The new Stantec Tower is an impressive edifice that can be seen 40 kilometres away, but to the business leaders who built Canada’s tallest tower outside of Toronto, it’s a monument to a greater vision. For them, the skyscraper speaks of promises made and kept, to battles lost and won, and a signifier of things to come. It represents an exclamation mark on the two most fractious and divisive political debates in recent local history.
In simplest terms, for the first time ever Edmonton has a skyscraper taller than anything in Calgary, Montreal or Vancouver.
“Whenever I’m driving in from any quadrant of the city, you can see it,” said Gord Johnston, Stantec’s president and CEO. “You know what I see when I’m driving in? I just see a big No. 1. I truly don’t think of it as Stantec No. 1. I think of it as Edmonton No. 1. It’s like someone sticking up their (index) finger, No. 1”
The tower affirms Stantec’s commitment to the city, Johnston says. “This is where it started for us. This is where it’s going to continue for us.”
The grand opening of the office portion of the tower on Wednesday is a great distance from the early struggles of the company. Harvard-educated environmental engineer Don Stanley built Stanley Engineering from a one-man operation in 1954 into a company of 400 by 1981. But that same year, when Alberta’s oil economy crashed, Stanley had to suddenly axe half his staff. “That evil night,” said former company CEO Ron Triffo of the mass firing.
To avoid taking a such a hit ever again, Triffo built up Stantec by diversifying and expanding geographically, then taking the company public in 1994 with a valuation of $60 million. It’s now valued at $4 billion.
Promises made, promises kept
When Triffo sees the new skyscraper, he thinks of the social contract Stantec leaders made with Edmonton and Alberta politicians in the 1980s — if the politicians let Stantec take on major local projects, Stantec would take that experience, sell their expertise around the world, and not only flourish in Edmonton but stay here.
The new skyscraper alone will house 1,500 of Stantec’s 22,000 employees worldwide, keeping numerous high-paying jobs in Edmonton.
“Today when we look at this tower, to me that’s a fulfilment of promises that were made by all of us to the city of Edmonton, to the province, to the city of Calgary, Red Deer, all those places we worked,” Triffo said.
The decision to build Stantec Tower flows out of Edmonton’s two most bitter political fights of the new millennia, the decisions to shut down the downtown City Centre Airport and to build the new downtown arena.
So long as the airport was open, safety concerns over flight paths prevented Edmonton office towers from being much over 30 storeys tall. Epcor Tower (2011), the last skyscraper built here under the old regulations, topped out at 149 metres, Manulife Place (1983) at 146 metres, the Telus tower (1971) at 134 metres and the CN Tower (1966) at 111 metres. The new JW Marriott hotel in the Ice District is 192 metres, with Stantec Tower at 251 metres.
“Closing that airport gave us the opportunity to do something special downtown,” said Bob Gomes, who led Stantec from 2009 to 2017.
It was under Gomes that the decision was made to amalgamate Stantec’s various Edmonton offices into one location. Gomes pushed hard for a downtown location over a corporate campus in the suburbs. The suburbs were way more economical, Gomes says. “But it wasn’t the right thing for us and it wasn’t the right thing for the city.”
He saw the new head office as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “You don’t want to waste it. And I don’t think we wasted it. It’s come together really well.”
Two nasty debates led to one tall skyscraper
Stantec’s downtown ambitions meshed with those of Edmonton businessman Daryl Katz, who envisioned a dynamic commercial and entertainment district built around the city’s stylish new arena.
Katz Group and ONE developments own the new skyscraper. “It’s such a bold statement,” said Glen Scott, Katz Group vice-president of real estate. “It’s a big exclamation mark.”
The right outcomes were needed in major political battles on the airport and the arena to proceed.
“It certainly does put an interesting resolution, doesn’t it, given the amount of angst and emotions that were expended over a multi-year period on both those subjects,” Scott said.
A team of 342 Stantec employees designed and engineered the skyscraper, which was built by another Edmonton firm, PCL.
The structure has three main uses, with restaurants and shops wrapping its exterior podium at ground level, then Stantec and other businesses in office space until the 29th floor.
A massive concrete slab — essentially a second foundation — was poured at the 30th floor as a base for the 481 residential units stretching to the 66th storey (the top three floors are for mechanical operations).
Darren Burns, the principal architect, says the building is a combination of two shapes coming together, a tall, slender rectangle with the second component wrapping around it.
“We were trying to achieve a simple elegance in the skyline,” he said.
“When people talk about iconic buildings, they talk about something that is distinct and unique. And in the Edmonton marketplace, obviously height is unique.”
There are many distinctly Stantec touches to the building, including have the executive offices on the lower floors and on the interior of the buildings, allowing the best views and windows for the staff, Johnston said. “What we’re trying to say to staff is, ‘You’re the ones who are really important here.’ You always hear about, ‘Oh, there’s the executive on the top floor in their Ivory Tower presiding over things.’ That’s not how we do it in Stantec.”
Stanley would approve of new tower, with one exception
I met with Johnston, Gomes, Triffo and Tony Franceschini, the four living present and past Stantec CEOs, at the gigantic and stylish third floor public area, a greeting, meeting and seating area with numerous kiosks and nooks, huge windows and an outdoor balcony so Stantec workers and clients can soak up the atmosphere of the arena district plaza and the sights of the arena itself.
Triffo brings up the one absent Stantec CEO, founder Don Stanley who died in 2001.
Stanley would approve of the new headquarters, Triffo said. “He’d be so delighted, with one exception.”
Triffo points out that Stanley was not only an outstanding engineer but a sharp businessman with an eye for cost control. “He was known to be a little frugal so he might look at this and say, ‘Wow! But, Gord, how much did it cost?’”
All the CEOs chuckle.
“But he’d be extremely pleased,” Triffo quickly adds. “I don’t think there’s doubt about that. All of us are. It’s a marvellous thing to see.”