In the news: Calgary’s downtown transformation lauded for going “big and bold”

All eyes are on Calgary’s ongoing success converting vacant downtown office towers into homes.

The Washington Post reports on our innovative solutions in working with developers to convert empty office space into new homes for Calgarians in an editorial, The model city for transforming downtowns? It’s in Canada.

“Calgary offers a road map — and a tool kit — for D.C. and other beleaguered cities on how to make the switch rapidly and efficiently,” the Post reports.

The article explains Calgary’s downtown offices were more than 30 per cent vacant, a situation which spurred The City into taking dramatic action. “There weren’t just empty floors; there were empty towers. Fears spread of the city becoming the ‘next Detroit.’ At City Hall, staff calculated the value of downtown commercial buildings had nosedived from nearly $25 billion in 2015 to about $9 billion in 2021.”

Calgary was singled out for our work streamlining process for converting offices to homes and making it easier to do business in our downtown, quoting Sheryl McMullen, manager of investment and marketing for the Downtown Strategy office: “Our mantra is to move at the pace of business.”

That commitment to business needs was underscored by developer Maxim Olshevsky, managing director of Peoplefirst Developments, who was quoted: “Nothing is more attractive to investors and developers than the reduction of red tape.”

The editorial mentions that “momentum is palpable among builders and city officials who say the 10-year plan is ahead of even their most optimistic projections.”

Besides one transformed building of affordable housing already filled with tenants, “11 other office conversions are underway with one set to open later this year. The initial round was so successful that the city quickly approved a second. Even more applications poured in, including from large national firms. Now there is a push to spur office conversions to hotels, schools and art centres as well as demolition of buildings deemed too hard to transform.”

The article also recognized the importance of broader community buy in to Calgary’s plan to revitalize its downtown that others cities will want to learn from. “When [the Real Estate Sector Advisory Committee] presented parts of the greater downtown plan to the City Council in April 2021, it was clear this wasn’t a real estate developer’s wish list; it was a community plan with input from retail, arts, nonprofits, government, businesses, education and more.”

Thom Mahler, Director of The City’s Downtown Strategy, agrees with the editorial that downtown revitalization cannot be just a City-led undertaking.

“We have an amazing community of city builders downtown that do not shy away from a challenge and who are deeply committed to a bright future for our civic heart,” said Mahler. “Calgary’s downtown champions understand that they need to pull together to make our downtown a better place to live, work and visit."

The Washington Post editorial can be read here.