Chinatown Makeover: You can’t please everyone!

Does Chinatown get swallowed up as the downtown highrises (office and residential) creep northwards toward the Bow River.

Or, does it become a pedestrian oasis that celebrates Calgary’s 135-year old Chinese culture?

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Let the debate begin

 Rendering of the the two residential and one hotel tower that is proposed for the Chinatown parking lot above.

Rendering of the the two residential and one hotel tower that is proposed for the Chinatown parking lot above.

Parking vs Towers

That is the question Calgary’s City Council will debate on Nov 12th, 2018 when they are asked to approve a Land Use change and Development Permit for a huge mixed-use development that includes two-28 storey residential towers, a 12-story hotel and street retail.   

There are at least two sides to the El Condor Land debate – “El Condor” referring to the company that owns the land in question. The site encompasses almost the entire block from 2nd Street to 1st Street SW and from 2nd Ave to 3rd Ave SW.  

 Rendering of the proposed pedestrian mews with shops, cafes and restaurants at street level with hotel and residential above.

Rendering of the proposed pedestrian mews with shops, cafes and restaurants at street level with hotel and residential above.

A bit of context…

Calgary’s Chinatown has been stagnant, some might argue even in decline - for the past decade or more. The 2013 Calgary Flood hit the business community hard. The cost of recovery was significant for the many “mom and pop” businesses and Calgary’s current downtown economy is not contributing to revitalization.

Additionally, many property owners and merchants, now in their 60 to 80s, are actively considering selling their property and businesses and retiring. 

Chinatown At A Glance

  • 49 retail shops

  • 46 restaurants

  • 10 grocery/butcher/seafood

  • 11 personal services

  • 16 medical/pharmacy/Traditional Chinese Medicine

  • 16 salons

  • 6  business services

  • 23 corporate offices

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Change is in the wind…

“Chinatown needs private investment and development plus a relaxation of municipal bylaws (esp. parking) to revitalize the commercial/retail sector of this community,” says Terry Wong, Executive Director of the Chinatown District Business Improvement Area (BIA). 

The BIA, now three years old, has been working diligently with the City, businesses, property owners and various community groups to create a shared vision and plan to help Calgary’s Chinatown thrive in the 21stcentury. The vision is to enhance Calgary’s Chinatown as an iconic and cultural placevalued locally and nationally for its heritage, vitality, streetscape and architecture.  The goal is to create a walkable, accessible and livable community, a thriving authentic small-business district, an intergenerational social and community hub, and a tourist destination. 

The mega mixed use development being presented to City Council for approval could be the catalyst to make this happen, or it could be the end of Calgary’s historic Chinatown.  It depends on who you are talking to. 

El Condor Land Development at a glance:

  • 524      residential units

  • 150      hotel rooms

  • 23        commercial units

  • 470      parking stalls

  • 466      bike stalls 

 Note the project has almost as many bike stalls as vehicle ones, I am not aware of any project in Calgary that has equal bike/car parking.

Note the project has almost as many bike stalls as vehicle ones, I am not aware of any project in Calgary that has equal bike/car parking.

The BIA says…

“The BIA and other Chinatown stakeholders have worked with the City to establish eight guiding principles for future Chinatown development and the planned establishment of a ‘Cultural Plan for Chinatown’ and a ‘Culturally-based Local Area Plan’ as directed by City Council in 2016. A ‘Made in Calgary’ Cultural Plan will define what should be the culturally distinct characteristics (i.e. social, economic, environmental) of Calgary’s Chinatown” says Wong. 

 He adds, “This would then lead to defining how this 9-square block community should be developed and revitalized through land development, the new or renovation buildings, transportation and pedestrian streetscape, recreation and public spaces.” 

“The BIA and Chinatown community are generally in favour of new development as a path to Chinatown renewal, but they want to be sure it is designed in a way that will benefit everyone – other property owners, business, residents, community and visitors who are there to shop, dine or be entertained,” states Wong.   

Currently Wong says the community is not in favour of the proposed development, however, they would be if three key amendments are made. 

Changes Needed 

First, there should be no entrances or exits for the underground parkade on 2ndAvenue. That’s in keeping with the vision for 2nd Avenue SW is that it will become their pedestrian oriented Main Street from 2nd St SW to Riverfront Avenue with the Chinese Cultural Centre in the middle.

This makes good sense given the Green Line will have an underground station at 2nd St and 2nd Ave SW, making the area ideal for a pedestrian oriented shopping and dining promenade linking Eau Claire to Chinatown and ultimately, to East Village. 

Second, they are concerned the current development permit has commercial space (retail/restaurants) only at street level and doesn’t allow for a major anchor tenant needed to make Chinatown a more attractive city-wide destination. If the new development is going to be the catalyst for the revitalization of the Chinatown, it will need to provide quality retail and restaurants space not only for today, but into the future. A two-floor commercial space (of higher) would allow for +15 connection to Sun Life Towers.

The current plan has no +15 connection to the Sun Life Towers across 3rdAvenue, which they feel is critical to the success of the development and will provide a much-needed link to tens of thousands of downtown office workers just a few blocks away.

 I must agree with this. One of the failures of Eau Claire Market was that it didn’t have a +15 link, in effect “isolating” the shops from the downtown workers during Calgary’s long winters. I also think having a +15 link to the downtown would be a huge differentiator for the residential towers, given there are very few residential towers in the City Centre with a +15 connection to downtown. Imagine not having to put a coat on in the winter to go to work every day; this would be a huge selling feature. 

Finally, the fourth concern of the BIA is that the hotel tower is in the wrong spot. The BIA supports a right-sized, quality hotel placed on 3rd Avenue and 1st Street SW where there is mid-point access to downtown, the Green Line LRT plus the existing 7th Avenue north-south and east-west LRT lines, the Chinese Cultural Centre, Chinatown retail, and the riverfront park and pathway system. This placement would also preserve 2nd Avenue as the pedestrian-oriented ‘linking promenade’ Main Street while allowing current multi-residential tenants the comfort of knowing roads and sidewalks are both comfortable and safe to walk on.

All reasonable requests you would think! 

It should be noted Wong is a former manager at The City of Calgary and fully understands land use, transportation, and community neighbourhoods. Additionally, having grown up in Vancouver’s Chinatown during the 60s and 70s, he is fully aware of Chinese community and retail culture and does not want to see the loss of Calgary’s culturally distinct Chinatown like has already happened in Vancouver.

  Proposed entrance to mid-block mews that would connect 2nd and 3rd Avenues SW with shops and restaurants.

