Plan to revitalize Calgary’s downtown seeks to attract more people to live, work, play

A pedestrian wearing a mask walks through an empty downtown Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020,. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

A plan to address Calgary’s underutilized downtown will begin its way through council chambers on Wednesday.

Dubbed “Calgary’s Greater Downtown Plan,” it seeks to address problems that have been years in the making.

“Property values downtown have lost $16 billion in value over the last five years,” Thom Mahler, manager of urban initiatives with the City of Calgary, told Global News. “As a result of that… we’ve had to shift property tax collection to properties outside of the downtown core.”

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According to figures in the plan, the greater downtown area takes up less than one per cent of the city’s land area, but contributed to 14 per cent of property tax revenues in 2021 after that $16 billion drop in value.

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Commercial real estate analysts CBRE pegs the downtown office vacancy rate at just better than 30 per cent for Q4 2020, a record high.

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“The problem we’re trying to solve is to repopulate those office towers in a significant way to try and bring property values back up, which will help make the entire city more competitive and taxation fairer,” Mahler said.

He said the downtown environment isn’t attractive to companies or talent that the city hopes to repopulate downtown.

“It’s a dual problem: we have to improve the public environment of the downtown and the amenities and services we have, in order to even attract people to get into those buildings.”

Ward 6 Coun. Jeff Davison, who has been actively working on this plan and other council initiatives designed to help businesses downtown, said the work will require a “significant partnership” with the private sector.

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“A lot of what council has to do is set up the regulatory environment to make the downtown friendly for investment,” Davison told Global News. “Then we’re going to rely on those private sector partners to build out some of the challenges that we face, and together that’s really how we’re going to affect change in the downtown.”

A map of communities included in Calgary’s greater downtown. handout / City of Calgary

Mahler agreed that council has a role to incentivize downtown development.

“We hope to make it easier for investors to do business in our downtown and to do development,” Mahler said. “That has to come with an investment and incentive for them to invest in their properties, and for investments in our public realm to make it a much more appealing environment for investors.”

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Ward 8 Coun. Evan Woolley said that while the energy sector has fuelled the past generation’s growth downtown and remains a “significant part” of the city’s economy, jobs lost in that industry aren’t coming back. He said the city needs to look to other industries like tech to fill those offices.

“What are the next industries that are going to drive us into the future and what are the amenities and generational requests from millennials and now generation Z of their interests in building that next city?” the area councillor told Global News.

Woolley said the onus to revitalize the city’s downtown won’t fall just on council.

“It’s going to be community and government and business coming together, championing a whole bunch of ideas.”

‘Roadmap to reinvention’

The plan, which goes to the city’s planning and urban development committed on Wednesday and then council at the end of April, focuses on principles of making the downtown a better place to live and do business, while also addressing things like climate mitigation and resiliency, and all scales of transportation.

The “roadmap to reinvention” is meant to be the successor to 2007’s City Centre Plan, leading work in the city’s core for the next decade.

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“It’s specifically 10 years because it’s long enough to do some strategic planning, and to align investment and capital, but it’s also short enough that people can expect to see some results,” Mahler said.

If approved by council, the plan would “guide decision-making and actions impacting greater downtown and should be read in conjunction with other statutory and non-statutory documents” like the Municipal Development Plan and local area plans like those in the Beltline or Chinatown.

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Woolley said market forces alone would, at best, reduce downtown vacancy to about 25 per cent.

“This plan lays out some very specific strategies to get ourselves to a healthy vacancy rate which is not zero, but which sits at around 10 or 12 per cent,” the Ward 8 councillor said.

Davison said the plan isn’t about planting more trees and creating more bike lanes.

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“This is about creating place, and place unlocks the right regulatory environment where people want to make investments. If you want people living in the core, if you want people working in the core, if you want people coming downtown to be entertained, you have to create the place that they want to be in and want to invest in.”

A concern for all Calgarians

Mahler said there’s a perception gap about the city’s core.

“There is a perception that our downtown is the office core, and people hear a lot about the vacant buildings,” Mahler said. “The greater downtown consists of a bunch of great neighbourhoods like downtown West, Chinatown, Eau Claire, Beltline and East Village.

“And once people start to understand it’s all integrated, you start to realize that the downtown core has a ton going for it. “

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Davison, whose suburban ward sits in Calgary’s west, said every citizen should be concerned with the health of downtown.

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“Every single Calgarian should care about downtown economic recovery, because it affects you directly,” Davison said. “As those evaluations of buildings go down, a lot of that tax base that has kept our quality of life here in a good position has evaporated. And so that return to vibrancy is what we’re after.”

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Mahler hopes to have Calgary’s greater downtown show signs of life outside of office hours, more akin to Canadian cities like Montreal or Vancouver.

“If our downtown feels more like that, it’s going to support all the surrounding neighbourhoods as well and make people feel safer going through the downtown at all times of day.”

With a municipal election just over six months away, Woolley — who is not seeking another term in office — said most of the task of revitalizing the city’s downtown six years into an economic downturn will fall on the next council.

“The mayor that we elect and the council that we elect need to be a council that believe in this city and are willing to roll up their sleeves, and provide solutions, and do the work and make these investments in downtown,” Woolley said.

“Or we are screwed.”
Calgary’s Greater Downtown Plan – Draft version

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