Calgary has a new plan to bring new life to the city’s greater downtown. And that plan is getting an initial investment of $200 million to get the decade-worth of work underway.
City council voted 12-1 in favour of the plan on Monday with only Ward 11 councillor and mayoral hopeful Jeromy Farkas in opposition.
The initial investment, representing only 20 per cent of the total amount needed to complete the downtown plan, was approved by council with a 10-3 vote. Only councillors Farkas, Sean Chu and Joe Magliocca voted against putting the funds towards downtown’s revitalization.
Coun. Peter Demong was absent from the meeting.
The plan seeks to turn roughly half of the 12-million-square feet of vacant downtown office space into residences and create amenities throughout the greater downtown, attracting residents and talent to the city’s centre.
Of the $200 million approved over the next four years, $45 million will go to incentives for redeveloping vacant office spaces into residences, $55 million will go to a “downtown vibrancy capital program,” $10 million will go to a team dedicated to executing the plan, and $5 million each will go to programming and incentives for Plus 15 connections to residential development.
And the Arts Commons transformation project will get $80 million, completing the funding needed for the “Road House” theatre space that will sit at Olympic Plaza.
Mayor Naheed Nenshi called it a “historic decision.” But the mayor also said this wasn’t a “silver bullet” to address 30 per cent downtown vacancy.
“It’s not going to fix it by itself, but it will help us with a very specific thing that has been identified, which is the need to get some of those redevelopment projects, particularly office-to-housing — but not not only that — over the finish line,” Nenshi said Monday.
“We have to continue to do the hard work of economic development to attract people. We’ve got to do the hard work of building the talent ecosystem.”
Part of the plan includes creating more spaces and events that are friendlier to people who live in the greater downtown, extending the times when people are milling about the streets past office hours.
The first tranche of funds come from the city’s rainy day fund, the Budget Savings Account — accumulated from one-time operating or capital savings — and the federal Canada Community Building Fund, also known as the gas tax. The federal funds will be going entirely to the Arts Commons project.
Council intends to seek the remaining $800 million from the provincial and federal governments.
In a statement, Alberta NDP municipal affairs critic Joe Ceci said the Alberta government can’t delay in assisting Calgary’s downtown, warning of the possible cuts to Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding if Bill 56, the Local Measures Statutes Amendment Act, passes.
Ward 9 councillor Gian-Carlo Carra said city council needs to establish a more sustainable source of funding for the plan.
“We cannot continue to eke out city centre work that we need to do (with) one-time funding,” Carra told council. “We need to establish in the next four-year budget, a dedicated fund to support this downtown plan.
“We need a dedicated fund to support main streets and (transit-oriented developments). We need a dedicated plan to support the active mode vision that we’ve all endorsed for this city.”
Farkas, whose ward currently includes a segment of the greater downtown, raised concerns about safety and security and their apparent omission from the plan. He also tried to delay the plan, asking city officials to come back with a way to include a downtown police precinct in a revised version of the plan.
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Ward 8 councillor Evan Woolley offered to work with Farkas to bring the downtown police precinct back to council as a notice of motion.
“I actually had the opportunity to go up to the police headquarters and meet with Calgary Police Service who are interested in potentially looking at what that might look like,” Woolley said.
The Ward 8 councillor noted that the city already did work exploring the possibility of providing extra security for businesses and residents downtown, as Farkas suggested.
A ‘watershed moment’
Support for the plan came from across business advocacy groups, post-secondary institutions and tech companies.
“It’s been a difficult seven years but today marks what could be a watershed moment for our city,” said Mary Moran, the president and CEO of Calgary Economic Development.
Scott Hutcheson, who chairs the boards of Invest Alberta and Arts Commons and is the executive chair of Aspen Properties, said the plan is a “catalyst in reversing the hit that Calgary’s brand has taken since 2014.”
“Calgary’s a no-fly zone for institutional capital today,” he said. “The pension funds and the large real estate investors in that community that… (have) typically owned the assets in the downtown is neither interested in investing in our city core with new equity nor as new debt available to our market.
“I assure you on the Canadian front, we will continue to fall behind Toronto… Vancouver and Montreal if we don’t invest now.”
Chris Simair, managing director of Harvest Builders and co-founder of Skip The Dishes, said Calgary’s national brand has an opportunity, especially when compared to other major Canadian cities.
“When it comes to Calgary, we still have this image of oil and gas and cowboys,” Simair told council.
“I think there’s a really good opportunity to bring (Calgary) forward to the world and to think about it being a place to start a business or really grow it and outside of oil and gas.”
Jasmine Palardy, formerly of Bearkerhead but representing SAIT on Monday, said with 58 per cent of the workforce in the next couple of years expected to be millennials and members of Gen Z, the demands will change.
“Attracting and retaining talent to the city as an economic engine is not only about location, it’s not only about campaigns or taglines, and I don’t believe it’s about shifting the narrative,” Palardy said. “I believe that the new economics of downtown have to be driven by experiences and amenities that enable people who are our best assets to thrive.
“Therefore, a downtown strategy needs to be about investing in the acceleration of human connection by enabling density and activity 24/7.”
“This plan will send a clear signal to Calgarians, visitors, institutional investors that you are serious about what our city can look like for the next economy, in the next generation,” Hutcheson said.
The “roadmap to reinvention” will need all sectors and all stakeholders to pull in the same direction, Ward 7 councillor Druh Farrell said.
“The project of reimagining our downtown is bigger than one person or one organization, or one councillor,” Farrell said. “There is enough work and enough glory to go around for everyone.”