Wanted: Artist-Friendly Downtown Office Building Landlords

On Sunday February 18, 2018, CBC Calgary posted as part of their Road Ahead initiative my opinion piece suggesting some of the 15 million square feet of vacant downtown office space could/should be rented out to artists and other creative individuals.

  There is over a million square feet of empty office space in various older buildings that could be used by artists as work spaces, exhibition spaces etc....

There is over a million square feet of empty office space in various older buildings that could be used by artists as work spaces, exhibition spaces etc....

  Many of the smaller, older office spaces in downtown Calgary have vacant space that could be converted into affordable and attractive work space for artists and other creative individuals. 

Many of the smaller, older office spaces in downtown Calgary have vacant space that could be converted into affordable and attractive work space for artists and other creative individuals. 

Sunday Blogs

While I post a new blog every Sunday morning, I have never had such a tremendous response. Almost immediately the piece was being read by thousands of people, some times more than 500 at the same time. 

Soon I was receiving retweets from places like Madrid and Linkedin comments from New Zealand and personal emails from artists about their experience of leasing office space in other cities.  

Here are some of the comments, and for those of you who didn't see the CBC post titled: Why we should turn Calgary's empty office space over to the creative economy? 

David Alexander wrote:

I am an artist who lives in Lake Country, B.C. but originally from Vancouver and worked out of repurposed office buildings for years. I also lived in Saskatoon where I rented in the downtown for 9 years in a building that would have stood empty until it became economical to knock down for new and bigger towers for higher rent. We always worked in reused spaces in cities.  

I know Calgary artist Chris Cran and think Calgary would be a perfect place for an artist in the towers project. My artist friend in NYC had a studio on the 91st floor of the twin towers before their destruction. There are many empty office towers in every city and they would make great temporary studios of all kinds. New York city hall lets artists use them as studios as it takes months years to sell and renovate to suit a new renter. My friend was in the twin towers for 3 years.

Artists are adaptable to most spaces and you realize they can add to the advance of culture in a meaningful way. This could be a win win situation in Calgary.

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 9.49.41 AM.png
Image-1.jpg

Blog: Wanted: Artist-Friendly Downtown Office Building Landlords 

Could some of the 15 million square feet of vacant downtown Calgary office space (the equivalent of 7,500 suburban homes) be converted to studio/work space for creative individuals (painters, writers, musicians, sculptors, architects, 3D animators, fashion designers).

This was one of the ideas suggested by an Everyday Tourist reader a few weeks ago after I posted the blog on how the City might spend $100M to help fill up vacant downtown office space.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought “Why not?”

Artists as catalysts

For centuries, artists have moved into vacant buildings, especially old warehouses, converting them into studios and lofts. Why not office buildings? In cities like Berlin, New York, London and Paris, artists have been the catalyst for urban renewal of hundreds, if not thousands of buildings.

Why not Calgary?

Speaking of Berlin, last year I saw firsthand how artists routinely transform vacant buildings into funky workspaces for various artistic endeavours. For the past 20+ years, artists from around the world have flocked to Berlin to make art – including my 20-something nephew (an oil patch engineer turned electronic music composer – sidenote: his idea, not the result of layoffs) partly because of affordable studio/living space. 

Today, Berlin is one of the world’s leading art cities with hundreds of art galleries and thousands of artists creating a vibrant city 24/7. In Berlin, the arts are a major economic engine.

And, in Leipzig, Germany (2 hours from Berlin)I  toured Spinnerei, a 10-hectare old cotton mill industrial site transformed into 10 galleries, a huge art supply store, a communal arts centre and studio spaces for 100+ artists.  It was a wonderful place for the public to explore, experience, learn and buy art.

  Entrance to Spinnerei an artists colony with dozens of galleries, studios and other related small businesses in a former cotton factor in Leipzig, Germany.  

Entrance to Spinnerei an artists colony with dozens of galleries, studios and other related small businesses in a former cotton factor in Leipzig, Germany. 

Demand

Currently, Calgary is home to a number of co-operative artists’ studios in off-the-beaten-path older buildings – including Burns Visual Arts Society (Ramsay) and Artpoint Gallery & Studios (Inglewood) and Untitled Art Society (Beltline). Each has a waiting list.

In 2004, Art Central (at the corner of 7th Ave SW and Centre Street) David Neill, President of Encorp converted an old two-storey building into a funky mix of commercial galleries and studio spaces.  In its heyday, it was a bustling place and home of the first Deville Café. It was torn down in 2016 to make way for Telus Sky office/residential tower.

Recently, the $30 million cSPACE opened in the former King Edward School in South Calgary with its gallery and performance space, as well as 30-luxury studio spaces, which were all quickly snapped up. 

The demand for studio space is not surprising given 100+ students graduate from the Alberta College of Art & Design each year with the dream of becoming an artist.

  Along Chabanel Street in Montreal several older office buildings have become home to fashion designers and warehouse outlet stores. 

Along Chabanel Street in Montreal several older office buildings have become home to fashion designers and warehouse outlet stores. 

The Economics

Given the 15 million square feet of downtown office space is not likely to all get filled up for 10+ years perhaps there is an owner(s) willing to lease some of their space to artists and creative individuals to cover their operating costs. Operating costs for older buildings are in the $15 per square foot range so a 250 square foot studio would cost $3,750/year or $315/month (including utilities). A quick chat with a few artists indicated this would be attractive to them. 

Some of the open office concept space also might be leased to commercial galleries and/or small architectural/design firms or other creative types who don’t need or want walls.

  Did I mention there is millions of square feet of empty office space in downtown Calgary, that will probably be empty for many years? 

