Paula Simons: Is the end in sight? View from the Charles Camsell is looking up

Brian Seitinger has been in construction his whole life. His father was in construction. His grandfather was in construction.

There must have been days over the last 14 years that he’s felt he’s been working on the Charles Camsell Hospital renovation for most of his life too.

Seitinger is the owner of T.C. Biggs Construction and the project manager of the Camsell project. He’s worked with developer Gene Dub on many projects over the years, including the reconstruction, brick-by-brick, of the Alberta Hotel. But the decommissioned hospital, which Dub purchased from the province in 2004, has been their nemesis project.

It’s been beset by construction challenges, including the need to remove huge amounts of asbestos and two interior fires caused by construction workers. It’s been just as plagued by legal and financial tangles, as Dub and his past partners had a fallout over their deal. And it’s been plagued by years of destructive vandalism.

But things are finally, finally looking brighter for the Camsell redevelopment.

Inside the eight-storey hospital tower they’ve started to frame in the individual condominiums. There will be 161 units in all, ranging in size from 800 square feet to 1,200 square feet. Most will be one-bedroom suites, with a few two- and three-bedroom units in the mix.

Project manager Brian Seitinger at the Charles Camsell Hospital redevelopment site. The first-floor suites will have 12-foot ceilings and patio decks.

On the first few floors, the ceilings will be 12-feet high, loftier than the eight-foot ceilings you’d find in a typical apartment. Up on the seventh storey, the ceilings will tower to 16 feet. And on the eighth storey, the penthouse suites will be built on three levels and offer residents stunning rooftop patios. But in truth, the views from the windows on every level are pretty remarkable, offering angles on the Edmonton skyline you don’t typically see.

Dub plans to leave the steel support beams and the ceilings exposed, and to restore, as much as possible, the original marble terrazzo floors in the lobby and staircases.

“Terrazzo is bulletproof. You have to do a lot to break it down,” Seitinger said.

“It’s a solid old building, well constructed. It was federally-funded, at the time, and I’m sure there was no cost spared.”

They hope to have suites ready for occupancy by next spring, and to have finished the project, complete with underground parkade, adjoining park, landscaping and four-storey glass atrium, by the end of 2019.

The view of downtown from the roof deck of the Charles Camsell Hospital redevelopment project. The roof will be turned into patios for the eight three-level penthouse suites.

They’re also planning 27 three-bedroom townhouses to be built just north of the hospital, atop the parkade.

I’ll admit, I’ve wondered if Dub was mad to repurpose this building, rather than demolish it. Who, I thought, would want to live in an old hospital with its stark institutional architecture? But now, 14 years later, mid-century modernist architecture is hot — and the old building suddenly looks sleek and retro-futuristic.

“Most people would have just knocked it down,” said Seitinger. “Everyone was telling Gene to knock it down. But Gene has saved a lot of old buildings.”

Something else has changed in the last 14 years: our community’s understanding of reconciliation.

The original red brick Camsell, long-ago-demolished, was built as a sanitorium, primarily for Indigenous tuberculosis patients, First Nations and Inuit, who were removed from their families and cultures and virtually incarcerated here. In acknowledgment of that dark, complicated past, Dub invited an Indigenous elder, who has smudged and cleansed here every three months, to co-ordinate with the four seasons. And just east of the building, Dub is promising a public park dedicated to those Indigenous patients, where everyone from Inglewood and beyond can come to remember.

The interior of the old Charles Camsell Hospital site, ready for framing. Architect Gene Dub intends to leave the high ceilings and metal beams exposed.

Of course, after 14 years, it’s natural to be skeptical. There have been so many false starts, so many promises unkept. Paul Adams, president of the Inglewood Community League, isn’t planning a party just yet.

“Any activity is good activity,” Adams said. “I’m happy they’re off to a good start. I hope they can maintain momentum.

Now, he’s worried units will be too expensive for the Inglewood market.

“That could be our next stumbling block. Let’s hope he has a remarkable marketing plan in mind.”

But as Seitinger proudly surveys the work, he doesn’t sound worried.

“It’s been a wait for this building. But when it’s done? Well, Gene doesn’t build cracker boxes. He does nice buildings. He’s very particular.

“He’s determined to finish it. He’s committed to this, he really is. He’s fully aware that everybody’s looking to get it done.”

I hope he’s right. The Inglewood neighbourhood has endured far too much delay already. This site needs healing. And it can’t come soon enough.

psimons@postmedia.com

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