City strategy charts new course to change downtown’s ‘vertical office park’

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A decade ago, Calgary was booming.

Packed CTrain cars pulled up to downtown stations, Plus-15 pathways were busy all day and companies competed for office space in the core. The city seemed to not be able to build up fast enough. Sometimes retail and restaurants could scarcely get a street-level foothold because of how space was at a premium.

“Standing downtown … you’d be like, ‘Holy cow, this city’s hot,’” City of Calgary manager of urban initiatives Thom Mahler says.

“And then it just stopped.”

The lasting impact of the 2014 recession has the city re-evaluating what downtown should be, and they’re taking stock of the vision for the future with a new Greater Downtown Plan.

The plan, publicly released this week, isn’t statutory, but it provides a broad vision that city council, businesses, and other institutions can move toward together over the next 10 years.

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“Greater downtown” includes the core, downtown west, the Beltline, Eau Claire, East Village and Chinatown.

This area makes up less than one per cent of Calgary’s land, but generates 14 per cent of the city’s property taxes.

The pitfalls of that arrangement are all too familiar. As downtown office towers have stayed stubbornly empty since the 2014 recession, billions of dollars in property value have vanished. And that’s pushed the tax weight onto other businesses outside the core, leaving city council throwing one-time money on top of the bills every year.

Mahler said downtown Calgary has added more than 12 million square feet of office space since 2007, and that’s roughly the amount of space that’s now vacant. Downtown office vacancy rates currently hover near 30 per cent.

Calgary’s downtown office vacancy rate currently hovers near 30 per cent.
Calgary’s downtown office vacancy rate currently hovers near 30 per cent. Photo by Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

Coun. Druh Farrell says Calgary has effectively created a “vertical office park” surrounded by streets designed to move people in and out as quickly as possible. It’s geared toward commuting, working nine to five and leaving as soon as you clock out, which doesn’t reflect the way people increasingly live and work now.

“We have neglected our downtown for decades. It worked — it was OK because we kept reaping the financial benefits of the core. Without that reinvestment, that no longer will work,” she said.

Farrell’s Ward 7 currently includes part of downtown, but it will encompass all of the core after this year’s ward boundary redraw.

She said the new strategy helps demonstrate that Calgary is serious about downtown recovery.

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“We’re dreaming if we think we can just wait this out,” she said. “The option that’s unacceptable is the death spiral of our downtown core. We’ll have to invest, and not just this year.”

Mahler said if Calgary can drop vacancy rates to something more like 13 or 14 per cent, that would stabilize the tax base and revitalize downtown at the same time.

The city is studying ways to connect Stephen Avenue to the riverfront.
The city is studying ways to connect Stephen Avenue to the riverfront. Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

The city’s plan says transforming the core requires a substantial increase in places for people to live, adapting older office buildings for other uses, introducing a better mix of amenities and services, and generally improving the way downtown looks and feels.

Mahler said greater downtown has a lot going for it, including proximity to the river pathway system. The challenge is making downtown streets more attractive and walkable, and creating spaces where people want to hang out. The city is targeting 8th Street and 2nd Street S.W. as north-south corridors for improvement, helping connect areas such as Stephen Avenue to the riverfront.

The city is looking at initiatives such as the Calgary Downtown Association’s 1M program, which aims to “accelerate” businesses and projects downtown.

“You can really start to create that vibe of, ‘I’m going to go check out what’s going on down there,” Mahler said.

“You don’t just sign up the next business that’s willing to pay your lease rate so all we have is Circle K and Subway downtown. That’s where you really start to create that main-street feel in places that people really love like Inglewood and Mission.”

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There’s also a need to change older office towers so they can be used for something else. Mahler said some of them might need to be demolished for new builds, but the city is interested in having institutions such as universities move into some of the spaces.

Illustration of a “theoretical” conversion of an office building, from the Greater Downtown Plan.
Illustration of a “theoretical” conversion of an office building, from the Greater Downtown Plan. Photo by City of Calgary, Architecture Research Office

Residential conversion is also an option, given the ongoing affordable housing shortfall in Calgary. But changing a highrise office building into a place where people can live is easier said than done — it means doing things such as overhauling the entire heating and ventilation system.

“We do think we will need financial incentives to enable those building owners to convert them to a different use, because it’s too expensive to do,” Mahler said.

The downtown strategy will come with a request for a financial investment from council. Mahler said the final amount is still being worked out.

Council’s planning and urban development committee will discuss the downtown strategy next week, and council as a whole will look at it again later this month.

masmith@postmedia.com

Twitter: @meksmith

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