Proposed entrance to mid-block mews that would connect 2nd and 3rd Avenues SW with shops and restaurants.

Community Engagement Consultant says…

Lourdes Juan, an urban planner with strong ties to the Asian community (note Chinatown is more of an Asian town these days with the last three new restaurants being Korean) was hired by the developer in May 2018 to help work with all the stakeholders to understand their concerns and listen to their ideas and help the community understand how the proposed project links with the community’s vision while also meeting economic and urban design realities.  

The developer has spent $100,000 and the City over $400,000 in community engagement initiatives since the proposed Land Use change and project design was unveiled. Literally thousands of hours have been spent working with the stakeholders to explain the development and why it is designed in the manner it is.  Translators were at every meeting and all documents were translated into Chinese to make sure everyone understood what was being said and being proposed.

Juan told me that each of the above issues have been addressed with the community but unfortunately not everyone was prepared to accept the rationale for why the City and/or the developer wants the projects developed the way it is being proposed.

First, the City is not interested in additional parking at the site, as it is adjacent to the new underground 2ndSt LRT station for the Green Line and only four blocks from the 7thAvenue Transit corridor.  The focus of the development will be on transit-oriented development, not auto-oriented.  

The developer’s research indicates that second floor retail doesn’t work in Chinatown today, and that the proposed development doesn’t have a commercial podium at its base, like office buildings downtown.   Rather, the project is designed with a mid-block mews from 2nd to 3rd Ave SW that will allow pedestrians to wander 23 small independent shops and restaurants along the mews, rather than national franchised shops.  

They did indicate that provisions will be made for a potential +15 connection from Sun Life Plaza at a future date.  

The hotel location also makes sense when you understand how the mews works and other restrictions of the site that is too complicated to explain here.

It has been very frustrating from both the City and the Juan’s perspective as they have tried very hard to communicate how the project’s design (by Perkins + Will’s Calgary office) will benefit the community.  

It should be noted that Juan is a young, independent urban planner who is uniquely connected not only to Calgary’s Chinese community, but also Calgary at large. Despite working very hard to document and communicate how the proposed project fits with the community’s eight principles, she couldn’t get the BIA and some other community leaders to support the proposed project.

Next Step    

Now it is up to Council to make the final approval. Council can’t make any amendments to the project, they can only approve it or reject. If rejected, the developer would have to continue to modify the project to get community and Council support. If approved, the community could appeal this decision to the Development Appeal Board.

I do know Councillor Farrell’s and her Dale Calkins her Senior Policy & Planning Advisor have been working with the community, applicant, and City planners on this project for the past 3.5 years. And that it has been incredibly challenging, as everyone wants to ensure Chinatown is a vibrant, resilient, and complete community.

“They just disagree on what that exactly looks like and how to get there.”

  The site is currently a surface parking lot, which is full during the week with office workers parking all day, but empty most evenings and weekends as are lots of parking lots in the downtown.

The site is currently a surface parking lot, which is full during the week with office workers parking all day, but empty most evenings and weekends as are lots of parking lots in the downtown.

Last Word

I always say “no plan is perfect. You can’t please everyone.” And the old saying “there is more than one way to skin a cat” might apply here too.  

This is a huge development that will shape the future of Chinatown for decades, so yes, it is important to get it right. But right for whom!

While some in the community will lament the loss of their surface parking lot, the reality is the best thing that can happen for Chinatown is the parking lot gets developed. Surely, the addition of a 150-room hotel, 500+ new homes and 20+ new retail/restaurant spaces will add much needed vitality our struggling Chinatown.  And hopefully, spur on other property owners and shop keepers to up their game.  

That’s my opinion after chatting with both sides.  And it hasn’t changed from when I first wrote about this proposal back in July 2016 in my Calgary Herald column.

Link:What is the future of Calgary’s Chinatown”  

 Calgary’s Chinatown needs to attract more young people to live, work, play and invest in the community.

Calgary’s Chinatown needs to attract more young people to live, work, play and invest in the community.

Canada: A Country Of Prosaic Cities - Toronto!

I love flaneuring through the books in thrift stores and used bookstores to see if I might find a hidden gem.  That is exactly what happened recently at J.H. Gordon Books on King St. E in Hamilton, Ontario. 

Often, I find books I didn’t even know existed, like Jan Morris’ “City to City” which is subtitled “through the eyes of the greatest travel writer of our day.” I have a couple of Morris’ books in my collection but had never seen this one.   

A quick check found it was published in 1990 and the cities ranged from St John’s and Saskatoon to Yellowknife and Vancouver, as well as a few cities in between. I thought it would be interesting to see how an outsider saw Canada and our cities almost 30 years ago (a generation). Needless to say, I bought the book.  

  This is the image Jan Morris and most of the world had of Canada and Canada cities in 1990. (photo credit: Tourism Toronto).

This is the image Jan Morris and most of the world had of Canada and Canada cities in 1990. (photo credit: Tourism Toronto).

Jan Who?

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Jan Morris, born in 1926, is a Welsh historian, author and travel writer who has written extensively about cities around the world since the ‘60s. She has an amazing ability to observe, ask questions and articulate her thoughts on the underlying character of a city – good, bad and ugly. These are not fluffy travelogues, but urban character studies.   

She first visited Canada in the early 1950s, getting to know its cities and its people better than many Canadians ever do.

Her comments about Canada and Canadian cities are often not very flattering and sometimes I wonder how, in such a relative short visit, she can feel so confident about her ability to capture the pulse and sense of place of a city accurately.  Perhaps I am jealous?

By the end I was amazed at how many times she used the word “prosaic” to describe Canada, and our cities. However, that being said, she does make some very thought provoking observations.

Over the next few months I will share excerpts from her essays that were commissioned for Saturday Night magazine.   

Toronto the capital of the Ice Kingdom  

Morris’ Toronto essay was written in 1984 when she visited the city for its sesquicentennial. She acknowledges the city has become more metropolitan now (i.e. 1990) more Americanized and more assertive as evidenced by….wait for it… “the increasing number of jay-walkers!” 

In her opinion, Toronto is one the most highly disciplined and tightly organized cites of the Western World.  Morris also notes she had never heard of the word “multiculturalism” or “heritage language” until she visited Toronto.  She writes “Far more than any other of the great migratory cities, Toronto is all things to all ethnicities. The melting-pot conception never was popular here, and sometimes I came to feel that Canadian nationality itself was no more than a minor social perquisite.”

