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“Right now, downtown Calgary is a ghost town,” said architect Kevin Harrison, principal at Calgary’s Sturgess Architecture. The problem, he said, begins with the area’s history as a nine-to-five office district. What can architecture do about that? Quite a lot.

Sturgess has an idea to remake the streetscape by altering the design of existing office buildings. As an example, it’s selected Eau Claire Place I, on 3rd Avenue Southwest. It’s “a typical oil boom building,” as Mr. Harrison said: Built in the late 1970s, faced with panels of brown precast concrete and hostile to the street. Its first floor is a dozen steps above street level. “This right here is a two-metre-high wall along the sidewalk,” Mr. Harrison said on a recent video interview, indicating the structure’s concrete parapet along 3rd Avenue. “What kind of message does that send to you as a pedestrian? Is that a place you want to be?”

The Sturgess scheme would tear down that wall. It would then transform the space between the building and the sidewalk into a series of shallow steps, linking the first floor with the public realm. Then, the key move: replacing the first floor office space with a restaurant.

As for the upstairs, the architects think it is a good candidate to be converted to apartments. Each floor is roughly 11,000 square feet, small enough to accommodate plausibly sized apartments. Dark areas in the centre of the building could be converted to storage lockers. In terms of the architecture, Sturgess suggests keeping much of the precast concrete on the façade. “Our approach speaks to the history of the building but treats it in a new way,” Mr. Harrison said. This seems wise: Rather than strip off and demolish all of the material, the architects would keep its chunky texture partly intact, while opening up roughly half of the façade to windows. All this responds to one central lesson: “People want to be around people,” Mr. Harrison said. “After 20 months of being cooped up at home, we’ve learned that more clearly than ever.”

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A big challenge demands a big response, and the ideas Calgary firm Spectacle Bureau has for the city go far beyond buildings.

For the studio’s two partners, Jessie Andjelic and Philip Vandermey, downtown has to be about the exchange of ideas. “We need to reinforce the importance of the centre as a place for networking and collaborative innovation,” Mr. Vandermey said in an interview. The architects – both teach at the University of Calgary – propose two kinds of changes: alterations to buildings and the streets around them; and new activities within those buildings.

Spectacle suggests that downtown office buildings need to change in shape and purpose. Cubicles disappear. Walls go away. Stairs and escalators open connections between floors (keeping elevators in place). Upstairs, a floor transforms into housing, and an adjacent building is now all residential, with balconies and gardens piercing the façade.

This new activity comes out onto the street (for which they have imagined, as an example, 4th Avenue near 8th Street Southwest). It has been narrowed to three vehicle lanes from four, and converted to two-way traffic. The residual space is now home to bike lanes, new rows of shade-giving trees and broad sidewalks, onto which restaurants and co-working spaces open.

Spectacle also suggests a new economic agenda: “one that is diverse, circular and rooted in renewable energy expertise and production.” Green energy businesses, along with those in agricultural technology, materials sciences and education, would be ideal tenants for this new downtown.

These knowledge-based industries would find a meeting place there, building on a direct rail connection to the airport and a newly imagined amenity: a high-speed rail connection to Edmonton. This idea has many precedents. Downtowns – including this one – often sprung up around rail stations, building on the flow of people, goods and capital that they brought.

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What if empty office space became fertile ground for growing things? This is the suggestion of Modern Office of Design and Architecture, a young Calgary firm led by Dustin Couzens and Ben Klumper. They propose that downtown’s vacant towers could accommodate a 21st-century blend of urban agriculture and data centres.

As an example, MODA offers the former Nexen tower on 7th Avenue Southwest, which is completely vacant. Adopting a pun, the firm has dubbed its proposal NextGen City. Where many other proposals for downtown begin with housing, MODA imagines that the jobs should come first.

It would completely renovate the tower to provide new electrical and ventilation systems – which, constructed in 1982, likely need updating. Farming would occupy 72 per cent of the tower’s 37 levels; data centres and housing would occupy the rest. Excess heat from servers would be “harvested” to grow plants, helping make the building self-sustaining in energy and carbon terms. The result, MODA said, would provide enough produce to serve the needs of downtown’s entire population.

As the architects point out, agricultural technology is a city economic development priority. Business leaders hope the industry can build on local expertise in farming, software development and hardware. “We’re encouraging the development of an industry that is flourishing in Alberta right now,” Couzens said.

MODA, best known for creative multi-family housing developments, doesn’t have a strong design agenda with this proposal. Why? “Downtown Calgary needs a value proposition,” Mr. Couzens said. “Working in such a fiscally conservative city, we know everything’s going to come down to what’s commercially feasible.” And MODA has recently started working on projects with an actual client to combine data centres and agriculture. “The idea is real,” Mr. Couzens said, “and this translates it from a horizontal context into a vertical one.”

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Despite all the empty space in downtown Calgary, a team of planners from the firms Urban Strategies and Intelligent Futures sees assets on which to build. “We’ve focused on what is working in and around downtown,” said John Lewis of the Calgary-based Intelligent Futures.

The planners – who also include Maxine Cudlip, Dan Godin and Dennis Lago of Urban Strategies – believe downtown can thrive through connections with surrounding neighbourhoods. “The areas around the core are very strong,” Mr. Lewis said, including the Beltline to the south. “How might we build on them to have that economic and experiential diversity in downtown?”

The team focused on two areas. One near the Bow River and its attractive network of parks; this would become the “river lab,” bringing in new space for postsecondary institutions and oriented to the water. A “rail lab” to the south would be linked to commerce and housing in the Beltline. “Our question is how flexibility, fun and joy could be applied to these places,” Ms. Cudlip said.

Their answer is what they jokingly call “Pezzing”: dividing up existing towers to contain different kinds of activity, just as a Pez dispenser contains little capsules of candy. Imagine a ground floor of an office building converted to shopping. Above this, academic space. Above that, offices and shared workspace. And above that, housing.

The planners also argue that streets and other public spaces need to be remade. One of downtown’s physical problems is the rail line that separates the core from the Beltline. They looked at the north-south roadways that cut underneath this corridor, and imagine excavating the earth on either side of a street to create new park space. This could be filled with green space, a skating rink and temporary cultural venues. What had been uncomfortable tunnels could become public plazas that provide links – visual, physical and experiential – between the downtown and the rest of Calgary.

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