Entering the newly renovated, former animal hospital in McCauley, I am immediately captured by the door.
The glass inlay is classic Art Deco that nods to the era inspiring the 1948 commercial building’s architecture. Anna Bubel, a 25-year McCauley resident, developer and consultant, proudly announces, “I found two of these doors on Kijiji for 100 bucks.” Immediately inside, Bubel sweeps her arms around the room, its new drywall painted an era-inspired green, “This used to be external dog kennels open to the sky.”
When the unique building came up for sale, she worried it would be demolished or leased to a cannabis store. Bubel’s financial partner was looking for a commercial space in the neighbourhood for his law practice, and so after hustling up one other investor, they bought the property. The next eight months of renovations were a blur.
She researched design features, which inspired the colour palette, rounded walls, curved arches and solid wood mouldings. She pursued a historic building designation.
She sourced reused materials like the front doors, and era-appropriate lights from a community hall in Ontario.
As a community economic development consultant, Bubel believes social enterprise and local entrepreneurship can be used for social change. These values guided her approach to the work. For instance, in sourcing workers, she worked with the Bissell Centre day labour program to help neighbours in her community gain valuable construction skills. She asked each one when they started on site, “What do you know how to do? And, what do you want to learn how to do?”
Through a church refugee sponsorship program, she hired a skilled tradesman from Syria who spoke almost no English, who proved to be a wonderful teacher. Also, there was Yousef Farajallah. His wife, three-year-old and newborn sons remain in Palestine where before he left for new prospects in Canada he’d worked as a nurse and teacher. “I’m so grateful she gave me the opportunity — especially when I had no experience.” Over the next six months he learned how to tape and mud drywall, paint and tile, skills he continues to use. “It was very good that she gave me the opportunity to make a living,” says Farajallah, who sends any extra money home to support 12 family members.
Every day for six months alongside her workers, Bubel tiled bathrooms, procured materials and, on one occasion, drove a worker to a job interview. She says that while she lost a morning of both their productivity on site, “The building would be done in three months, and after that he’d need a job! I really wanted him to succeed.”
This isn’t her first development project in the neighbourhood who some in the city, if unfamiliar with its parks, activists, cafes, bakeries and multicultural experiences, consider as synonymous with poverty and drug addiction (many of the city’s injection sites are here). Walking through the tree-lined streets for a coffee we try the Italian Centre cafe where there isn’t one table free, so we move a block south to one of the sweetest cafes in the city. Zocalo not only builds beautiful flower arrangements, it hosts an espresso bar and a greenhouse courtyard with a long pine table. The floors in the store were laid by volunteers and friends, and it is just one of many businesses and organizations that have benefited from strong community connections. Phil O’Hara is past president of the McCauley Community League. “I live in one of the duplexes Anna developed 20 years ago. It shows her vision, where she saw an empty lot and saw potential of providing high-quality homes for ownership by moderate- and low-income people,” he says.
To raise the funds for the project that would replace 10 condemned houses with 20 affordable homes, Bubel approached her neighbours and friends. One took out a line of credit to help her buy the (relatively cheap) lots. Other neighbours loaned her close to $60,000. Bubel’s pitch was that they could use their RRSP money to build family homes in their neighbourhood.
A year later, 20 new property owners were moving into homes built with capital crowd-funded by neighbours in their community. “I think I made $500,” she laughs. “See, I was consulting to make a living… This project was for love.”
“It’s a demonstration of her creativity and her commitment to community,” says O’Hara, of Bubel’s ability to experiment with the tools the business discipline has to offer, while achieving a social and environmental justice agenda. For instance, Bubel had strong words for a church who’d asked her speak about community development. Instead of speaking to the social justice committee, she turned to the building and budget committee, “Your building is a 100 per cent debt-free. That is irresponsible. You need to pull 75 per cent of the value of this building and do something of value with that money.”
Bubel is always looking for assets to leverage for good. After the work at the newly named Decolicious building was complete, Bubel learned Farajallah was spending half his income on housing. She had a comfortable basement that was sitting empty — an asset she wasn’t fully utilizing. A short time later, Farajallah moved in and now sends even more money home to his family.
“You know,” she says, “we have so much extra and I think, how can you spread the love?”
This article appears in the August 2019 issue of Avenue Edmonton.