She thought the word multiculturalism is to Toronto, what “ooh-la-la” is to Paris, “ciao” to Rome, “nyetto” Moscow and “hey you’re looking great” to Manhattan. 

But she also noted “Toronto was not all brotherly love and folklore, saying wherever she went she heard talk of internecine (destructive to both sides) rivalries, felt a darkly conspiratorial side to multiculturalism and that one could easily stumble into cafes in which plotters organized distant coups.”  

  Toronto Caribana Parade (photo credit: Caribana Toronto)

Toronto Caribana Parade (photo credit: Caribana Toronto)

Hinterland 

One of the main themes of the essays is the role of the transcontinental train as Canada’s iconic experience, as evidenced by this paragraph:

“And best of all, early one morning I went down to Union Station to watch the transcontinental train come in out of the darkness from Vancouver. Ah, Canada! I knew exactly what to expect of this experience, but still it stirred me: the hiss and rumble of it, the engineers princely in their high cab, the travel-grimed gleam of the sleeper cars…the grey faces peering out of the sleeper windows, the proud exhaustion of it all, and the thick tumble of the disembarking passengers, a blur of boots and lumberjackets and hoods and bundled children, clattering down the steps to breakfast, grandma, and Toronto, out of the limitless and magnificent hinterland.”

Oh, how Toronto and Canada HAS changed. The transcontinental train is iconic no more, and Union Station is filled with day commuters, with briefcases, backpacks and coffee cups from edge cities, not people from the hinterland.

Hard to believe the west was still thought of a Canada’s hinterland in the mid ‘80s by outsiders.

  Union Station is best known today as the hub of Toronto’s edge cities commuter system, not at the hub of the transcontinental train.

Union Station is best known today as the hub of Toronto’s edge cities commuter system, not at the hub of the transcontinental train.

Destination

I love the strange and insightful questions Morris asks of cities. In the case of Toronto, it was “What were the intentions of this city?” She then links this question to her observation of the “mural sculpture on the wall of the stock exchange ‘Workforce” by Robert Longo and she begins to contemplate its significance. The mural has eight figures, ranging from a stockbroker to what seems like a female miner, none of which look happy.” Whereupon she exclaims, “the pursuit of happiness, after all is not written into the Canadian constitution.”   She also notes, “Nor do they look exactly inspired by some visionary cause…. they are marching determinedly, but joyously, arm-in-arm, upon an undefined objective. Wealth? Fame? Security?”  Interesting contradiction here, as earlier she says they don’t look happy but later they are “joyously, arm-in-arm.”

Morris then poses the question, “Do cities have to have destinations?” And answers with “Perhaps not, but most of them do, if it is only a destination in the past, or in the ideal. Toronto seems to me, in time as in emotion, a limbo-city. It is not, like London, England obsessed with its own history. It is not an act of faith, like Moscow or Manhattan. It has none of Rio’s exuberant sense of young identity. It is neither brassily capitalist or rigidly public sector. It looks forward to no millennium, back to no golden age. It is what it is, and the people in its streets, walking with that steady, tireless, infantry-like pace that is particular to this city, seem on the whole resigned, without either bitterness or exhilaration, to being just what they are.”

Morris also perceived, “Among the principal cities of the lost British Empire, Toronto has been one of the most casual (rather than the most ruthless) in discarding the physical remnants of its colonial past. In Sydney, in Melbourne, in Wellington, even in Capetown, not to mention the cities in India, where the imperial memorials remain inescapable, sometimes even dominant…

Nobody, could possibly mistake this for a British City now.” “There is no mistaking this for a city of the United States, either….it is not a free-and-easy, damn Yankee sort of city – anything but,” she adds later.

  Will Alsop’s addition to the Ontario College of Art is just one of many buildings that shout out “Toronto is a creative city.”

Will Alsop’s addition to the Ontario College of Art is just one of many buildings that shout out “Toronto is a creative city.”

  Frank Gehry’s addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario enhances Toronto’s image as futuristic city even if the streetscape is harsh.

Frank Gehry’s addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario enhances Toronto’s image as futuristic city even if the streetscape is harsh.

  Royal Ontario Museum’s bold new addition by architect Daniel Libeskind was inspired by the museums gem and mineral collection.

Royal Ontario Museum’s bold new addition by architect Daniel Libeskind was inspired by the museums gem and mineral collection.

Nuclear Attack

Morris observes that while government authority is strong and respected in Toronto you could hardly call it “Orwellian – it seems without malevolence; but at the same time nobody can possibly ignore it, for it seems to have a finger almost everywhere (she hates the Liquor Control Board stores).”

She notes how public art is not only the work of the artist, but has to be authorized and approved by several government bodies before it is installed, or how it is the government that sells you a bottle of scotch and how well-mannered we are addressing criminals in course as “sir.”   

She postulates that if a nuclear bomb was to go off nearby, Torontonians would wait for the lights to change before running for cover.

Later she notes “Only in Toronto, I think, will a streetcar stop to allow a pedestrian to cross – surely one of the most esoteric experiences of travel in the 1980s? (Hmmmm, in Calgary cars stop all the time to let pedestrians cross the street, I wonder what she would make of that) Only in Toronto are the subways so wholesome, the parks so mugger-less, the children so well behaved.” 

She also recognizes Toronto isn’t a “provincial city” describing it as a huge, rich, splendid city, a metropolitan in power, a money centre of universal importance.

“Toronto is Toronto and perhaps that is enough….it is a city clean, neat, and ordered, built to a human scale, unhurried and polite. It has all the prerequisites of your modern major city – your revolving restaurants, your Henry Moore (today, that might be a Santiago Calatrava Bridge or a Jaume Plensa sculpture or a Norman Foster or BIG building), your trees with electric lights in them, your gay bars, your outdoor elevators, your restaurants offering deep fried pears stuffed with ripe camembert on a bed of nutmeg-scented spinach.”

Yet, by and large it has escaped the plastic blight of contemporary urbanism. 

  The Flatiron building built in 1891 by architect David Robert has perhaps Toronto’s most popular piece of public art. The eye-catching mural by Calgary artist Derek Besant was painted in 1998 and consists of over 50 panel attached to a steel frame mounted on the wall.

The Flatiron building built in 1891 by architect David Robert has perhaps Toronto’s most popular piece of public art. The eye-catching mural by Calgary artist Derek Besant was painted in 1998 and consists of over 50 panel attached to a steel frame mounted on the wall.

  Today more and more Canadian cities have scramble intersections for pedestrians like this one in Toronto.

Today more and more Canadian cities have scramble intersections for pedestrians like this one in Toronto.

