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Planners have lots of ideas to bring housing, street life and culture to spaces once dominated by nine-to-five office work. But they hinge on two complex questions: what to do with the old buildings, and at what cost

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Calgary has been left with millions of square feet of unused office space in its downtown core, a consquence of the extended crash of Alberta's oil and gas sector and then the COVID-19 pandemic.Photography by Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

A decade ago, Calgary’s future seemed to be rising at the corner of 6th Avenue and Centre Street. In 2012, the Bow, a $1-billion skyscraper designed by London architects Foster & Partners, opened its doors. At more than 230 metres, it was the tallest thing in the city; its curving walls of reflective glass and diagonally gridded steel held the headquarters of energy giants Encana and Cenovus.

This is where barber David Ghandour set up shop in 2013, on the second floor of the 57-storey building. “It looked like it was going to be a gold mine,” says Mr. Ghandour, 62, as he locks up his Denim & Smith Barbershop for the day. “I’ve got a small shop, but it was full, and I was thinking about adding another station. Business was definitely good.”

But then the layoffs started.

Beginning in 2014, a slump in oil prices brought the province’s energy sector into a stall. Cenovus went through a series of layoffs and mergers, and eventually moved its offices next door, to Brookfield Place. Encana changed its name and shifted its headquarters to Denver. The rest of Alberta’s oil and gas sector took a beating, too. All told, the sector lost roughly 35,000 jobs in just a few years.

Today, some 30 per cent of the Bow – and more than 30 per cent of the entire downtown core’s office space – is vacant. Mr. Ghandour’s former customers are either working from their basements or not working at all. At 5 p.m. on a recent weekday afternoon, the plaza in front of the building was nearly empty. Wonderland, a sculpture by the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, looked out across five lanes of traffic to a stalled construction site.

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Jaume Plensa's sculpture Wonderland sits in front of the Bow building.

The rest of downtown is equally quiet, especially after 5 p.m. And that’s not just because of the energy sector’s woes or the pandemic. Calgary has never been known as an after-hours urban centre, lacking the housing, retail activity and cultural events that keep an urban neighbourhood alive 24 hours a day. According to city data, downtown has just 11,000 residents. (Vancouver’s downtown peninsula has more than 100,000.)

The lack of both economic activity and street life presents a massive problem for the city, one it’s working to solve. So what can Calgary do to bring its downtown back to life?

City planners and business leaders agree the old model of a nine-to-five urban core no longer works. The future lies in creating a downtown where people live and play, as well as work; a place where streets are designed for people to linger, and not – like 6th Avenue in front of the Bow, a five-lane one-way highway – a place you drive through on your way to somewhere else. The city’s Greater Downtown Plan, approved by city council in April with an initial $200-million in funding, is the starting point. “The idea is to reinvent our downtown as modern, desirable urban neighbourhoods,” says Thom Mahler, who leads Downtown Strategy at the city of Calgary. “That’s the kind of place that talent is seeking and that our community is seeking.”

These questions also apply to other cities that built their central business districts in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly Canada’s Prairie cities. Accordingly, Calgary is pursuing some ideas that have become widespread in contemporary city planning. These include blending housing and services with offices; improving streetscapes and public spaces; and putting an emphasis on cultural events and venues. Such efforts have brought new life to office-heavy downtowns in cities such as Pittsburgh, Chicago and New York. Lower Manhattan, arguably the place where the word “downtown” originated, has transformed since the 9/11 terror attacks into a live-work neighbourhood with triple the number of residents.

And yet, Calgary’s problems are bigger – millions of square feet bigger – than those in other cities. Calgary has a disproportionate amount of office space for a city of 1.3 million; the downtown contains about 44 million square feet of it, double the amount per capita of Toronto’s city centre. Those offices are now seeing unprecedented vacancy rates. In physical terms, this means large buildings that are half-empty or even completely dark. Should roughly 12 million square feet of vacant buildings be repurposed? Mothballed? Or even, in some cases, torn down?

