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The art installation called 'Device to Root Out Evil' sits in a small park in central East Village on 30 Dec, 2021 in Calgary.Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

Jocelyn Phu was an urban studies student researching plans for Calgary’s new East Village neighbourhood – a dense, mixed-use community on the fringes of the city’s downtown – when she realized it checked a lot of boxes on her personal wish list.

It would be a quick walk into the downtown core and to the city’s light-rail transit system, which would mean she could ditch her car. There would be businesses – such as a dental office, a massage therapist and, eventually, a grocery store – a stone’s throw from her front door. Calgary’s new central library would soon be open, and there were other amenities planned, including a community garden and a dog park.

She and her partner moved into a newly built condo tower in the East Village about six years ago. Before that, they were living in Riverbend, a suburban community in southeast Calgary.

“I was really interested to see if Calgary had appetite for higher density and for a lifestyle that wasn’t oriented around a car,” said Ms. Phu, 32, as she walked to the East Village dog park with her Shiba Inu, Ruby.

“I just have a soft spot for what it’s like to live and work and play exclusively in a footprint where I can get anywhere I need to go in 15 minutes on my feet.”

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The East Village development transformed an area just east of City Hall. It has been held up as a model for how to persuade more people to live in and around downtown Calgary, which has a well-earned reputation for being a staid collection of office towers. The push to increase the residential population in the core and reimagine the area has intensified as Calgary grapples with a downturn in its main industry, oil and gas. The fossil fuel market’s gyrations have led to a downtown office vacancy rate of 30 per cent, which has eviscerated commercial property values and wreaked havoc on the city’s finances.

City council approved the Greater Downtown Plan last year, which envisions luring tens of thousands of new residents in the coming decades by building new developments such as the East Village, and by converting office space into residential units.

Before the oil downturn hollowed out its office towers, Calgary had the largest gap of any major Canadian city between the number of jobs located in its downtown core and the number of people living there, according to Statistics Canada data. There were about 3.5 times more jobs in downtown Calgary than people living nearby in 2016, compared with 2.1 times in Toronto and 1.4 in Vancouver.

About 40,000 people live in downtown Calgary and adjacent neighbourhoods south of the Bow River, including just 7,500 who live in the commercial core itself, according to data from Statistics Canada and the city.

“We are hostage to a model that really was about bringing people into downtown from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., maybe staying for dinner, and then spitting them back out to their residential areas,” said Deborah Yedlin, president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.

“But if you really want to have a vibrant downtown, you need to have people working and living there, as well. That means amenities, that means walkability, that means being able to really feel like you’re as welcome on the street as you are in your home.”

She argued that transforming Calgary’s downtown into a place where people want to live and spend time will be key to attracting talented workers as the city attempts to diversify beyond oil and gas.

A sign hangs on the entrance to the East Village Dog Park on 30 Dec.Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek said the city must do more than just add residential units downtown.

“It’s not just residential – it’s all of the accompanying uses that are there as well,” she said.

“I think we get so caught in what our downtown used to be that we’re missing the bigger picture. Think about every great city you’ve ever been to, and the number of things you can do downtown. That’s what we’re aspiring to.”

The East Village project was driven by the Calgary Municipal Land Corp., or CMLC, a city-owned corporation that was created more than a decade ago to oversee the redevelopment of a large area known as the Rivers District, where the Elbow and Bow rivers converge. CMLC put $400-million into the East Village development, and private investors provided another $3-billion. The public money funded preparatory work such as land remediation and road building.

The next major phase of the Rivers District plan involves a large mixed-use development in and around Stampede Park that would include housing for about 8,000 people. The redevelopment plan was originally centred on a new hockey arena that would have replaced the Saddledome, but the new arena’s future is now in doubt after the Calgary Flames’ owners announced in late December that they were walking away from the project.

It’s not clear what the arena plan’s possible death could mean for the Rivers District – nor is it clear whether the Flames and the city are prepared to return to negotiations.

Sheryl McMullen, the program manager of Calgary’s downtown strategy, said that while new construction projects in the Rivers District will bring more people to neighbourhoods just outside of the core, converting or knocking down existing office towers would allow people to live right downtown.

The city has set aside $45-million to provide incentives for developers to convert office space into residences, and added another $55-million because of strong demand. The city plans to announce agreements with 11 developers in early 2022. Next fall, the city will begin studying older office towers that could be knocked down for redevelopment.

Ms. McMullen said the city and CMLC will need to assess what the apparent failure of the new arena means for the Rivers District plan, though she pointed out that there are other planned amenities, such as a new convention centre and a new arts centre, that are also intended to draw residential development.

Greg Kwong, vice-president and regional managing director for commercial real estate company CBRE, is skeptical that there is significant demand in Calgary for residential units downtown, particularly in the middle of an economic downturn.

“Office space is cheap, but once you start building brand new residential, they’re not going to want cheap rents or sell these condos cheaply. They’re going to want top dollar,” he said.

He added that new downtown residences won’t sell unless the city solves its economic problems. The vacant office space in the downtown core is enough for an estimated 90,000 workers.

“Why are we building residential when there’s no one to move into them?” he said. “We need to focus on getting people back to work.”

Mr. Kwong stressed that he supports office-to-residential conversions and improving the downtown with things such as new arts infrastructure, but he doesn’t think those things will cure what’s ailing Calgary’s central core.

Beverly Sandalack, an environmental design professor at the University of Calgary, said the character of the city’s downtown is a result of decades of urban planning that was focused almost entirely on building up office space during oil booms.

“One-way streets were put in, instead of two-way streets. Street trees were ripped out, and it was really turned into this efficient machine,” she said.

“It worked I guess okay, economically, for decades, but it’s not very resilient in times like this, when the economy is really different and people’s appetite for a different kind of city is also different.”

Dr. Sandalack said urban planners working for the city came up with an ambitious redesign of downtown in the late 1970s that envisioned a functioning neighbourhood, with urban pathways fronted by cafés and businesses, along with building height restrictions to ensure sunlight reached the streets. City council eventually killed the exercise. Then-mayor Ralph Klein, who went on to become the populist Progressive Conservative premier of Alberta, declared: “Sunlight does not turn the wheels in our factory.”

Mary Rowe, the president and chief executive of the Canadian Urban Institute, said any part of a city that is designed for a single use – whether that’s housing or office work – can’t adapt when the world changes around it. While the problem is especially acute in Calgary, she said, the issues that made its downtown vulnerable to an economic downturn exist in cities across the country.

Ms. Rowe said the type of dramatic change envisioned in Calgary requires local government to adjust zoning and other rules to encourage new developments, while provinces and the federal government have a role in providing funding.

“Otherwise, what are you going to do? Are you going to let Calgary turn into a kind of old-fashioned western ghost town? Of course not.”

Vacant Calgary: This is part of a series on the future of Calgary’s downtown, hit by years of economic decline that has left its office towers nearly a third vacant, and the solutions that could drive a recovery.

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