  The Henry Moore sculpture outside the Art Gallery of Ontario is a popular place to play for children.

The Henry Moore sculpture outside the Art Gallery of Ontario is a popular place to play for children.

Futuristic

She adds later “Everywhere has its galleria nowadays, Singapore to Houston, but none is quite so satisfying as Toronto’s Eaton Centre – just like one of the futuristic cities magazine artists like to depict in the 1930s.”

Morris says “Only the greatest of the world’s cities can outclass Toronto’s theatres, cinemas, art galleries, and newspapers, the variety of its restaurants, the number of its TV channels, the calibre of its visiting performers. Poets and artists are innumerable.” 

“What has not happened to Toronto is as remarkable as what has happened. It ought by all the odds to be a brilliant, brutal city, but it isn’t. Its downtown ought to be vulgar and spectacular, but is actually dignified, well proportioned, and indeed noble. Its sex-and-sin quarters, are hardly another Reeperbahn, and the punks and Boy Georges to be seen parading Yonge Street on a Saturday night are downright touching in their bravado, so scrupulously are they ignored.” 

  Toronto’s Eaton Centre with its Michael Snow artwork of Canadian geese opened in 1977 and quickly became an iconic urban shopping centre internationally. It has been copied by most Canadians cities with poor results.

Toronto’s Eaton Centre with its Michael Snow artwork of Canadian geese opened in 1977 and quickly became an iconic urban shopping centre internationally. It has been copied by most Canadians cities with poor results.

  Toronto’s new City Hall opened in 1965 and was the beginning of the city’s transformation into an international design city.

Toronto’s new City Hall opened in 1965 and was the beginning of the city’s transformation into an international design city.

Escape Tunnels

Morris is not a big fan of the city’s street life, “Toronto is the most undemonstrative city I know, and the least inquisitive. The Walkman might be made for it. It swarms with clubs, cliques, and cultural societies, but seems armour-plated against the individual. There are few cities in the world where one can feel, as one walks the streets or rides the subways, for better or for worse, so all alone.” 

She likes Toronto’s underground PATH walkway better than the streets saying “Among the innumerable conveniences of Toronto, which is an extremely convenient city, one of the most attractive is the system of tunnels which lies beneath the downtown streets, and which, with its wonderful bright-lit sequences of stores, cafes, malls and intersections, is almost a second city in itself. I loved to think of all the warmth and life down there, the passing crowds, the coffee smells, the Muzak, and the clink of cups, when the streets above were half-empty in the rain, or scoured by cold winds; and one of my great pleasures was to wander aimless through those comfortable labyrinths, lulled from one Golden Oldie to the next, surfacing now and then to find myself on an unknown street corner far from home, or all unexpectantly in the lobby of some tremendous bank.” 

She adds, “But after a time, I came to think of them as escape tunnels. It was not just that they were warm and dry; they had an intimacy to them, a brush of human empathy, a feeling absent from the greater city above our heads.” 

  Toronto’s underground PATH system is used by over 200,000 people daily.

Toronto’s underground PATH system is used by over 200,000 people daily.

  Toronto’s 30 kilometre long PATH system is recognized as an important element fo the economic viability of the city’s downtown core which is one of the strongest in the world.

Toronto’s 30 kilometre long PATH system is recognized as an important element fo the economic viability of the city’s downtown core which is one of the strongest in the world.

No Joie de vivre

She later says, “Sometimes I think it is the flatness of the landscape that causes this flattening of the spirit – those interminable suburbs stretching away, the huge plane of the lake, those long grid roads which deprive the place of surprise or intricacy. Sometimes I think it must be the climate, numbing the nerve endings, or even the sheer empty vastness…Could it be the underpopulation; ought there be a couple of million more people in the city, to give it punch or jostle? Could it be the permanent compromise of Toronto, neither quite this or altogether that, capitalist but compassionate, American but royalist, multicultural but traditionalist.” 

When Morris asked immigrants what they thought of Toronto they said the “people are cold…they just mind their own business and make the dollars…neighbours don’t smile and say hullo (sic), how’s things…nobody talks.” 

To this she adds her own observations “in the course of its 150 years of careful progress, so calculated, so civilized, somewhere along the way Toronto lost, or failed to find, the gift of contact or of merriment…even the most naturally merry of the immigrants, the dancing Greeks, the witty Poles, the lyrical Hungarians seem to have forfeited their joie de vivre when they embrace the liberties of this town.”

In the end she concludes, “Your heart may not be singing, as you contemplate the presence around you Toronto the Good, but it should not be sinking either.

Cheer up! You have drawn the second prize, I would say, in the Lottario of Life.” 

  Indeed, Toronto has added over a million more people since 1990. The city centre is being transformed from a place to work to a place to “live, work and play” with the addition of hundreds of new residential buildings.

Indeed, Toronto has added over a million more people since 1990. The city centre is being transformed from a place to work to a place to “live, work and play” with the addition of hundreds of new residential buildings.

  Sidewalk patios are common place in Toronto and Canadian cities today; this was not the case in 1990.

Sidewalk patios are common place in Toronto and Canadian cities today; this was not the case in 1990.

  Cycling and urban living is become more and more common place in Toronto and Canada’s other major cities.

Cycling and urban living is become more and more common place in Toronto and Canada’s other major cities.

Last Word

Toronto the “Capital of the Ice Kingdom” is Morris’ term, not mine. However, it would seem to capture her view of Canada and our cities as cold, conservative and controlled places with little merriment. Hence the prolific use of the word “prosaic.”

I have to admit I have never been a big fan of Toronto, but then most Canadians other than those living in the metro Toronto area seem to despise the city that thinks it is the “centre of the universe.”  I am probably even more anti-Toronto than most as growing up in Hamilton we hated “Hogtown!”  I was surprised on a recent visit to Hamilton how much the anti-Toronto sentiment still exists.  

While reading the essay I couldn’t help but wonder what she might think of Calgary with our indoor +15 walkway, our brutally cold winters, beautiful icy rivers and huge parks.  What would she think of Stephen Avenue, the Calgary Tower or our iconic recreation centres? I got a sense of what she might have thought in her essay on Edmonton, entitled “A Six-Day Week!” 

  Despite all the changes in Canada’s cities over the past 30 years I expect this is still the view most people outside of Canada have of our cities.

Despite all the changes in Canada’s cities over the past 30 years I expect this is still the view most people outside of Canada have of our cities.

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

City Travel: Canada vs USA

Canada: The Foundations of its future


 








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.

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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

 

On-It: Calgary Regional Partnership's Legacy

When I first heard (October 2016) that the Calgary Regional Partnership (CRP) had negotiated an agreement with SOUTHLAND Transportation Ltd and several communities south of Calgary to pilot a commuter transit service, I immediately thought, “wow this is forward thinking.” 

As a member of the advisory board for the Richard Parker Professorship in Metropolitan Growth and Change, I am keenly aware of the importance of regional transit as part of any long-term strategic tourism and economic development initiatives.  Colleen Shepherd, the CRP’s Executive Director also sits on the advisory board and we have had numerous discussions about CRP’s leadership role in managing the growth of the Calgary region from a  different perspectives.

  With much fanfare Colleen Shepherd (brown jacket) and others launched On-It Regional Transit in October 2016. 

With much fanfare Colleen Shepherd (brown jacket) and others launched On-It Regional Transit in October 2016. 

Love Pilot Projects

I am a big fan of pilot projects vs. the “paralysis of analysis” that often happens in the public sector.  You can do numerous market studies, look at “best practices” in other cities and survey the public about what they want (or rather what they think they want) but eventually you have to test your vision in the real world. 

To me, On-It’s two-year pilot was an appropriate timeframe to understand the demand, make adjustments, re-test the market and then make a decision regarding the current demand for a niche transit service for our region’s southern communities.

I was also pleased Southland Transportation was part of the On-It partnership, as they would bring a different “value for money” perspective to the pilot from the municipalities.  

I also thought the CPR was wise to launch On-It with a comprehensive website, an on-line ticketing reservation system and luxury coaches giving the pilot every opportunity to succeed. 

But wait, the CRP wasn’t done yet.

Their entrepreneurial and opportunistic spirit resulted in them teaming up with Parks Canada, and the towns of Banff, Canmore and Cochrane to offer a Calgary/Banff weekend transit service last summer.   

The Calgary/Banff service turned out to be wildly successful (in part due to Canada 150’s free park admission) with sold out buses starting in the second week of operation and by the end of the summer several buses were sold out each day.

  Ettore Iannacito, Regional Transit Program Manager, Calgary Regional Partnership was the master-mind behind On-It.

Ettore Iannacito, Regional Transit Program Manager, Calgary Regional Partnership was the master-mind behind On-It.

Private Sector now in the driver’s seat

I was not surprised to learn the voluntary Calgary Regional Partnership made up of 11 municipalities in the Calgary region is winding down its operations, as it has been known for a while, that the Provincial Government was creating something called the Calgary Metropolitan Region Board (CMRB). What we didn’t know was what its mandate would be. 

Turns out the CMRB will take on most - but not all - of the CRP’s roles and responsibilities for growth management in the Calgary region.

One of the responsibilities the new CMRB isn’t mandated to take on is regional transit.  Rather than let the On-It pilot and all of taxpayers investments just disappear, Shepherd worked with her Board and the SOUTHLAND Transportation executives, to transition ownership of the On-It brand, operations, research and collateral materials to SOUTHLAND Transportation Ltd.

SOUTHLAND has agreed to:

  • Merge the On-It south leg pilot into its own commuter service which will lead to some minor modifications.
  • Negotiate with Parks Canada, Banff and Canmore to operate a Calgary/Banff service again this summer and perhaps even expand it to other months. (If I were a betting man, my money would be on YES there will be Calgary/Banff weekend bus this summer.)
  • Evaluate with Strathmore and Chestermere Council's the option to pilot a commuter service for those two communities.

In addition, SOUTHLAND will also be rebranding its direct to downtown Calgary service from Cochrane and Okotoks with the On-It brand and look for ways to merge all of its commuter services into a bigger and better integrated transit system for the Calgary Region.

  People all ages and backgrounds used On-It to get to Banff in the summer of 2017.  

People all ages and backgrounds used On-It to get to Banff in the summer of 2017.  

Does Calgary need regional transit?

Calgary is unique in that it doesn’t have large satellite cities. In Calgary, 89% of the region’s 1.4 million people live within the City of Calgary.  The City of Vancouver represents only 26% of its regional population, City of Toronto 51% and the cities of Edmonton and Ottawa come in at 71% each.

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The Calgary region has been the fastest growing metropolitan area in Canada for many years.

However, since 2011 Cochrane has had a population increased of 47% since 2011, Airdrie, 42% and Chestermere 34% means some of our satellite cities are growing significantly faster than the City of Calgary’s 13%.

The need for regional growth management is increasing every year, so now is the perfect time to be developing innovative projects like On-It.

In some way Calgary’s LRT system functions like a regional transit system bringing people into the city from suburban communities which would be independent cities in many metropolitan areas. 

It should be noted that both of the On-It pilot programs were integrated with Calgary Transit. The south pilot’s terminus in Calgary was the Somerset-Bridlewood LRT station so passengers could access both the LRT and connecting buses. Similarly the Calgary/Banff service linked into Calgary’s LRT system at both the Crowfoot and Somerset-Bridlewood stations.

Having a regional transit system is critical to the recruitment of major corporation to locate in Calgary.  Amazon’s HQ2 bid document specifically requested detailed information on the applicant’s regional transit system as they recognized their employees would want a diversity of living options from urban to suburban, from small town to rural.

Creating a regional transit system is about enhancing the quality of life for everyone living in the Calgary region.  At 626,000 people Calgary was an early adopter of LRT, why not regional transit at 1.4 million.   

  Mike was just one of the thousands of happy users who tweet out about how great it was to have weekend transit service to Banff and Canmore from Calgary.  

Mike was just one of the thousands of happy users who tweet out about how great it was to have weekend transit service to Banff and Canmore from Calgary.  

Last Word

While I am sad to learn the Calgary Regional Partnership will be no more, I can’t think of a more appropriate legacy for the 13-year voluntary partnership than the continuation of the “0n-It” brand as a memory of their forward thinking.

It will also be interesting to see how SOUTHLAND Transportation capitalizes on this opportunity to expand its role as a transportation leader in the Calgary Region.

It would be amazing if the private sector, rather than government were to successfully manage the next phase in development of a regional transit system for Calgary. 

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

Calgary/Banff Transit: It is about time!

Calgary Regional Transit: On-It Love In!

On-It Canada 150 Calgary/Banff Weekend Transit

Urban Living: Importance of BIAs

Business Improvement Districts (BIA) are like Community Associations but for businesses. They lobby, foster, facilitate and advocate for improvements to their neighbourhood. 

  Bow Cycle one of the largest bike stores in the world is the anchor tenant for the Bowness BIA.

Bow Cycle one of the largest bike stores in the world is the anchor tenant for the Bowness BIA.

Backstory 

You might know that as BRZ (Business Revitalization Zones) which is what they were originally called in Alberta but have recently converted to the BIA terminology that is used in the rest of Canada. 

Over the past 40+ years, BIAs in Calgary have evolved from shopping districts to mixed-use streets with vibrant café and restaurant cultures, as well as health and fitness spaces (there were no yoga and spin studios in the ‘80s), and retail shops.  They have been incubators for hundreds of small independent Calgary business start-ups.

As a result of this transformation, streets surrounding Calgary’s BIAs have become attractive places to live, as evidenced by the numerous new condos recently completed or under construction next to them.

Full disclosure: I was the Executive Director of the Calgary Downtown Association (CDA) from 1995 to 2006.  The CDA is a BRZ/BIA but chose to call itself an association as the Board thought the term “revitalization” gave the Downtown a negative connotation.

 4th Street, Lilac Festival (photo credit: 4th St BIA)

4th Street, Lilac Festival (photo credit: 4th St BIA)

BRZ/BIA/BID 101

In the ‘80s, old pedestrian streets in established neighbourhoods across North America were struggling to survive as shoppers flocked to the big new suburban malls. In an effort to save their businesses, shop owners across North America rallied together to set up Business Revitalization Zones (or BRZs as they were then, recently they have been renamed Business Improvement Areas or BIAs in line with the rest of Canada). In the United States, they are called Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).

The world’s first BIA was set up in Toronto in 1970 for the Bloor West Village. Today, Toronto has 80+ BIAs.  The Alberta Municipal Government Act (MGA) allowed for the formation of Business Revitalization Zones in 1983, with 17th Avenue BRZ being the first (established in September 1984) and Marda Loop the second (December, 1984). Today the 12 BIAs in Calgary represent over 5,000 businesses.  

The MGA allows a BIA to be established when the majority of business owners within a defined area vote in favour of setting up a BIA.  Once established, a Board of Directors are elected who develop an annual work plan and budget, which is submitted to the City of Calgary.  The City then determines the tax levy based on the total assessment on commercial properties in the defined area needed to generate the revenue requested in the BIA.  The BIA levy is in addition to municipal taxes, so the BIAs are self-funded.

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  Paradise Lanes is one of International Avenue's iconic businesses. 

Paradise Lanes is one of International Avenue's iconic businesses. 

Why are BIAs needed?

BIAs are created where business owners feel services provided by the City with existing tax revenues are inadequate in creating a clean, safe and attractive place for their customers.

Calgary BIAs proactively work with Calgary Parking Authority on parking issues, with police and social agencies on panhandling and homeless issues and with City of Calgary Transportation and Planning on sidewalks, roadwork, cycling lanes, street furniture and reviewing new developments. Some BIAs even have their own “Clean & Safe” programs, hiring people to pick up litter, remove graffiti and identify safety concerns to police.

In addition, BIAs typically manage their own banner program and baskets programs, marketing initiatives and maintain a website to promote business events and news.

  Marda Loop is home to an eclectic collection of shops, restaurants and cafes. 

Marda Loop is home to an eclectic collection of shops, restaurants and cafes. 

Public Art/Signature Events

In the early years, several Calgary BIAs developed public art programs designed to make their street more attractive and interesting places for pedestrians. 17th Avenue and International Avenue had ambitious mural programs; 4th Street had a sculpture program and the CDA a “Benches as sculpture” program. 

Signature events were also a key tool to attract people from other quadrants of the City to visit a BIA and see for themselves what it has to offer.  For example, in 1990, 4th Street established the Lilac Festival to kick off spring in Calgary - today it attracts over 100,000 people May.

International Avenue fostered the development of “Around the World in 35 blocks Food Tour” in 1997 to showcase the array of ethnic food available along its 35 blocks 17th Ave SE; the program still exists today. 

For many years, the Downtown Association hosted the annual Santa Claus Parade and today coordinates events on Stephen Avenue Walk.

  Dream Fragment, Frankly Heisler, 1992  is one of several public artworks along 4th Street commissioned by the 4th St BIA. 

Dream Fragment, Frankly Heisler, 1992  is one of several public artworks along 4th Street commissioned by the 4th St BIA. 

Last Word

Alison Karim-McSwiney has been the Executive Director of the International Avenue BIA (17th Ave SE from 26th to 61st Street SE) since 1993.  She notes, “Revitalization is not for the faint at heart.  It takes at least a couple of decades to turn around an area and you’ll encounter many setbacks along the way.  Then there will be a certain tipping point where it all starts falling into place. Our community building effort is not to gentrify as we don’t want to lose what makes our area unique.  We are an affordable, inclusive neighbourhood. ”

Indeed, International Avenue is in the midst of a mega transformation to accommodate the 17Ave SE BRT.

Travel Tip:

Whenever I travel to a new city, one of my first Google searches is for BIAs or BIDs, as it will routinely identify the best places to discover the local urban buzz.

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

International Avenue Follows Jane Jacobs Advice

Kensington: One of North America's Healthiest Urban Villages

Marda Loop Madness

 

 

Downtown Calgary: $100 Million Help Fund

In a recent blog, I discussed why the City of Calgary’s approval of $100 million to help fill up downtown office space was not a good idea. However, given it is a done deal, it will be interesting to see what plans Calgary Economic Development and the downtown property owners come up with for the approved monies - even the Mayor admitted was an “arbitrary number.” 

Link: Not The City's Role To Help Fill Up Vacant Downtown Office Space 

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Pitch other HQs

While Calgary is out of the running for Amazon's HQ2, Calgary Economic Development and all of its partners learned what we need to do to retool our City (not just the downtown) for the 21st century.  That being said there are lots of other corporations who could be approached to move to Calgary or use our downtown as a Canadian or North American headquarters.  

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American cities are big on providing incentives for corporation to move to their city, but Calgary isn't allowed to provide incentives so we will have to entice them to locate in Calgary based on economic rationale.

FYI: Providing incentives for businesses to relocate is a fool’s game.  Businesses should only locate in downtown Calgary if it is economically viable based on current market conditions and conservative future market projections. 

The cost to create Calgary’s Amazon HQ2 bid was $500,000 (supplemented by a significant amount of in-kind research and volunteer hours), was  one of the most intensive and complex bids any economic development agency would ever have to produce.  At best, there are probably a dozen major bids for corporate relocation or expansion to Calgary, but they would be only a fraction of the work of the Amazon bid and much of the baseline information has already been collected.  So that doesn't account for the need for $100M.

