Rollin Stanley is the former chief planner of Calgary, where he also led three city departments. He previously led planning efforts in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, worked as the head city planner for the Mayor of St. Louis, and spent 21 years in Toronto’s planning department.
The 1980s were not kind to single-industry cities. World market fluctuations, interstate construction, racial unrest and discriminatory lending practices led once invulnerable-seeming manufacturing hubs such as Detroit and Pittsburgh to lose their economic advantages. The oil hub of Calgary, which boomed through the 1970s, didn’t escape the decade unscathed, either. While Calgarians were happy to blame Pierre Trudeau for their woes as a glut of oil caused prices to crater, this was a time of deep and sudden hardship in the city. Over the course of the decade’s two recessions, the unemployment rate peaked at 14.9 per cent; home prices plunged 20 per cent between 1981 and 1985.
Eventually, oil and natural gas prices surged again in the 1990s, reigniting good times in Cowtown. But now, Calgary’s leaders are finding themselves in a similar spot. The economy is sputtering, the province’s GDP continues to shrink, the oil-and-gas industry is getting leaner, and companies have either left town or shut down. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated the flight of businesses from the city’s one-dimensional downtown; the office vacancy rate sits at around 30 per cent, comprising approximately 13.5 million square feet of unoccupied downtown space.
Fortunately, Calgary can look to other struggling single-industry hubs that recovered after their own identity-crisis downturns in the past – cities that acknowledged shifts in the global marketplace, leveraged local assets and moved on.
Akron, in northeastern Ohio, is one of them. Once dubbed the “rubber capital of the world,” it was at one point home to four of the world’s largest tire manufacturers. But when three of those companies pulled up stakes in the 1980s, Akron had to pivot – and it did so by taking advantage of its existing local expertise in rubbers and other polymers.
In 1988, the University of Akron created the school of polymer science and polymer engineering, the only institution in the world devoted to polymers. Located downtown, the college’s laboratories partnered with local businesses, helping create the “Polymer Valley” in northeastern Ohio, a thriving region for concentrated engineering and innovation talent. By shifting to an industry that’s adjacent to the one on which it made its name, Akron is now home to more than 400 companies working in polymer research, development and technology, which together employ more than 30,000 people.
Calgary, which is awash in petroleum expertise, is home to similar assets. In 2015, Oil Sands Magazine counted 40,000 engineers registered in Calgary, a number that rivals Silicon Valley. To capitalize on that talent, the University of Calgary should expand downtown and develop a school for petroleum research and development, connecting students and all those engineers with investors. Doing so would inject tens of thousands of young people into the downtown and create a 24/7 buzz that has long been missing in Calgary, even before the exodus from the core. Students could live in converted office buildings that include active street uses where they can meet and collaborate; urban campuses would also draw international students who bring in higher tuition fees and new networks. This vision, however, would require the university to shake off a historic lack of interest in expanding downtown.
The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology – which sits three kilometres north of downtown – is also running out of space amid strong international demand for high-rise mass timber-building. The school could build on Canada’s experience and resources to create a downtown institute dedicated to the research, technology and architecture of a renewable resource. The institute would enhance the city’s effort to attract “green” tech while also contributing to Calgary’s goal of building better public spaces.
Meanwhile, Canada’s Rust Belt city of Hamilton, navigated a downturn of its own by focusing on a dynamic downtown. After the city fell victim to a worldwide realignment of the steel industry, it invested in a downtown transit line with buy-in from the local university, McMaster, which announced plans for classrooms and residences along that line. The Labourers’ International Union of North America recently broke ground on a 500-unit building of its own in Hamilton, citing the “exceptional transit and pedestrian environment” the downtown offers.
“Once you realize that livability is your best economic development strategy, it certainly refocuses your priorities, with transit and place-making being at the top,” says Keanin Loomis, the president and chief executive officer of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce.
Calgary is hoping its light-rail transit line will ignite the same energy. However, another major part of Calgary’s revitalization strategy is retrofitting old and vacant office buildings into housing – a costly option that won’t deliver on the scale city hall believes it will. Even with the $100-million allocated by the municipal government, such converted office buildings cannot compete against modern condos that boast high ceilings, large windows and residential floor plates that are cheaper to build. And even those downtown condos struggle to compete against Calgary’s strong suburban single-family market, which is fuelled by low interest rates, low prices, easy commutes and civic financing and incentives. Governments must up the ante, using tax credits and abatements to offset the costs of conversion.
Ultimately, cities that were able to rebound from historical economic shocks share these common features: They had strong leadership, vision and partnerships. The question now for Calgary’s struggling downtown is whether the city’s newly elected mayor and overhauled council will take that crucial lesson on moving ahead.
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