Did I mention there is millions of square feet of empty office space in downtown Calgary, that will probably be empty for many years? 

Feasibility

Architect Tom Tittemore, responsible for the retrofitting of the 8th and 8th Medical Center into the University of Calgary’s downtown campus, thought the idea of converting vacant office space to studios/workspaces was an excellent proposition.  Here are some of his thoughts:

  • Art studios are ideally located in simple spaces, with high unadorned ceilings (i.e. not T-bar as in office space) and exposed sealed concrete floors;
  • Exposed mechanical, electrical and structural systems are usually appreciated and provided in unfinished office towers;
  • The views from all directions could serve as an inspiration to any artist;
  • Corners usually allocated for “higher-food chain” employees would make excellent exhibition areas, as would the wall spaces comprising the central service cores.

Gord Menzies, former General Manager of Eighth Avenue Place and huge supporter of the arts, loves the idea but warns that “any artist working in oils is going to be impacted by the quality of the building’s HVAC system as other tenants are notoriously touchy about smells and fumes. It would require visionary ownership.”

James Midwinter recently retired, Executive Vice President at GWL Realty Advisors, in Calgary thought it would work best if an artists’ cooperative or non-profit umbrella organization committed to leasing a floor at a time and then offering it to artists.  

Calgary Arts Development (CAD) also identified the need for a key space operator or key leaseholder to manage a multi-tenant arts space way back in their 2007 “Arts Space Strategy & Capital Plan” study. Joni Carroll, Arts Spaces Consultant with CAD says, “in 2018 we will be sharing information with people who are interested in taking on spaces and then subletting those spaces to create multi-tenant arts hubs. And downtown office space at low rates with a suitably long lease length will likely be really attractive to people looking to start these hubs.”

And lastly chatting with a few experienced property owners, they thought one barrier might be when the economy recovers and rental rates go up or the owner wants to redevelop the building, there would be a backlash about kicking out the artists.

Reid Henry, the founding President and CEO of cSPACE  points out, “artists’ studios are not a one-size, fit-all scenario. Designer-makers, painters, photographers, musicians, dancers all require different spaces based on floor-to-ceiling height, ventilation, natural light, access to the public, sound attenuation, floor area configuration and loading and robust interior materiality.” 

Henry also thinks there could be a bit of a culture clash, saying there isn't exactly a shared world view between the artistic community and Calgary's downtown corporate culture.

So, if you surround 'art' types with 'suit-and-tie' types, Henry says, “keep in mind the nature of artists is to question the status quo, challenge our thinking, engage us in critical dialogue. I'm not convinced embedding them in our corporate office towers would provide an environment to nurture that role successfully.”

“Attracting artists isn’t solely about cheap space,” he says. “It has to have the qualities that support creation in all its complexity and provide a canvas creatives can 'imprint' their values onto, and feel empowered to build community within.”

While Henry is obviously not a big fan of the office-to-studio conversions, former landlord Gary Nissen and artist Chris Cran are.

Been There, Done That

Renting vacant downtown office space to artists can be a win-win in the mind of Gary Nissen who owned Sierra Place (a 10-floor office building at 706 - 7th Ave SW) in the early ‘90s (when office vacancies were at an all time high) and rented out vacant space to several Calgary artists including Chris Cran who recently had a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada. 

“I did exactly what you are describing and it worked well for a few years to recover costs.  Small floor plate, class C buildings likely work best for this concept” said Nissen.  “I would look at it again if I still owned property with vacant space. I felt like I was helping the arts community, met lots of cool people and covered some of my costs.” 

Ironically, I recently ran into Cran at an art gallery opening and he fondly remembers having a whole floor (8,000 square feet) that was a perfect studio for making art for several years, including some of the work in his National Gallery exhibition.

  Huge art supply store located at Spinnerei art campus, Leipzig, Germany

Huge art supply store located at Spinnerei art campus, Leipzig, Germany

Imagine

Imagine the impact on Calgary’s downtown if 100,000 square feet (less than 1% of the current vacant office space), which is likely to still be vacant five even 10 years from now, was converted into studio/work space for creative endeavours over the next year.

Imagine hundreds of creative types invading the downtown seven days a week at all times of the day.

Imagine the publicity Calgary would get if we launched a national or international ”We Have SPACE for YOU!” campaign, inviting creative individuals of all types to move to Calgary for affordable studio space. 

  Imagine if downtown Calgary had thousands of artists calling it home. The Burns Visual Arts Society started downtown in the Burns Building, but has to move outside of the downtown as the result of the building being redeveloped. 

Imagine if downtown Calgary had thousands of artists calling it home. The Burns Visual Arts Society started downtown in the Burns Building, but has to move outside of the downtown as the result of the building being redeveloped. 

Last Word

This is not as far fetched as one might think.  In Montreal, Chabanel St (aka the Garment District) is home to many fashion importers, designers and outlet shops located in old office buildings. 

What is needed is a landlord who can “think outside the office.” Someone who would allow the artists some liberty to use their sweat equity to transform the space into viable studio space.   We are not talking about hiring interior design firms to create luxury spaces; this is going to be guerrilla spaces – a “Halt & Catch Fire” space.

Perhaps some of the City of Calgary’s $100M Downtown Help Fund could be used to hire a coordinator to work with landlords to market and facilitate the conversion of office space that is past its due date to become work spaces for creative individuals and organizations.

Perhaps Calgary should be fishing for creative individuals and not just corporations to fill its vacant downtown office space.

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Calgary's CBD is unique!

Save Downtown: Office To Residential Conversion Won't Work

Fixing Calgary's downtown ghost town