Downtown history fades as century-old houses give way to condos: Condos to replace iconic downtown house

By Charles Hamilton, The StarPhoenix, April 10, 2014 - The house sticks out among the highrise apartments and office buildings, not for its opulence or size, but for precisely the opposite. The white paint on the outside is peeling, its stone foundation slowly crumbling. As one of the few single-unit homes still standing in the city's downtown, the century-old structure - once occupied by successive generations of ministers from the neighbouring church - stands in stark contrast to a downtown that seems intent on reaching skyward.

As Rev. Brian Maitland makes his way through the house, he is witness to a piece of Saskatoon's fading history.

After more than 100 years, the house at 539 24th St. East is scheduled for demolition.

"There is a sadness," Maitland said, before touring the house for what is likely to be one of the last times.

"It's a bit of an oddity being surrounded by all these huge buildings."

After months of careful deliberation, members of the Knox United Church decided Wednesday morning to sell the house. In the coming years, the site will be used for condos.

"As cities mature and come into their own, densification has to happen in order to have a vibrant, exciting downtown," said Karl Miller of Meridian Development, which bought the property.

The building has been around for as long as the church itself.

As a child, Patricia Deibert spent more than a decade in the home, when her father was minister at the church throughout the 1960s. She remembers a time before highrises obscured the skyline, when that home was one of many in the area.

"We used to have great gatherings there. It was always just a great place to be," Deibert said.

Her family was one of the last to live in the home. Over the intervening decades, it was used for various church activities. It once contained the church library, and up until recently was rented out as artist's space.

It's one of only a few residential properties remaining in the downtown, but it is not alone.

Savelia Curniski bought her house on the 300 block of Sixth Avenue North 25 years ago and has no plans to move anytime soon.

"It was the best move I ever made," Curniski said of her house.

While other properties on her block resemble singleunit homes, they have long since been converted to office spaces. Curniski is the only one who can actually say she lives in a house on the block.

She loves it there, close to the action and the hustle and bustle of downtown with the added perk of owning her own spacious house. But she says she understands the pressure to increase density.

City planners also understand the conundrum. If the goal is to get more people living in the city's core - and attract amenities like a grocery store - high-density buildings are key and singleunit dwellings seem to be on their way out.

"Well, I think over time, yes. I think you will find there will be fewer and fewer (single unit houses)," said Alan Wallace, director of planning and development for the city.

At last count, Wallace said the city is aware of only three single-unit homes still being used as dwellings in the downtown. He said the plan to get 15,000 people living in the core means more and more highrise apartments and condos.

"Single family homes have purpose, but not in a downtown setting," Wallace said. Besides Curniski, James Hunter and his wife are the only other single-unit residents who are easy to find. Hunter, who lives in a house tucked away off Spadina Crescent, said he can easily envision a day when there are no more downtown houses whatsoever.

"I think it's an inevitable progression," he said.

"It's sad, but for the people who get to afford a $750,000 (condo), it will be a beautiful experience for them. It will be sad for us."

While Curniski said she will have to be bought out before she is forced to move, Hunter and his wife are renters, so the other shoe could drop for them at any time.

As for the property on 24th Street, selling was a difficult decision but Deibert and Maitland agree it was one that had to be made. The house was in disrepair and the developers have worked out a deal that will ensure the church gets revenue into the future.

Deibert, who still has a strong connection to the house and the church, admits it's nearly impossible to cling to the past.

"It's time," she said. "It's time."

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix