All downtowns must reinvent themselves!

While it is shocking Calgary’s downtown skyscraper “vacancy rate” skyrocketed to 20% at the end of March, (and that it could soon surpass the vacancy record of 22% set in 1983, twice what it was a year ago), we should keep some perspective.

These numbers are not unheard of in major corporate headquarter cities. Back in the ‘70s, New York City was in decline. By the mid ‘70s, New York City came close to bankruptcy and their office vacancy rate hit 20%. In 1993, Toronto’s downtown office vacancy rate hit 20.4% and Vancouver’s rose to 17.4% in 2004. And these may not even be records as data only goes back only to 1990 for those cities.

Today, New York City, Toronto and Vancouver’s downtowns are booming a testament to the fact that all downtowns go through periods of growth, decline and rebirth.

Montreal's St. Catherine Street has once again become a vibrant street with shops and street festival; this was not the case in the '70s when I first visited. 

Heyday and Decline

It might surprise some people to learn that in the early 20th century, Buffalo was one of the world’s leading cities. 

Home to America's first electric streetlights, it also had one of the world's first skyscrapers (Guaranty Building, 1894) and the world's largest office building (Ellicott Square, 1896). It hosted the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition and its beautiful park system was designed by none other than Fredrick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York City’s Central Park.

At the beginning of the 20st century Winnipeg was the fastest growing city on the continent. In 1912, a Chicago Tribune writer called Winnipeg “Chicago of the North” and described it as Canada’s most cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse centre, with most of its population under the age of forty. It was described as Canada’s liveliest city, full of bustle and optimism. In 1911, Winnipeg was Canada’s third largest city; today it is eighth. 

The downtowns of both these cities fell into decline in the middle of the 20th century and while they have not returned to the hustle and bustle of their heydays, both are enjoying a modest renaissance.

Buffalo's waterfront was once thriving industrial and shipping centre, today it is being transformed into a wonderful public spaces for locals and tourists. 

Buffalo's Canalside development development is animated year round. (photo credit: Joe Cascio)

The Forks (where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet in Winnipeg) has been transformed into a mixed-use public space with two museums, baseball field, outdoor performance space, winter skating, market and hotel.  

Decline and Rebirth

In the ‘60s, the case could still be made that Montreal was Canada’s business capital. Its downtown was a major office headquarters for Quebec’s natural resource industry as well as a thriving financial industry, including the head offices of the Bank of Montreal, Royal Bank of Canada and insurance giant, Sun Life.

In 1962, when the Place Ville Marie office designed by iconic architects I.M. Pei and Henry N. Cobb opened, it symbolized Montreal’s arrival as world-class city.  This was further reinforced with the hosting of Expo 67, the arrival of Montreal Expos baseball team in 1969, and the 1976 Olympics.

However, the ‘70s brought the threat of separation, which resulted in many corporate headquarters and their executives moving to Toronto. By 1971, Toronto’s population surpassed Montreal’s. The 1976 Montreal Olympics, the most expensive in history, plunged the City into a legacy of debt and decline for decades.

Today, Montreal downtown has reinvented itself as an international tourist destination and a major player in the gaming and music industries.

Old Montreal is one of Canada's best urban tourist attractions. 

Then there was New York City.  In 1975, it was on the brink of bankruptcy.

The gradual economic and social decay set in during the‘60s. The city's subway system was regarded as unsafe due to crime and frequent mechanical breakdowns. Central Park was the site of numerous muggings and rapes; homeless persons and drug dealers occupied boarded-up and abandoned buildings. Times Square became an ugly, seedy place dominated by crime, drugs and prostitution. 

Today, New York City is back as one of the world’s most successful cities, economically and culturally…and Times Square is again one of the world’s most popular urban tourist attractions.

In the '60s and '70s the area around Times Square was a "no go" zone for tourists and locals. (photo credit: Ilana Galed)

Today Times Square is bustling with people of all ages and backgrounds.  It has become a wonderful public space as a result of street closures. 

Calgary’s Future

Perhaps Calgary has already begun to reinvent itself.

The CBRE’s First Quarter 2016 Report states, “Not all commercial real estate in the city has been affected, though. Suburban office space held steady fro,m the last quarter, and the industrial real estate market is still robust because it’s not tied to oil and gas.” 