Link: Don Braid: Lessons Learned from Calgary's Amazon Bid

  There a numerous older office buildings in downtown Calgary that could be converted into an arts hub, innovation centre, youth hostel, affordable housing and other uses.   

There a numerous older office buildings in downtown Calgary that could be converted into an arts hub, innovation centre, youth hostel, affordable housing and other uses.  

“Out Of The Office” Ideas

Perhaps it would be wise to use the $100M to fund feasibility studies and incentives to help diversify our downtown away from corporate offices. 

Here are some ideas I have heard suggested by various urban development professionals:

  1. Convert office space to enable the Alberta College of Art & Design to relocate downtown, build a public art gallery in the same building as well as spaces for commercial galleries and artists’ studios. In other words, create a downtown arts hub. Note: The City spent $30 million to create cSPACE in the former King Edward School.
  2. Convert older downtown office buildings into student or affordable housing, maybe a youth hostel or a boutique hotel.
  3. Study the feasibility of attracting a major international university, medical center or NGO (non government organization, e.g. health, humanitarian agency) to locate in one or more of our downtown office buildings. 
  4. Lobby the Federal government and Larco Investments Lid who own the Harry Hays Building to relocated Calgary's Federal government offices to a downtown office space. A location on or near the 7th Avenue Transit corridor would be much more convenient for customers/clients and employees. Perhaps we can lobby the Federal Government to relocated one or more other major offices/agencies to Calgary. The Harry Hays site would make for a great mixed-use condo development. 
  5. Earmark some of the money to help convert an office building into an Innovation Hub – a current hot button for economic development. FYI: This is already happening with the old 30-storey Pan Canadian/Encana Tower, which was recently renamed The Edison by Aspen Properties – with no government help.  They have plans to renovated the space to create a unique work place they hope will be attractive to young entrepreneurs.  Amenities include: exclusive tenant lounge with board games and library, fitness facility, dog-friendly patio, dog spa area, basketball half court, golf simulator, third floor outdoor patio, rooftop patio, conference facility, multi-purpose game room, bike sharing program and bike storage. Hmmmm…is this a place to work or play? (See photo below for information on the East Village Parakade /Innovation Centre recently annoucned)
  6. Renovate Stephen Avenue Walk to create an attractive 21st century street that can better accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, vendors, deliveries, taxis and events.  A vibrant main street (weekdays, evenings and weekends) is a key element in attracting major IT and Tech firms to locate in downtown Calgary.
  7. Improve Calgary's cycling infrastructure. Perhaps, pilot an inner-city bike share program. Being cycling friendly is important when competing with other cities for young creative entrepreneurs.
  With much fanfare, the City of Calgary, Calgary Parking Authority and Calgary Municipal Land Corporation announced on Jan 23, 2018 that East Village will be home to a new $80 million, 5-storey parkade with 50,000 square feet space for Platform.    Platform will be "a multi-use space for learners, projects, makers and community. Platform is a The Innovation Centre for Everyone, " states CMLC's news release.      One has to question, "why the City (aka Parking Authority/CMLC) is building space for a tenant like Platform when there is a glut of space in the downtown?"     Link to Yeldin's answer:   Calgary Takes Big Step Forward With Platform

With much fanfare, the City of Calgary, Calgary Parking Authority and Calgary Municipal Land Corporation announced on Jan 23, 2018 that East Village will be home to a new $80 million, 5-storey parkade with 50,000 square feet space for Platform.  Platform will be "a multi-use space for learners, projects, makers and community. Platform is a The Innovation Centre for Everyone, " states CMLC's news release. 

One has to question, "why the City (aka Parking Authority/CMLC) is building space for a tenant like Platform when there is a glut of space in the downtown?" 

Link to Yeldin's answer: Calgary Takes Big Step Forward With Platform

  Aspen Properties has created Calgary's first dog-friendly office building - expect more of this "out of the box" thinking as  building owners look for creative ways to fill up their empty office space.

Aspen Properties has created Calgary's first dog-friendly office building - expect more of this "out of the box" thinking as  building owners look for creative ways to fill up their empty office space.

Let’s not…

I hope none of the $100 million is earmarked for marketing and brand campaign. Do we really want another “Be Part Of The Energy” or “Heart of the New West” campaign?  Trying to contrive a new brand for a city is another fool’s game. The best brands grow organically based on authentic attributes of the city. No major corporation is going to relocate to Calgary because we have a new brand with a sexy marketing campaign.

Backstory: Tourism Calgary has already spent a significant amount of time and money researching Calgary’s global brand and reputation over the past year.  Look for an announcement shortly on how they intend to revise Calgary’s brand and market our city to the world.  

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Last Word

As one Calgary developer/office manager who works for a major International property management company said to me “We lack big ideas on how to dramatically evolve our downtown to thrive in the economic reality of the early 21st century.” 

However, others think rather than waiting for the big idea or chasing the big saviour (Amazon HQ2), what Calgary needs are several smaller initiatives each designed to diversify our downtown core from being a corporate office ghetto into a vibrant mixed-use “work, live, play” community.

Indeed, successful cities continually adapt to local, regional, national and global economic changes; unsuccessful ones cling to old economic paradigms.

Can Calgary adapt to the 21st century? 
  Filling up Calgary's downtown vacant office space is going to require some innovative thinking property owners, the City and the cooperation of Provincial and Federal governments.

Filling up Calgary's downtown vacant office space is going to require some innovative thinking property owners, the City and the cooperation of Provincial and Federal governments.

Not the City's role to help fill vacant downtown office space?

OK I've said it - "it is not the City of Calgary's role to help fill-up downtown's empty office space."  I can't believe nobody else has said this publicly. 

Regular readers will know I am a big supporter of our downtown and the important role it plays economically and culturally in defining our city. However, I strongly feel it is not the City's role to spend tax dollars to help fill empty office spaces.  

While I questioned the City's approving $10 million to help building owners  and managers look for ways to fill up their excess office space, I thought the additional $90 million approved in December was excessive.

As the the Executive Director of the Downtown Association, (which represents the 3,500+ downtown businesses) from 1995 to 2006, one of the things my Board of Directors were always adamant about was "you have to let the market decide."    

I hope the following helps put the current downtown office ghetto issue into perspective.

  The Conversation by William McElcheran, on Stephen Avenue Walk in downtown Calgary is Calgary's signature piece of public art. It epitomizes the importance of Calgary's downtown as one of North America's leading corporate headquarter centers. 

