Vacancy rates in downtown Calgary have been in steady ascent since 2015, yet the most heavily funded initiatives brought forward by the Greater Downtown Plan – the incentive for office conversion, the downtown vibrancy capital program and the Arts Commons transformation – won’t materialize for at least another year, delaying the much-needed reactivation of the area.
In August, CREB reported a vacancy rate of 16 per cent for retail storefronts in downtown Calgary – the highest vacancy rate of the retail category in the city. “We’re worried about having these dead areas,” says Thom Mahler, manager of urban initiatives at the city of Calgary about storefront vacancy. “We need to really focus on making sure that we’ve got continuous activity along the street.”
However, the activation of these privately owned spaces is not formally considered by the city’s ambitious downtown plan. “The $55 million vibrancy program is focused on places where the city can actually do an intervention,” Mr. Mahler explains. “So that would include our public rights-of-way and where we own buildings.” There’s also $5 million available to fund art installations, festivals, and events at key downtown locations over the next three years
But according to Jim Morrow, adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Alberta and co-author of Activating Space Field Guide, cities tend to overestimate the impact of public space programming. “They always want to go and program a park,” he says. “And cities believe you can program your way out of everything.” Indeed, formal programming isn’t as effective as cities may lead people to think, Mr. Morrow says, emphasizing the importance of storefronts as an interface between public and private space. “The whole point of a shop having a big front window is to open the shop to the street. … It’s a private shop, but the shop provides a very public function.”
Furthermore, high street-front vacancy could put a dent on the effectiveness of Calgary’s Greater Downtown Plan to revitalize the city’s core. “The longer that something is empty, the more likely it is to be a blight,” Mr. Morrow says. “[Vacant spaces] also have a tendency to create a negative perception of an area. People don’t go there because there’s nothing there to do, and then that becomes a cycle where it feeds itself: people don’t go there so businesses don’t open.”
While high-end restaurants and specialty stores catering to corporate workers in downtown Calgary are no longer viable, Mr. Morrow believes the temporary activation of vacant storefronts with uses that add social value could be a way out of the cycle. “The ideal use for temporary use would be to have a space that helps local creators [and] community groups.”
And that’s precisely what Good Neighbour, a Calgary social enterprise is set up to do.
Located at the intersection of 1st Street and 5th Avenue SE, adjacent to The Bow, Good Neighbour is a temporary pay-what-you-can market that came to be thanks to the support of a community-minded landlord whose property had sat vacant for more than two years.
“Our goal in entering into our lease with Good Neighbour was to both contribute to the revitalization of downtown by activating the street with a lively concept,” says the landlord, who asked his name be withheld. “Properties that are presently vacant and are not readily leasable can be used for interim uses and benefit the community and assist not-for-profit companies with minimal financial impact.”
Activating vacant space with socially valuable uses can bring back footfall for nearby properties and businesses too, Mr. Morrow explains. “That’s the whole point of temporary use, to get some footfall into spaces.”
So far, according to Alice Lam, a Calgary community activator and co-founder of Good Neighbour, the market “has become a point of interest for people who are downtown.” Whether it is to shop at the market, drop off donations, or simply check out the newly-brightened space, there’s a constant influx of people in and around the building. “We are creating community not only for our neighbours, but for the businesses as well,” she says.
However, funding this type of initiative is not currently within the scope of Calgary’s Greater Downtown Plan. “[Good Neighbour] is a good example of the possibilities that we can consider, although we don’t have a formal program for that,” Mr. Mahler says, adding that activating vacant retail spaces is “definitely a priority – we just don’t have a specific strategy on how to address that.”
Since Good Neighbour opened its doors to the public in July, other community organizations have reached out to Ms. Lam to learn how they can use vacant space downtown to advance their mission. “I would really encourage [the city] to lead by example, to do some of these incubator spaces, to try new ideas,” she says. “There’s no shortage of people who would fill those spaces right now, it’s just that the cost is too high.” Despite high-vacancy rates in Calgary’s downtown, rents have been slow to come down low enough to become accessible to tenants like Good Neighbour.
“It costs [investors] nothing to leave a space empty,” Mr. Morrow says. “So they will leave a space empty for as long as they can while their money appreciates.” And this comes at a cost to the community. “Pretty much once a place has not been rented for a year, it will sit at least another two years empty – and that’s very concerning,” he adds.
Ms. Lam, who also works as a property manager, believes local landlords are more likely to be motivated to give back to the community, as opposed to multi-national real estate investors. “Local landlords are very dependent on what’s happening in our city,” she notes, and Mr. Morrow echoes her observation.
“What we find is that there’s a lot of properties that are owned by local owners, or by people who live in the region, and when you can get face-to-face with them and explain to them what you’re going to do, they see great potential,” Mr. Morrow says about temporary activations.
And Good Neighbour’s landlord sees this potential. “To demonstrate the resilience of the downtown area, landlords can… seek out creative ways to fill vacant main-floor retail spaces with uses that are both not traditional and have a social benefit,” the landlord said in a statement.
With 6,000 square feet of leasable space available in the building, Ms. Lam and the landlord are already scheming what comes next at Good Neighbour. “Now he wants to turn the building into an arts and culture hub,” she says. But to do that, they need more than a rent-free space. “We’re looking to see if we can get sponsors, or ultimately the City of Calgary to provide a grant to us for building the space because we are providing such an important need for this area downtown.”
To date, Good Neighbour has partnered with a number of charities and agencies that provide frontline support, including Closer to Home, the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association, and The Alex. “We’re trying to fit everybody in, but [the space] is not that big at the end of the day,” Ms. Lam says. “So we’re being very creative with how we share space and move some things aside.”
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