Varcoe: Post-secondary schools could hold key to downtown turnaround


The study discusses several priorities, including providing incentives to reduce the high vacancy rate, exploring ways to diversify the downtown and attracting new industries and housing into the area

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A report for the Alberta government into problems confounding downtown Calgary calls for the province to play an active role in finding solutions, such as examining incentives to convert offices into other roles and bringing post-secondary faculties — and students — into the area.

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The final report of the Calgary Office Revitalization and Expansion (CORE) working group, established by Jobs and Economy Minister Doug Schweitzer last year, is expected to be released Tuesday.

It was designed to provide a road map for the province and private sector “to return Calgary’s downtown core to a healthy and energetic place to live and work.”

A copy of the report identifies key priorities and actions to address the daunting challenges surrounding the core: empty buildings (the office vacancy rate sits near 29 per cent), an eroding downtown tax base, safety concerns and the need for more vibrancy beyond 9-to-5 work hours.

“There’s no silver bullet for this. It’s going to take pulling on a bunch of different levers to make this a success long term,” said Schweitzer.

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“We’ve heard loud and clear through this report that all three levels of government are going to need to be involved in finding long-term solutions for the downtown.”

The study discusses several priorities, including providing incentives to reduce the high vacancy rate. It also seeks to explore ways to diversify the downtown and attract new industries and housing into the area.

It calls for initiatives to improve the downtown’s vibrancy and strengthen safety, security and quality of life “by working collaboratively with community organizations to address homelessness, addiction and social disorder.”

One recommendation would create a task force to look at developing a Calgary post-secondary education downtown strategy.

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“This should explore the increased presence of post-secondary students in the downtown through educational, residential, and extracurricular activities. Options for co-location of post-secondaries should also be explored,” it states.

“Offer financial and tax-based incentives for post-secondary institutions to expand and/or relocate certain faculties in the downtown core.”

It also suggests exempting student housing and affordable housing for seniors from provincial property and education taxes.

CORE member John Brown, dean of the University of Calgary’s school of architecture, planning and landscape, said drawing more students into the core would improve vibrancy and safety, while creating additional housing demand.

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The U of C’s architecture school has operated some space in the downtown Castell Building (the former central library) since 2019.

“In each of the post-secondaries, there would be particular programs where it makes sense to be downtown — but not everybody,” he added.

“The province has levers that would enable and provide that backstop and provide that financial incentive to have that (shift) happen.”

The report also examines an issue city hall is already undertaking through its Calgary’s Greater Downtown Plan: converting vacant or older office buildings into housing and other uses.

“Investment in office conversion incentives will be required to remove an excess of six million square feet of office space,” the CORE report states bluntly.

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“There is potential for the government of Alberta to support this effort by shifting investments in affordable, senior and student housing to the downtown area.”

Pictured is Palliser One (125 9 Avenue SE), one of the first three approved projects of the Downtown Calgary Development Incentive Program, on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.
Pictured is Palliser One (125 9 Avenue SE), one of the first three approved projects of the Downtown Calgary Development Incentive Program, on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. Photo by Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

To attract new industries into the inner city may require support from various levels of government, the study states, noting municipalities should be allowed to offer tax credits for new investments in emerging sectors.

The study also suggests providing funding for transitional housing programs and initiatives that have a record of tackling homelessness.

On the issue of improving downtown safety and quality of life, the province should consider expanding funding and resources available to homelessness organizations, housing partners and other non-profits.

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Calgary’s downtown has been struggling since oil prices collapsed almost eight years ago, leading to layoffs and consolidation in the energy industry — the main tenant of the downtown towers.

A massive drop in the assessed value of downtown office buildings since 2015 has shifted hundreds of millions of dollars of taxes onto other commercial properties outside the core. And the pandemic sapped vibrancy from the area as thousands of employees worked remotely over much of the last two years.

“It’s a mind-bogglingly large challenge that we have,” said Terry Rock, CEO of Platform Calgary and a member of the provincial working group.

“What this CORE report shows is there are some very concrete things that are all doable that we’re ready to act.”

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There have been signs of progress recently, beginning with city council approving its Greater Downtown Plan last year with an initial investment of $200 million, including $45 million in incentives for the conversion of office buildings to residential units.

Downtown office towers in Calgary on Wednesday, January 12, 2022.
Downtown office towers in Calgary on Wednesday, January 12, 2022. Photo by Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

However, the city’s broader plan envisions the core will need $1 billion of investment from the public and private sectors over the span of a decade, with the federal and provincial governments expected to contribute.

The provincial budget in February earmarked only $4 million to the city and $1 million to the Calgary Downtown Association for revitalization initiatives, prompting criticism from Mayor Jyoti Gondek.

After a speech to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce in early 2021, Finance Minister Travis Toews said he didn’t see any need to create targeted programs to address the high vacancy rates in downtown Edmonton or Calgary, while the opposition NDP vowed to create a formal plan for tackling the core’s issues.

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A task force by the Kenney government was later assembled — without any direct City of Calgary representation — to examine the downtown’s challenges. It included academics, business executives and non-profit leaders.

Aspen Properties CEO Greg Guatto, a member of the CORE group, said increasing the presence of post-secondary institutions downtown is a key recommendation, along with addressing the underlying issues of safety and security.

“People will not want to live, work or play in the downtown if they don’t feel safe in doing so,” he said.

“Addiction programs and agencies, mental health support, housing initiatives — these things are really important because the issues are very large and need attention.”

Schweitzer said various ministries within the government will study the report’s suggested actions as it looks to move forward on the plan.

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

[email protected]

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