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Out and about on an October weekend in Calgary: At top is Stephen Avenue, a pedestrianized shopping street, and at bottom is a new cycling path on the Bow River.

Downtown Calgary is a squared-off 60 blocks of density in the middle of a sprawling Prairie city.

To the south, it’s walled in by a Canadian Pacific Railway line; the Bow River arcs across its northern edge, lined by riverfront parks. Its streets march in a strict grid laid out by railway surveyors.

Originally this area mixed up homes and workplaces, often built from local sandstone. But the boom in Canadian oil that began in the 1960s remade the place entirely.

Most of the houses, shops and stone-fronted institutional buildings were razed and replaced with office towers. This new crop of buildings evolved, over a 20-year boom, from the delicate modernism of the 1960s to the taller, chunkier and more opaque corporate aesthetic of the 1980s.

Today, it’s a place of brown concrete and mirrored glass, of shopping-mall atriums linked by an above-ground pedestrian network known as Plus 15.

As long as oil was booming, none of this stopped the city from prospering. But then, in 2014, oil prices began an extended plunge.

Downtown Calgary landlords and small business owners such as Mr. Ghandour felt the impact immediately “We knew we had to diversify,” says Deborah Yedlin, president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. “Some people, even in the energy sector, were saying this period of low prices would be good for Alberta, because it would force the province to recognize that it couldn’t just rely on oil and gas for its revenues.”

This idea was taking root in the city’s business community, Ms. Yedlin says; she cites the creation of the Creative Destruction Lab at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, an incubator that focuses on industries with strong growth potential, including agricultural technology and green energy. These fields could rely on Calgary’s young and highly educated work force, including many engineers who formerly worked in oil and gas. “We have a lot of scientific and technical expertise that can be directed to decarbonization or [agricultural] tech,” she says. “We were just starting to get somewhere.”

Then COVID-19 hit, compounding the economic effects of the oil slump. Downtown property assessments have dropped by $16-billion, or about 60 per cent, since 2015. In 2021 alone, non-residential assessments downtown dropped by $801-million, or roughly 8 per cent, compared with 2020.

To some observers, there’s no realistic hope of repopulating those empty buildings. Across North America, major employers are extending their work-from-home policies into 2022 as the Delta variant poses a renewed risk of COVID-19. An August poll from research firm Gartner Inc. found that two-thirds of corporate leaders were delaying their return-to-office plans. Ms. Yedlin suggests the less desirable office buildings in the core may never fill up again. Calgarians, she says, “have to ask some difficult questions and face some difficult answers.”

One proposal is to repurpose some of those buildings as housing. A study by the city found 28 buildings that could be adaptively reused. Most were built in the boom years of the 1970s and 1980s, and have small floor plates – in other words, they’re skinny, like apartment buildings, rather than bulky, like contemporary office buildings. The Greater Downtown Plan includes $45-million in incentives for conversions into apartments, student or seniors housing, or other uses such as university and college campuses.

For city planners, “first of all, it’s a real estate challenge that we have all this vacant space,” Mr. Mahler says. He compares Calgary’s downtown to that of Detroit, which has seen a renaissance of new office jobs and housing in the past decade; one prominent employer, Quicken Loans, has added more than 10,000 jobs. “But,” Mr. Mahler adds, “we’re hoping to avoid decades of decline before the turnaround happens.”

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New murals now add some colour to Calgary's streets. Attracting people into the downtown core with cultural events and spaces is an important part of the revitalization plan.

To that end, the central theme of the city’s efforts is getting more people to come downtown for a variety of reasons – and to stay there. This is already beginning, with an immediate strategy to spur public markets in a new dedicated space, and support performances and street festivals. The use of events (or “programming,” in planning jargon) is a staple of efforts to activate and revitalize downtowns across North America. Calgary’s plan budgets $5-million over several years toward events.

This is the right idea, according to the prominent city planner Brent Toderian, because people attract other people. “If you want to increase the amount of activity in a place,” he argues, “getting people to stay twice as long is easier than getting twice the number of people to come.”

