Calgary's Downtown transformation gets international attention

Calgary’s vigorous, intentional moves to convert vacant downtown office space into residential units is garnering international attention.

An article on – the United Kingdom’s national broadcaster – reported: “There is, perhaps, no city in the world that has taken on the challenge of outdated office stock into residential units as aggressively as Calgary in Canada.”

The article goes on to quote Steven Paynter, principal in the Toronto office of architectural design firm Gensler. Paynter’s firm worked with The City and Calgary Economic Development to develop a scorecard for converting offices to residential dwellings. The matrix looked at things like location, shape of the building and ease of conversion.  The metrics found that about 35% of the buildings were deemed to be financially viable conversion options.

Having such high-profile, international coverage of Calgary’s efforts is welcome news.

“Calgary is a resilient city of innovators who do not shy away from a challenge,” said Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek. “You don’t need to look any further than the City of Calgary’s commitment to downtown revitalization to understand how serious we are about believing in ourselves. Our investment of a quarter billion dollars has sent a strong signal to the private sector that we are evolving and focused on our future. Creating a welcoming, mixed-use downtown remains a top priority and it is encouraging to see others recognize the great transformation Calgary is currently undergoing.”

The article explains The City’s cash incentive for developers of $75 per square foot – to a maximum of $10 million – and the removal of red tape around zoning reduces the length of time for projects by about 18 months.

Paynter said that in working with Calgary Economic Development in summer 2020, they found Calgary’s office vacancy rate hovered around 32%. 

Thom Mahler, City of Calgary Director of Downtown Strategy, said Calgary has made downtown revival a key objective.

“It’s great to be recognized as an international leader in office to residential conversion because we’re focused on achieving results and supporting projects that can come online quickly and have a real impact on the vibrancy of our downtown core,” said Mahler. “We’ve announced three projects to kick off the program and will be announcing the next group of funded projects later this spring that will create hundreds of new homes for Calgarians in our downtown.”

The article points out Calgary’s downtown population is expected to increase by 24% as a result of The City’s moves and Gensler is taking the scorecard created with Calgary to work with other cities in North America and even China.

Brad Parry, President and Chief Executive Officer at Calgary Economic Development, agrees the demand for residential space in downtown Calgary is growing. 

“A vibrant and populated downtown is critical to the entire city’s economy," said Parry. "With one of the fastest growing downtown populations in Canada, the focus on livability and vibrancy will make the heart of our city an even more welcoming, inclusive and accessible public space for everyone to live, work and play.”