The Conversation by William McElcheran, on Stephen Avenue Walk in downtown Calgary is Calgary's signature piece of public art. It epitomizes the importance of Calgary's downtown as one of North America's leading corporate headquarter centers. 

Office Vacancy In Perspective

Is the downturn in the fortunes of Calgary’s downtown really as bad as we think? 

While the media often paints a bleak picture using the “one in four downtown office buildings are empty” descriptor, in reality there are actually no empty downtown office buildings. The 15 million square feet of vacancy is spread out over 100+ office buildings.

And in fact, there is very little risk any of Calgary’s major office property owners will go bankrupt as most are owned by large pension funds or large real estate corporations with deep pockets and diverse portfolios. 

  Historically Calgary's downtown has absorbed about 500,000 square feet of office space annually, which means if the economy returned to historical norms it will take 30 years to fill up the 15M sf of empty office space.   

Historically Calgary's downtown has absorbed about 500,000 square feet of office space annually, which means if the economy returned to historical norms it will take 30 years to fill up the 15M sf of empty office space.   

The current dilemma of too much vacant office space is the result of the investment and development community building 10 million square feet of office space over the past several years assuming continual growth of Alberta’s energy sector.  

Though it was an educated gamble that hasn’t worked in the short term, remember pension funds are long-term investors.

As they like to say, “It is a long-term game!”

In the meantime, Calgary's business community is enjoying some of the most affordable downtown office rents in years and it looks like they will continue to do so for many years into the future.  

And yes, there are fewer downtown workers and less tax revenue generated by downtown businesses than at the peak in 2014. However, our downtown remains relatively healthy, generating more tax revenue from downtown offices than perhaps any city in North America with a population under two million. 

In fact, there are significantly more people currently employed in Calgary’s downtown offices today than in Austin, Vancouver or Portland, all cities with healthy downtowns. Let's not blame all of downtown's woes on the empty office space.

Any city our size would love to have 30 million square feet of occupied downtown office space that we have.  

$100M City Help Fund

In June 2017, the City of Calgary approved $10 million dollars for Calgary Economic Development to help fill empty downtown office space. Then in December it approved another $90 million. In all, that’s one-tenth of a billion dollars to help fill up empty office space owned by investors with deep pockets!

  The dark side of Calgary's plethora of highrise office buildings is the City has became too dependent on downtown as a cash cow.  

The dark side of Calgary's plethora of highrise office buildings is the City has became too dependent on downtown as a cash cow.  

Calgary has several major commercial real estate brokerage firms with access to global market research and contacts to pitch Calgary’s downtown and its very affordable vacant office space as a place to open up an office.

It is their job to find tenants for the empty office space, not the City's.

These seasoned professionals knew there would be a gut of downtown office space with the new buildings coming on stream and have been researching globally for the past few years to identify and pitch Calgary’s downtown to new corporations of all sizes and in all sectors.

I am confident Calgary's real estate brokerage community has left "no stones unturned." 

More Business-Friendly

What I have heard from the business community is the City should be focusing on is creating a business-friendly culture at City Hall, where regulations are manageable and minimized, where the bureaucracy operates with a focus on getting things done and where the relationships with the business community are fair to everyone. 

  Calgary need to retool and reinvent our downtown for the 21st century.

Calgary need to retool and reinvent our downtown for the 21st century.

The City must become a better facilitator and collaborator rather than a barrier to business development and establish tax rates that are stable and viewed as fair for all businesses. 

In the minds of most business people today, the City fails on too many of these issues and is dysfunction in some.  

While the large corporations and property owners get all of the media attention small and medium size businesses are critical to Calgary's future wellbeing. 

Of Calgary's total businesses (58,870) in 2016, small business (businesses with less than 50 employees) accounted fro 95% (or 55,972). Calgary Economic Development website. 

RED Flag

Even before the drop in the price of oil and natural gas, major corporations were moving out of the downtown because of high rents, parking costs and better access to employees who lived mostly in the suburbs. 

In 2012, Imperial Oil announced it was moving its 3,000 employees to a new headquarters in Quarry Park and vacated its 850,000 square feet of downtown office space. 

In the same year Canadian Pacific Railway announced it was relocating its 1,000 employees to its Ogden Yards where it created a new 225,000 square foot head office.

Currently, ATCO is looking to move out of its 300,000 square feet in the Beltline to its new Lincoln Park campus. 

Backstory: In the late '90s, PanCanadian before it merged with Alberta Energy to become Encana was seriously looking at moving to Lincoln Park before deciding to build the Bow Tower.  Today Lincoln Park has become an attractive inner-city office park with anchor tenants like Brookfield Residential and ATCO. 

In fact, the Calgary GoPlan approved in the mid '90s actually called for the creation of mini-downtowns in the suburbs. The rationale was these downtown would be employment centres would allow more Calgarians to live closer to work and reduce the congestion on city roads and transit. 

Developments like Quarry Park, SETON, Currie/Lincoln Park University District/UofC/Foothills Medical Centre were all encouraged as part of decentralizing Calgary's employment base to help reduce traffic congestion and over crowding on transit. 

Jennifer Keesmaat, one of Canada's leading urban planners just last week tweeted "to reduce congestion we need to create a multi-centred city. We need to shorten the long commute by creating destinations closer to where people already live. Creating true urban place in the heart of the suburbs."     

This is exactly what Calgary began doing 20 years ago, unfortunately somewhat to the detriment of our downtown.  

  Imperial Oil moved its head office to Quarry Park a new 21st century master planned community in SE Calgary that includes 2 million square feet of prime office space, along with residential, retail and recreational amenities.  

Imperial Oil moved its head office to Quarry Park a new 21st century master planned community in SE Calgary that includes 2 million square feet of prime office space, along with residential, retail and recreational amenities.  

Last Word

While it is understandable that the Mayor and Councillors want to help fill up the empty downtown office buildings (they want the cash cow healthy again), in fact what they should be focused on is creating a more business-friendly culture at the city for all sectors of Calgary business community.

Calgary is facing a new economic reality that doesn’t warrant the City spending $100 million of tax payers dollars to help fill up vacant downtown office space.

As one senior downtown property developer and manager said, “You can’t fight the market!” 

Note: Given the $100M "Downtown Help Fund" is a done deal, my next blog will look at how it might be used to find other uses for downtown office space. 

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

All Downtowns Must Reinvent Themselves

Calgary: Are We Too Downtown-Centric?

Calgary's CBD is unique?

Historic Downtown Calgary Postcards