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.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Fixing Calgary's downtown ghost town

Buffalo vs Calgary / Boom Bust Cities

Calgary: Are We Too Downtown Centric

Calgary's CBD is unique!

Recently I did a piece for CBCNews Crossroads about Calgary’s downtown being an office ghetto.  The two criticisms I received from several urban planners were: 1) what I was really talking about was not Calgary’s downtown, but its “central business district” (CBD) and 2) all CBDs are office ghettos and therefore ghost towns after office hours. 

CBD is an urban planning term that refers to the place near the centre of a city that is predominantly a place to conduct business. To confuse things, some cities like Toronto, called it the Financial District, as it is where the major national banks have their headquarters.

Calgary's CBD includes several blogs of early 20th century buildings that have been declared a National Historic District as well as several other historical buildings. 

Calgary’s CBD (Downtown Commercial Core, is City of Calgary’s official name for it) is defined as the area from 9th St SW to 1st St SE (behind Municipal Building) and from 9th Ave SW to the 4th Ave SW.  It is about 1.3 km by .6 km in size and excludes Eau Claire, Chinatown or East Village.  For most Calgarians, I expect this is also their definition of downtown give or take a few blocks.

Read: Fixing Calgary's downtown ghost town

All CBDs are ghost towns?

The critics were quick to point out, “in Toronto, the Bay and King Street area is dead outside of office hours; the same is true for the blocks around Manhattan’s Wall Street.”

I agree with their observation CBD’s are typically ghost towns outside of office hours, because they basically have nothing else but offices towers. 

However, Calgary’s CBD is different.  While it is 80% office buildings it also includes major shopping, entertainment, cultural, historic and residential elements, on a scale that most other major city CBDs don’t include.

For example, Toronto’s CBD, at about 2 square kilometers, though about the same size as Calgary’s, doesn’t include Toronto Eaton Centre, The Bay, their theatre and entertainment districts. Their major tourist destinations, Art Gallery of Ontario, Royal Ontario Museum and CN Tower are also not in their CBD.  The same could be said for Vancouver or Seattle, their tourist are not hanging out in their CBD.

Calgary's CBD has over 3 million square feet of retail space, twice that of Chinook Mall.  The Core shopping mall links the historic Hudson's Bay department store with a flagship Holt Renfew store.  It is connected to 9 office towers and to Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall and the 7th Avenue transit corridor.  It is also connect to a major indoor public garden.  It is one of the most dense and mixed-use three-blocks in North America. 

Calgary's CBC has two pedestrian oriented streets with wide sidewalks, planters, banners and other enhancements. 

Why Calgary's CBD is different?

In Calgary, our CBD includes the city’s largest concentration of retail shopping. At 3.6 million square feet it is more than twice Chinook Centre’s. It includes the flagship Hudson’s Bay and Holt Renfrew department stores, as well as the-uber cool The Core shopping center with the mammoth glass ceiling.

Calgary’s CBD also includes two major tourist attractions the Glenbow Museum and Calgary Towers, as well as our Convention Centre. While the historic districts in Toronto and Vancouver are outside of their CBD, Calgary’s Stephen Avenue (a designated National Historic District) and a major restaurant row sits at centre ice in our CBD.

Calgary is also unique in that eight performing art spaces with over 4,000 seats and an art house cinema are located in our CBD.  It is also home to two significant public spaces (Devonian Gardens and Olympic Plaza), over 100 public artworks and two enhanced pedestrian-oriented streets (Stephen Avenue and Barclay Mall). 

Our CBD is home to some of Calgary’s best restaurants, albeit many of them have “expense account” prices, making them more for special occasions only.  It also includes major nightclubs like Flames Central and smaller music venues the Palomino Room or Wine-Ohs.

And, it I home to major festivals like Calgary International Children’s Festival and High Performance Rodeo, as well as the Stampede Parade and Stampede’s Rope Square.  

Indeed, Calgary’s CBD is unique in North America offering a greater diversity and great concentration of things to see and do for tourists and locals than a typical CBD.

Read: Calgary's Downtown Power Hour

Calgary's CBD comes alive at noon hour in the summer when workers and tourist love to stroll Stephen Avenue Walk aka 8th Avenue. 

Calgary's 7th Avenue LRT station at Holt Renfew, opens to a lovely park that is popular with workers at noon hour.

Stephen Avenue is a major restaurant row, that is lined with patios from May to September. 

Calgary Telus Convention Centre is located in Calgary CBD.

Olympic Plaza is another public space located in Calgary's CBD. The red brick building is part of the Arts Commons complex that includes that entire block.  it includes four theatre spaces and one concert hall.  On the next block is the Glenbow Museum and the Telus Convention Centre with Hyatt and Marriott hotels. 

Thousands of people live in our CBD

Our CBD also has a significant residential population of 9,000 residents. In fact it is one of Calgary’s largest residential communities ranking 52 out of our 250+ communities in population. It is also includes 10 major hotels with over 3,000 rooms.

In comparison, Toronto CBD’s residential population is only 2,239 (Toronto Financial District Business Improvement Area).

Read: Calgary new downtown office towers catalyst for inner-city densification

One of several residential buildings in Calgary's CBD. 

Facing Reality 

Our CBD is our downtown in the minds of most Calgarians.  And it is generally perceived as a place to work - not live or play.

Calgary’s CDB downtown has not captured the imagination of Calgarians as a place to play, dine, shop, be entertained, wander, linger or hang out except on special occasions. Neither, has it captured the imagination of Calgarians as a “must see” place for visiting family and friends except for special events.  

Nor has it captured the imagination of tourists as a weekend urban playground – music, festival, events, food, pubs, clubs, gallery/museum browsing, shopping, theatre etc.

9th Avenue is a typical Calgary CBD street with office buildings lining the street allowing little to no light to the sidewalk creating an unfriendly pedestrian environment. 

Another example of a street in Calgary's CBD that is just a wall of glass from office buildings. 

Last Word

In theory, Calgary’s CDB/downtown has many of the ingredients urban planners say you need to have for a vibrant urban place – shopping, public spaces, pedestrian- oriented streets, museums, art galleries, iconic architecture, public art, cafés, restaurants and festivals. 

Despite the tremendous efforts (think billions of dollars) by the City of Calgary, the private sector and the Calgary Downtown Association to create a CBD that is attractive to office workers during the weekday and tourists and Calgarians citywide in evenings and weekends, it is still a ghost town after office hours.

Unfortunately, office buildings are urban vitality exterminators and they trump everything else.

Full Disclosure: I was the Executive Director of the Calgary Downtown Association from 1995 to 2006.