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New Dawson hospital overshadows heritage

Misunderstandings in the design process have resulted in a much taller new Dawson hospital than allowed under the town's heritage bylaw, officials say.

Misunderstandings in the design process have resulted in a much taller new Dawson hospital than allowed under the town’s heritage bylaw, officials say.

Gigi Bigras, who lives across the street from the new facility, first noticed the building’s unusual height last spring.

“It looked to be way over 35 feet, which was funny because I didn’t remember hearing anything about it,” she said.

“They would have had to announce if they were going to build higher than the bylaw and there’d have to be a public consultation and everything. Turns out there was none of that because they missed it altogether.”

According to Dawson’s heritage bylaw, no building in the town is allowed to stand higher than 35 feet tall.

The new hospital is around 50 feet tall in one section.

This section, about 25 per cent of the rooftop, is mostly being used as a mechanical room.

And it’s not just a matter of a disgruntled neighbour losing a little sunshine.

The hospital is situated directly beside the Old Territorial Administration Building, which now serves as the town’s museum.

The building has been designated a National Historic Site of Canada and is a valuable centrepiece of the historic district.

Even without the extra height, the hospital would have dwarfed the museum building.

The square footage of the hospital’s two floors is expected to be nearly three times that of the museum, around 28,000 square feet.

The way the project was handled has raised some suspicions in town.

“It just seemed like there were a lot of things that happened here that shouldn’t have,” said Bigras. “And I know that initially the builder said there was no way, with the footprint that they have, that they could fit in everything that they wanted and not go over height. I think they just let it happen and said, ‘Oops’ afterward.”

The city claims the mistake happened as a result of a miscommunication.

Before anything gets built in Dawson, the plans have to be vetted by the town’s Heritage Advisory Committee.

“(The hospital) has been a challenging project for the committee,” said committee chair Trina Buhler.

“There have been some, perhaps, misunderstandings and that led to some design errors.”

The designer was told that the building couldn’t be over 35 feet and they also received a copy of the town’s bylaw and guidelines, said Buhler.

And yet the hospital design was far over that height.

The Yukon Hospital Corporation’s project manager, Mike Cowper, agreed it’s been challenging to make the hospital conform to Dawson’s heritage guidelines.

“It’s an unbelievably difficult challenge to make a very modern hospital abide by the design guidelines,” he said.

“But it’s always been a prime directive, right from the get-go, that we abide by the historic design guidelines from Dawson.”

The hospital corporation and its architects spent over a year meeting with the Heritage Advisory Committee and Dawson’s Development Officer, going over even the smallest details such as the design of the windows and what materials could and could not be used.

One of the most radical changes was that the hospital corporation agreed to turn the hospital around, so that it faces onto an alley rather than Sixth Avenue.

This was done so that the hospital wouldn’t have its back to the museum.

The Heritage Advisory Committee never raised any concerns about the height, according to Cowper.

“When they gave us approval, we took that to mean approval of the entire design was approved, which included this height, which had been there over a year, and had gone through several demonstrations presentations, et cetera.”

But the hospital corporation only had approval from the advisory committee, not from mayor and council, which would have required the plan to be brought before the public.

“That’s something that was brought up to us in the last few months,” said Cowper.

“Someone said, ‘Do you have a council approval?’ And I said, ‘Jeez, no, we don’t.’”

The project still doesn’t have that approval, he said.

But Bigras says the height mix-up was subsequently discussed and does at least have tacit approval from mayor and council.

“Basically, (Mayor Peter Jenkins) said, ‘We’re going to take responsibility for this. We’re not going to put it on our development officers or anything, it’s going to be mayor and council,’” she said. “And the councillors actually said, Oh, I agree.”

Council has promised to look into the matter and perhaps change some of its regulations the next time it discusses its Official Community Plan, said Bigras.

“But there really was no finality to it. It was sort of left hanging. Nothing ever happened.”

Mayor Jenkins could not be reached for comment.

In the last two years there’s been an influx of large-scale developments in Dawson, which has been a challenge for the four volunteers on the heritage committee.

“All we can say is that we are a volunteer group and we meet twice a month,” said Buhler. “I mean, it’s great for Dawson that we’ve had all this development. But it’s a challenge when you’re dealing with a historic district.”

“It’s sometimes our own government that is the hardest to deal with,” she added. “I don’t know why, but we’re trying to change that. We’re definitely conscious of it and we’re not afraid to ask for changes in design.”

The hospital is about 40 per cent completed. The hospital corporation hopes to have the $28-million building finished by October and opened by the spring of 2013.

Contact Chris Oke at