Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
The downturn in Alberta’s energy sector, which started more than five years ago, has put tens of thousands of people out of work and rippled across the province’s economy. Nowhere is that impact easier to see than the hollowed-out office towers in downtown Calgary, where the vacancy rate is now at about 30 per cent.
Downtown vacancies have long been a barometer of Calgary’s economy, increasing whenever an economic downturn prompted layoffs or put companies out of business.
But the problem has never been so severe. Right now, 13.5 million square feet of downtown office space is unoccupied, which is roughly enough capacity for 90,000 workers.
Calgary’s vacancy rate is almost three times that of Montreal and four times as high as Toronto, and it’s only expected to get worse in the coming years. Calgary had more office space to start with than those other cities, with double the amount of office space per capita compared with Toronto.
The vacancies have changed the character of the city’s downtown, which already had a reputation as a lifeless collection of office towers whose workers fled home at the end of the work day. The high vacancy rate sent property assessments plunging, wreaked havoc on the municipal government’s finances and laid bare the scale of Calgary’s economic problems – including how complex they will be to solve.
The Globe and Mail is launching a series looking at Calgary’s downtown: how it got here and what could save it.
There has been a lot of focus on rebuilding the economy, whether that means a recovery for the oil sector or finding other industries to hire workers to fill those offices. Other ideas include turning empty office towers into residential buildings or finding other ways to bring more residents downtown.
We’re calling the series Vacant Calgary, and we’ve started out with an interactive feature that will walk you through how the vacancy problem is spread across the downtown (Some buildings are emptier than others, including four that are completely vacant).
Our architecture critic, Alex Bozikovic, has the cover story in this weekend’s Globe, looking at what’s at stake as Calgary tries to reimagine its downtown as a place for people to live and work. Alex explores the problem, what the city is considering, and the obstacles that await (including the sheer scale of the problem.)
Over the next several weeks, we will have other stories examining the impact of the downtown vacancy problem and what could help a recovery. On Monday, I’ll have a story about how empty office towers have been reduced in value by billions of dollars and how that has affected the city. There’s a civic election on Monday but some candidates have barely mentioned the issue.
Throughout the series, we’ll look at how developers are turning some office towers into rental housing, which has emerged as a popular idea among policy makers but one that is complicated and expensive. We’ll have a story about the role public transit could play in the downtown’s rebirth. Also, the potential for industries such as green energy and technology to replace the jobs lost in the oil sector (many of which are not expected to come back, even if the industry recovers).
And we’ll hear from city planners, architects and others about ideas that no one is talking about yet.
We’ll be highlighting more of those stories in the Western Canada newsletter in the coming weeks. As always, you can find all of that content on theglobeandmail.com and in the newspaper.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.