Indeed, Calgary has become one of North America’s largest Inland Port cities, including two state-of-the art intermodal rail operations.  Calgary is now the distribution headquarters for Western Canada a position once held by Winnipeg. Today, Calgary’s industrial sectors employ more people than the energy sector.  However, this new economic engine won’t help vacant downtown office spaces as it is not downtown- oriented.

Link: Calgary Region: An Inland Port

Calgary Economic Development is working with the real estate community to implement a Head Office/Downtown Office Plan with three action items.

One idea is the repurposing of smaller older office spaces as incubators and innovation hubs to attract millennials and/or entrepreneurs and the creation of incubation and co-sharing space.  A good example of this is in West Hillhurst, where Arlene Dickenson (a successful Calgary entrepreneur, venture capitalist and former start of the TV show Dragon’s Den) has converted an old office building at the corner of Memorial Drive and Kensington Road (once home to an engineering firm) into District Ventures, home to several start-up packaged goods companies.

New and old office buildings in downtown Calgary with multiple floors of vacant office space will be difficult to convert to other uses. 

Another “repurposing” idea would be to convert some older office buildings into residential uses. In the US, programs like “Vacant places into Vibrant spaces,” have been successful but mostly for office to residential conversions of older buildings with smaller floor plates.  They don’t work for offices buildings with floor plates over 7,500 square feet (which is the case for most of Calgary’s empty high rise office space), as it is expensive and difficult to meet residential building codes which are very different from commercial ones, making it difficult to compete with new residential construction.

In an ideal world, Calgary could become a “Global Talent Hub” where skilled workers who have been displaced from the energy and related industries continue to live in Calgary but become a remote workforce for energy projects around the world. Temporary and permanent satellite offices could be established in Calgary with teams of engineers, geologists, accountants, bankers etc. working on projects around the world.

The obvious strategy would be to woo international companies in the finance, insurance, transportation, agriculture, digital media and renewable resources industries to set up a Canadian or North American office in Calgary, maybe even relocate their headquarters here.   With cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Boston facing mega affordable housing crisis for millennial workers, Calgary could become a very attractive place for a satellite office for companies in those cities.

One “off the wall idea” postulated by George Brookman, C.E.O of West Canadian Industries, would be to promote Calgary as an International Centre for Energy Dispute Resolution, similar to the Netherland’s TAMARA (Transportation And Maritime Arbitration Rotterdam-Amsterdam) that offers an extrajudicial platform for conducting professional arbitration for settling disputes. However, this would take years and one wonders could Calgary compete with London and New York who are already leaders in International Arbitration business?  

Last Word

Calgary has reinvented itself before. It evolved from a ranching/agriculture-based economy to an oil and gas one in the middle of the 20th century, which was when our downtown came of age. The downtown core which is an office ghetto today would benefit immensely if incentives could be made to convert a dozen or so office buildings into condos, apartments or hotels to create a better “live, work, play” balance.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published by CBC Crossroads titled “Revitalizing Calgary’s core: Some possibilities for rebirth” on June 17, 2016.

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Are Calgary's Traffic Signals Optimized?

It all started with a simple question, “Why doesn’t the City have more flashing traffic lights late at night when there is little traffic?”

Recently, I had an opportunity to chat with a seasoned traffic engineer (who does not work for the City of Calgary and wishes to remain anonymous) and ask if s/he thought Calgary was doing a good job of optimizing our city’s 1,034 traffic lights.

While sitting in traffic, we all question the wisdom of traffic light management - in our own city and when visiting other cities.

This third party expert’s comment are enlightening.  Read on.

At 9:30 on a Monday evening the traffic at the corner of 19th St. and 5th Ave. NW is sparse, perhaps flashing red and yellow lights would be more environmentally friendly? 

Rush Hour Priority

“The City spends a lot of time and effort developing signal timing plans to optimize traffic flows on major roadways. These efforts are noticed when you catch every green light (I am not sure this ever really happens, but we will pretend it does) as you head down a major road in rush hour.

Creating an optimal traffic light signals program for major roads is a complicated process at the best of time. It gets very complex with variables like winter weather, accidents and construction. The needs for side street traffic, pedestrian and cyclist movement add another level of variables. 

On the whole, the City of Calgary does a very good job at optimizing the major roads during the morning and afternoon rush hours.”

