk Ryu, pictured, hopes the building’s main entrance will become more accessible to NaAC artists. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

The building has a ramp, but it’s not built to code, rendering it unusable for about half of its users, he said.

The building, designed by famed architect Jack Long, was built in 1966 and officially received a Registered Historic designation late last year.

In a statement to CBC News, the city said its letter of agreement with NaAC included a welcome letter to heritage tenants, “which details the historic nature of the building, including the character-defining elements of the architecture, and the expectations regarding the maintenance of a heritage building.”

One possibility explored by the city is to create a new accessible entrance on the east side of the building for NaAC artists to use, instead of the main one tucked between two large murals at the top of the stairs.

“I think that’s a solution, but not the ideal solution. And I don’t think he fully understands the kind of discrimination and the challenges Calgarians with disabilities face on a daily basis,” Ryu said.

“I think it sends the wrong message about creating a different type of entrance because we have special people who can’t use that staircase before. I think we can draw a lot of parallels with other practices discriminatory, and I have a real hard time accepting that as a solution.”

Heritage and accessibility

When the building was first added to the inventory of buildings assessed as historic resources in 2013, the stairs were identified as a defining feature, says Josh Traptow, CEO of Heritage Calgary.

“As part of this designation process, the stairs at the front are designated, which means they cannot be changed or moved significantly under current regulations, but this does not preclude any further development from happen on this site,” he said.

I think that’s kind of one of the misconceptions that people have about heritage is that once something is designated there’s nothing more you can do with it. And according to the standards and guidelines, you know, that doesn’t preclude alterations or additions that are made, and in this case, making the building accessible.”

The ramp at the West Hillhurst Civic Building is not up to code, Ryu says. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Traptow says he can understand from an accessibility perspective where the NaAC came from.

“Heritage and accessibility have often had challenges, but I think there are opportunities that the two can work together and complement each other. I think it will just take some ongoing conversations to get there.”

Hope for a positive result

The city says it will continue to work to find a solution that “respects the heritage designation of the building while meeting the accessibility and program needs of NaAC and its members. made to the facility in a cost-effective and timely manner, which will allow NaAC to complete its tenant improvements. »

Ryu hopes a solution can be found to accommodate the approximately 350 users who come to NaAC every week.

“I think there’s a really positive outcome that can come out of all of this if people are willing to have an open mind and a real understanding of the challenges faced by Calgarians with disabilities. And we see this as an opportunity rather only an obstacle. I think great things can come out of it.”

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