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Rebuilding Communities: 4 Revitalization Tips from Calgary’s Downtown Strategy Team

By Sheryl McMullen and Evan Woolley

Is your downtown core overbuilt with office space? Are these offices vacant? Are you looking for ways to address your city’s housing needs? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s likely that you’re looking for ways to reinvest in or revitalize your downtown core.

During the past three years, we’ve seen a revolutionized approach to how – and where – people work. As a result, downtowns remain largely vacant, and combined with a lack of available housing and rising inflation costs, it is difficult to find affordable housing options. Urban communities from coast to coast share these challenges and are doing what they can to find solutions that will bring new life to what were once thriving city centres.

Many consider Calgary to be the epicenter of the Canadian energy industry. Our downtown used to house several of the country’s largest oil and gas producers’ head offices. However, when the price of oil crashed in 2015, nearly one-third of Calgary’s downtown offices were left vacant – adding a layer of complexity and creating an even greater impact as the pandemic sparked a rise in remote and hybrid work. Today, our downtown looks much different. The success of the city’s investment programs and initiatives are transforming what was once a ghost town into a lively, fun and affordable community for locals like us and newcomers alike.

A vibrant urban hub

From 2015 to 2021, Calgary was left with approximately 14 million square feet of vacant office space, which resulted in a decrease of $16 billion in assessed property value. These statistics were a clear signal to city officials that vacant commercial properties were impacting the viability of Calgary’s downtown. Amidst a global pandemic and national housing crisis, we lost an estimated 50,000 jobs, prompting the city to reassess, remove red tape and provide relief to residents and businesses through a one-time tax relief.

Providing temporary tax relief over multiple years, however, is only a band-aid approach. Having experienced challenges with our downtown core for several years, the city knew it needed a longer, more sustainable solution. With a focus on investing in the public realm, we developed a multifaceted strategy and initiated a program of work that took a comprehensive approach to housing that included incentivized office conversions and downtown redevelopment.

The city’s office conversion incentive program provided a financial incentive of $75 per square foot of vacant office space that was being converted for residential use. The incentive program was designed to remove a portion of the financial risk associated with office conversion projects and encourage developers to move forward with the conversion much quicker than they may have done otherwise. Thanks to meticulous planning, strategic assessments and thoughtful executions, Calgary has diversified its housing offerings, including studio apartments and one-, two- and three-bedroom units. This expanded housing stock, better supports immigration and contributes to heightened safety and vibrancy in the downtown core.

The success of our downtown redevelopment strategy positions us to further invest in our city centre, and gives us the opportunity to explore options to expand downtown post-secondary campuses and/or programming, develop more seniors housing, drive hotel use, and more.

“No matter where you live in Calgary, if you’re sitting around on a Thursday night, come downtown because there's cool stuff to do here. You’ll feel safe to be here and there’s lots happening.”

- Sheryl McMullen, Manager Investment & Marketing, Downtown Strategy, City of Calgary

Integration, longevity and focused planning

As Manager of Investments and Marketing for Calgary’s Downtown Strategy, I can say that our team is proud of the strategic planning, implementation, and results of our revitalization program to date. We know that the challenges our city has faced affects municipalities nationwide, and we strongly believe that sharing the lessons we’ve learned can be helpful for other municipalities as they develop their own sustainable housing, office conversion and downtown revitalization strategies. Reflecting on our program and our partnership, we recommend that municipalities focus on four key aspects to successfully implement a downtown revitalization strategy.

  1. Select the right resources and team. To make an impact and effectively implement solutions, you need to ensure your internal and external resources can focus on the delivery of your redevelopment program. Select resources who have the expertise and capacity to dedicate their time to your program. An experienced and dedicated project team will help you prioritize the delivery of your revitalization program and empower your staff to champion the initiative through each phase of work.
  2. Develop a focused municipal strategy. Vacant offices and housing supply challenges extend beyond the downtown core. In the current economic landscape, these challenges can create a tax burden that affects residents and businesses alike. Make sure you have clearly outlined your municipal challenges so you can develop a focused strategy and execution plan. It’s also important to ensure that your strategy can be feasibly executed, serves your short- and long-term objectives and offers some relief to taxpayers.
  3. Be very intentional. Work with local stakeholders to incorporate collaborative solutions that address community needs and interests in addition to your identified municipal objectives. Develop a strategy that enables your municipality to provide short-term relief while also advancing a clear action plan that supports community growth and continued investment in infrastructure. For example, we increased Calgary’s downtown housing supply and sense of public safety to meet our short-term objective. Longer term, we have plans to enable more educational and community focused programming for downtown residents.
  4. Bring all stakeholders together. When it comes to downtown revitalization, there are several parties you’ll need to connect with, including building owners, developers, business owners, police, residents and others. You want to ensure that you formally (and informally) bring all these parties together so they can actively participate in reshaping the community. Communicating your ideas with all involved parties will help you evaluate different perspectives and enhance the execution of your capital program. Public safety, for example, is key to attracting people to your downtown core. Our project team invited the Calgary Police Service to participate in our downtown strategy planning and execution. This collaboration reassured condo corporations looking to attract tenants to new developments, while enabling the police force to guide optimized public safety programs for the downtown community.

By strategically selecting the right resources – both internally and externally – you can build the relationships you need to rezone and revitalize your downtown core effectively. Champions within our project team and on city council played a key role in bringing our downtown strategy to fruition successfully. Like many other municipalities, we understood that our downtown challenges couldn’t be solved solely through federal and provincial grants. However, through careful and considerate planning, our team was able to execute our downtown initiative, providing relief to the community and bringing a renewed vibrancy back to the city.

Interested in learning more about Calgary’s downtown strategy? Email downtownstrategy@calgary.ca or connect with Evan Woolley at Evan.Woolley@colliersprojectleaders.com.