All this is at stake in next Monday’s civic election. Mayor Naheed Nenshi – who is not seeking re-election – has championed the city’s downtown plan. What happens next could depend on his successor.

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Mayor Naheed Nenshi chairs a city council meeting last spring to an empty chamber as other councillors conference-called in.

Two apparent front-runners take very different approaches to the crisis in the downtown core.

Jeromy Farkas, a conservative councillor who has spent much of his mayoral campaign attacking Mr. Nenshi’s record, voted against the plan earlier this year and, if elected, will push for it to be repealed. He says the plan needs to be amended to reflect what the public wants but hasn’t said much about what he would do to heal downtown, other than opening a new police station and keeping property taxes low.

Jyoti Gondek, a centrist candidate who aligns closer to Mr. Nenshi, has released a platform with several planks related to downtown. She advocates converting office towers into housing and following the model of the East Village neighbourhood, which has added thousands of homes and a new library just east of the core. Ms. Gondek also wants the provincial government to stop taking its share of Calgary’s property taxes, to offset the sharp decrease in downtown property values.

Nearly three-quarters of Calgary’s current council have opted not to run for re-election. But all three of the councillors who voted against the downtown plan are seeking another term, including Mr. Farkas.

“A lot of this vision is up in the air at the moment,” says Mr. Toderian, an international planning consultant and former chief planner of Vancouver who oversaw Calgary’s downtown planning in the early 2000s. “This is a moment with a lot of potential. It would be a shame if the election changed that.” Mr. Toderian generally applauds the city’s current approach, in particular an emphasis on improving public space. “How do we make streets into places that you want to spend time?” he asks. He uses the phrase “sticky streets” to describe this phenomenon. “How can they be places for people instead of places for cars?”

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Pedestrians walk under the new 5th Street SW underpass, which includes new cycling infrastructure and green landscaping.

This is another familiar idea in urban planning of the past generation. But making it a reality is difficult here, as Mr. Mahler and other locals acknowledge. Downtown Calgary includes many wide streets, which are great for fast-moving car traffic, and not so great for relaxing with an espresso.

In the west end of downtown, the landlord Quadreal is trying to fill Western Canadian Place, two early-1980s office towers clad in pink granite and gold-tinted mirror glass. One tower is 97 per cent vacant. Its Late-Modernist architecture is almost dated enough to be attractive; the streetscape on 9th Avenue, however, is something else. Quadreal is marketing the complex with a photo that depicts a blur of speeding cars.

That’s typical of Calgary, whose streetscape is “the opposite of sticky,” says Mr. Toderian. “It’s Teflon. And the reverse has to become true.”

To that end, the city has set aside an additional $55-million for capital projects to improve streets and public spaces. Mr. Mahler says the city is looking at specific street redesigns, targeted to align with private-sector projects. Where there’s a new restaurant patio, for instance, the block might be rebuilt to widen the sidewalk and lose a lane of traffic.

But the city is also completing quick projects to enliven the public realm, including murals by the artists Astro, on 8th Avenue SW, and Birdo, on 5th Avenue SW, and a series of landscape and public art projects this fall on Stephen Avenue, the downtown’s pedestrianized shopping street.

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The Birdo mural on 5th Avenue SW.

These kinds of fast changes, sometimes dubbed tactical urbanism, are now common tools in downtown-revitalization efforts across North America. By taking public space that had been devoted to cars and creating “active uses” such as patios and parkettes, they can make streets more pedestrian-friendly and establish a sense of place. “Design doesn’t have to be massive capital investments,” Mr. Mahler says. “It can be small interventions that allow people to use the space differently.”

The idea is to give a boost to existing businesses and to attract workers who value walkable urban spaces. “The quality of place links to attracting talent,” Mr. Mahler adds. The attraction of downtown, in short, is that it feels like a city.

Calgary’s city hall is also emphasizing cultural development. Arts Commons, a major downtown performing-arts centre, received an $80-million grant through the Greater Downtown Plan for a renovation and expansion.

These efforts are also building toward a big, long-term change: a downtown that has more residents.