Off-Peak Period Needs Improvement

“Where Calgary’s system is less effective is during off-peak periods and weekends. Often, the signal timing plans and progression models are less precise during those periods due in part to City resources being focused on making the busy rush hour periods work really well. There is only so much money to go around and to acquire all the necessary traffic count data. To utilize the necessary staff time to optimize signals in the off-peak periods more effectively would be a substantial undertaking.”

Everyday Tourist Research: It is true that while everyone focuses on the rush hours (aka peak hour traffic), in fact midday and evening traffic (3.3 million trips) is more than both rush hours combined (2.6 million trips). So it would make sense to optimize lights for off-peak period also. City doesn’t have current figures for weekend traffic. (Source: City of Calgary)
 City of Calgary, 2015 Vehicular Trips/Day

City of Calgary, 2015 Vehicular Trips/Day

Benefits of traffic light optimization

“There are two major impacts of improved traffic light management – time and emissions. Time is significant because unnecessary idling at red lights lengthens the period that vehicles are on the road, which creates more congestion, which then could lead to a demand for more or larger roads to accommodate the congestion. Congestion also adds to driver stress levels and perhaps even road rage. Emissions are significant because the longer a car is operating, the more noxious fumes it is emitting into the air.”

Everyday Tourist Research: Using the Natural Resources Canada “Individual Idling Calculator,” if the average Calgary driver sits idling in traffic for 20 minutes a day (say 10 minutes each way for commuters), it costs the driver $150/year in gas alone and each car emits 450kg/year of greenhouse gas (GHG) into the atmosphere.
Given Calgary has 2.6 million trips per day during peak hours or about 1.3 million round trips (includes workers, school buses, transit, commercial vehicles) that adds up to a cost of $195 million/year and 595 million kg/year of GHG.  So even a 10% improvement (2 minutes) in traffic signal optimization would mean a cost savings of $20 million and 60 million kg/year less GHG emitted in rush hour alone.

“The City is spending a considerable amount of time and money on measures like cycle tracks to reduced emissions through reduced vehicle usage. That is excellent and should be continued, but we could also reduce emissions with improved off-peak and weekend traffic signal optimization.”

Red Light Rage

“Every driver stews when stopped at a signal for what appears to be no good reason. It’s late at night when no other traffic is anywhere to be seen, or during the middle of the day when the opposing flows clearly don’t need as much green time as they seem to be given.

The City does have an on-line opportunity for citizens to identify under-performing traffic signals. A driver stuck at the light that seems to be red for no reason should report it at City of Calgary Traffic Signals Link.

The City will then review it in the field to see if the traffic light needs to be tweaked in terms of cycle length, or could become a flash light at certain times of the day or perhaps earlier in the evening than is currently applied.  We need to work together to help the City optimize traffic lights.”

There were lots of times when there was no traffic at 19th St and 5th Ave SW at 9:30 on a Monday evening.  There area probably lots of secondary and tertiary intersections like this that could benefit from flashing lights during the over night period.

Last Word

Obviously, there is a need for resources to be set aside by the City to facilitate this.  Its takes time and horsepower to send staff out to look at hundreds of signals, many of which might have perfectly good reasons for operating the way they do and require no adjustments.

However, relatively small amount of effort could potentially produce a significant positive impact on Calgarians’ quality of life and our environment. It would also be a significant cost savings for businesses; especially given Calgary is a major distribution hub.

There are opportunities in traffic signal optimization to make a difference that could benefit everyone….not just drivers. And we can all play a role in identifying the biggest trouble spots.” 

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Calgary: Planners and Politicians are too downtown and ego centric!

Everyday Tourist Note: We love getting comments and insights from readers. This week, we received a very thoughtful email about Calgary's urban/suburban divide that warranted a guest blog. 

I keep reading about the urban/suburban divide, the evils of sprawl, and the mismanagement of development. At the same time, I read of the declining importance of downtown, with the majority of employment growth occurring in the outside areas – the industrial parks, the distribution centers, universities and hospital campuses, the airport – and on.

Downtown is an island of high-rises that has less and less relevance to the majority of Calgarians. (photo credit Peak Aerials) 

What is downtown Calgary?

We have dozens of office towers occupied by oil and gas companies, banks, legal firms, investment advisors, and government.  It certainly isn’t representative of the full economy of the city.

