Conflict over historical staircase offends Calgary disability arts group: ‘It reeks of discriminatory practices’

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Watch: Frustration continues to mount over a staircase, which appears to be holding up the relocation of a unique arts centre in Calgary. A disability arts organization needs to move to a larger space but the historical steps leading up to the front doors of their new home are causing concern. Jill Croteau has more – Feb 18, 2022

For four years, a leading disability arts group in Calgary has been waiting on a new home. The National accessArts Centre (NaAC) is frustrated at delays and obstacles they say are relics of the past, leaving the community feeling undervalued.

Jung-Suk Ryu, CEO of NaAC, said renovations to the former Scouts Canada building along Memorial Drive N.W. haven’t started because of a conflict over the concrete steps in front of the building.

The city claims the staircase can’t be removed because of its historical significance and have instead, suggested moving the front entrance to the side of the building.

Read more: Parts of Centre Street Bridge, Queens Hotel up for auction: Heritage Calgary

“The building has a grand entrance: it faces the river and the front is the where access should happen,” Ryu said. “To find ulterior entrances because our community is different — that reeks of discriminatory practices to me.”

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Site of new National accessArts Centre. Tom Andriuk/Global News

The building, built in 1966 and designed by local architect Jack Long, was designated by the city as a municipal heritage resource in December 2021.

The City of Calgary’s building infrastructure manager, Susan Specht, said the stairs have been identified as a historically defining element through consultation with the city’s heritage planning team and Heritage Calgary.

Read more: 2 Calgary buildings with francophone settler connection given historic designation

“NaAC has expressed interest in removing the stairs and this is not possible given the historical significance of that architectural feature,” Specht said.

Ryu said the stairs’ historical context matters.

“This building was built in a time when concepts around disability and universal accessibility were incredibly dated and not right. For us to be obsessed with maintaining that element of our heritage boggles my mind,” Ryu said.

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“We have to ask ourselves whether or not heritage should trump ability for all Calgarians.”

City officials said discussions are ongoing.

“We are committed to finding a workable solution that highlights both accessibility and heritage in an elegant solution that leverages the existing historical elements and the current and future design configurations of the site,” Specht said.

National accessArts Centre. Jill Croteau/Global News

“The NaAC CEO has seen several iterations of architectural plans and the city continues to seek feedback through regularly scheduled meetings.”

The NaAC is currently running programs out of a space attached to the Fairview Arena. Although their portion of the building is still considered safe, the arena portion was condemned in February 2018 when the roof collapsed under heavy snow.

Many in the community are worried: without a new space, they can’t create.  Remy Bernier has been coming to NaAC for almost 15 years.

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Remy Bernier. Jill Croteau/Global News

“It’s 2022 — every place should be accessible.”

Alysia Gibson said the current facility feels like home but is ready to move into a new larger space.

“Imagine we are in a little box. That’s how we feel here,” Gibson said. “We need more space so we can fit and have the bathroom accessible for people in wheelchairs and walkers.”

National accessArts Centre space. Jill Croteau/Global Calgary

Laura LaPeare said a new inclusive space would mean so much.

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“I do always like to feel valued and important because I like to feel I am a leader,” LaPeare said.

“We have a community of over 350 extraordinarily talented artists that are putting Calgary on the map, and we need to celebrate and showcase that,” Ryu said.

Read more: Incentives proposed to declare more Calgary properties historic resources

Ryu said the NaAC is also awaiting results of a federal grant application for $7 million to construct an additional space adjacent to the former Scouts building.

Infrastructure Canada spokesperson Zoltan Csepregi said once a decision has been made on project funding, the applicant will be notified.

“Infrastructure Canada has received a high level of interest in the Green and Inclusive Community Buildings program. Officials continue to diligently review and assess projects that were submitted,” Csepregi said.

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