Changing the city centre into a mixed-use neighbourhood, one with a substantial number of both workers and residents, would have numerous benefits. It would put people on the streets at all hours of the day and night; bolster local shops, bars and restaurants; and create a sense of safety and activity.

Some amenities are lacking, however. While the city has built high-quality parks along the Bow River, Calgary’s one recreation centre, the Gray Family YMCA in Eau Claire, closed its doors in February. Ms. Yedlin argues it was a critical amenity for the young families who settled in and near downtown in the 1980s, and the massive new Repsol Sport Centre – a kilometre outside of the core – doesn’t fill the gap. “There is no question that there’s a lack,” she says. “If you’re going to be living here with a family, you want somewhere to take your kids for swimming lessons.”

Most city planners agree that getting people to live downtown, roughly balancing residents and workers, is desirable in both qualitative and economic terms. “Monocultures of any kind – whether we’re talking farms or economies – are fragile and not resilient to a sudden stress or shock,” says Mary Rowe, chief executive officer of the Canadian Urban Institute. “So the single-use central business district was profoundly challenged when offices closed. You need a much more diverse mix of uses and users that ensures adaptiveness and innovation.”

Those ideas have driven the recent prosperity of downtowns in Canada’s other major urban centres. Toronto has long had a policy of encouraging people to live downtown; in the 1990s, the “Two Kings” initiative allowed sleepy industrial districts to fill in with tens of thousands of residents. In Vancouver, the “Living First” vision of planner Larry Beasley had a similar effect.

In Calgary, such changes could bring valuable second-order effects. Mr. Toderian suggests that increasing the housing stock would also reinforce the office market – which is precisely what happened in Toronto and Vancouver. “There is a large group of young workers who prefer not to commute by car and would prefer to choose a workplace and home in a mixed-use neighbourhood,” he says.

One part of Calgary’s effort on this score is supporting the conversion of offices to residential or other uses. But some in the local real estate sector argue that less desirable buildings – the faceless Late-Modernist office buildings of the 1970s and 1980s – should be demolished entirely. “We need to make these buildings disappear,” Ms. Yedlin says. “We have a lot of Class B and Class C space, and you’ll never tell me that you can justify converting that space into residential. There needs to be a conversation about how we tear down these buildings that no one will ever, ever want to reoccupy.”

This view is not universally shared. Mr. Mahler says the city is looking at demolition “as a last resort,” hoping instead to encourage activity that will fill these buildings. “Clearly that strategy is not very green,” he says.

Mr. Toderian is similarly concerned about demolition. “Tearing things down troubles me,” he says, “because, among other reasons, it can’t be reversed.” Office markets turn quickly, he notes, and it takes a long time to construct new space.

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A man walks by a closed-up retail shop in Calgary.

But there is an elephant in the empty room: whether, as the pandemic recedes, workers will come back to the office at all. Employers, experts and investors across North America are divided on this question, and major development companies continue to pursue office projects in prime areas of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. A recent paper from the Canadian Urban Institute, “The Case for the Core,” argues that while the future is uncertain, downtowns will not die. Instead, this is an opportunity to rethink them as more equitable, vibrant, flexible and livable places. It’s an agenda that largely mirrors what the city of Calgary is now trying to do.

Ms. Rowe, its CEO, suggests that change is both necessary and welcome in places such as downtown Calgary. “Cities outlive corporations, they outlive governments of every stripe; they’re enduring creatures,” she says. “But they morph and change in terms of their function.” She suggests “the user experience” of cities, their public realm and public-facing architecture, will need to change – and governments should support design innovation in the process.

In this respect, Calgary could be a leader. “The city has historically taken tons of risk, and it needs to continue to do that,” Ms. Rowe says. “The city has taken a lot of knocks, and there’s a risk that it ends up being more conservative” in its approach to economic development and planning.

“They need to get back to being a city of ‘yes.’”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Vancouver’s downtown peninsula has about 60,000 residents. In fact, it has more than 100,000 residents.

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