And while there is a retail component to downtown, it is certainly not a draw for the majority of people who have much more accessible shopping without any of the hassles and expense of going downtown.

Many of the towers would not exist but for the extravagance of the oil industry in good times, and now that the industry has again fallen on hard times, the downtown is paying a steep price.

Many believe that this is a long term, or even a permanent problem, as the economic structure of that industry has changed.  At the very least, we may again be facing a lost decade, similar to the 1980’s.

Yet employment growth, and economic expansion, continues in Calgary, as does population growth. But despite the fact that the large employment centers outside the downtown are out-performing the downtown, the city remains disproportionately focused on downtown.

We continue with our hub and spoke approach to public transit, our tunnel vision on all things downtown, be it bike lanes, parks redevelopment, pedestrian bridges, and on. And all we hear about are the evils of sprawl.

 

This City of Calgary Land Use Typology map illustrates how Calgary NE and SE have be designed as major industrial employment centres (purple). However, these areas are serviced mostly by road rather than transit.  It also illustrates how most of the residential zoning is on the west side of the city with employment on the east, yet most transit routes are oriented north and south. The City is responsible for the disconnect in Calgary's land uses, not developers. 

Calgary's current and planned LRT routes are all downtown centric. 

Change focus

Where is the focus on the access needs of the industrial parks, the distribution centers and other outlying employment centers?

Who is championing public transit that will service these areas without the inevitable connection to the C Train or routing through downtown. 

Where is the encouragement to better link these employment centers to surrounding residential with the same access that we fund in the core?

Is there any less need for funding of pedestrian access and bike routes in the suburbs, or to these employment centers?  Some would argue the need for bike routes is even greater, given the city’s long standing approach to development, where suburbs are essentially individually walled off communities, and the routes in an out are mid to high speed roadways with no pedestrian or bike access.

SE Inland Port anchors a major employment centre in Calgary with minimal transit service. 

Quarry Park is a major employment centre in Calgary's SE quadrant but has poor transit service as a result of all transit in SE focused on existing South LRT leg service to downtown.

Southeast is booming

Over the past few years, two major employment centers have developed in the Southeast – Quarry Park and Seton (the South Hospital Campus).  These are not centers that were being redeveloped and face the limitations of decisions and designs of decades past. 

They were clean sheets of paper, and could be designed and built to fulfill all of the pet initiatives being touted by council, city planners, and the various special interest groups that arise every time changes are planned in communities.  

But neither development can be viewed as overly pedestrian or bike friendly, transit oriented, or even planned to encourage living in nearby suburbs.

Somehow we have developed this skewed vision of a world-class city, with a downtown full of architecturally significant towers and condos, with these great public areas, art work, parks, etc.  Unfortunately, that is not where the majority of the population is, wants to be, or can afford to live. Nor is it where the majority work.

South Health Campus will anchor a new Healthcare focused city at the southern edge of the city. (photo credit Peak Aerials) 

Urban Sprawl City's fault

Calgary is where it is today because of our city administration and planners.  They annex the land.  

They layout and approve the subdivisions, shopping centers, employment centers, industrial areas, and transportation routes.

They layout the rules for all the development that happens in new communities.

Yet it is the developers who seem to be at fault for the sprawl, the transportation issues, the lack of density, the dependence on cars, and on and on.

Something is amiss.  

Map of Calgary's vision for Rapid Transit routes is still downtown centric, but there are more east west routes.

Out of whack? 

I think the City’s basic priorities are out of whack. The future of Calgary is not in the downtown, nor in the million dollar infills or luxury condos. 

Calgary is a city of young, growing families, most with jobs outside of the downtown, with a focus on raising families with ready access to parks, recreation facilities, neighbourhood schools and shopping.

While the designer bridges and public artworks look great on postcards, they have little impact on the majority of Calgary’ citizens.

Gerry Geoffrey is a retired CFO of a major Western Canadian corporation and a resident of Calgary since the mid 80’s. His sentiments are similar to the feedback received from many Everyday Tourist readers.

Finally, the SE quadrant will be getting not one but two new recreation centres - SETON and Quarry Park.  (photo credit, SETON Recreation Centre, City of Calgary website).

Downtown urban design makes for dramatic postcards, but don't serve the needs of the majority of Calgarians.