top of page
  • StrategicGroup

White: the fine art of transforming offices into homes

The 'Year of the Office Conversion' helps move the dial for more homes downtown and fewer empty buildings.


Richard White


Artist's rendering of the conversion of the historic Barron Building in downtown Calgary. Built in 1951, the Barron was Calgary's first skyscraper.

Artist's rendering of the conversion of the historic Barron Building in downtown Calgary. Built in 1951, the Barron was Calgary's first skyscraper. PHOTO BY COURTESY STRATEGIC GROUP /Postmedia

Calgary’s biggest residential story for 2023 must be the office to residential conversions in the downtown core.


To date, the City of Calgary has announced 13 projects that will collectively turn 1.7 million square feet of downtown office space into 1,500 new homes for Calgarians, and one office to hotel conversion that will add 226 hotel rooms to downtown. There are four more projects under review that could bring the numbers up to 2.3 million square feet of converted office space into more than 2,300 new homes.

The ultimate goal is to remove six million square feet of office space by 2031 (the equivalent of three Bow Towers). The City of Calgary has invested $153 million to date (this could rise to over $500 million by 2031), with developers investing $567 million to date.


It will be another 10 years or more before we will really know if the office conversion incentive programs — there are three streams that include conversions for post-secondary institutions, conversions for other uses like residential or hotel, and building demolition — have been successful.


All Eyes Are On Calgary


Calgary’s office to residential conversion program has attracted significant national and international attention. Major corporate office cities like New York and Toronto are looking at what Calgary has achieved and how they might use it as a model for the conversion of vacant office buildings in their downtowns. As well, major media publications including the Washington Post, BNN Bloomberg and Canadian Architect have done feature stories about how Calgary’s office conversion incentive programs could be a model for other cities.

You could say the City of Calgary’s downtown office conversion incentive programs have put Calgary on the international map for downtown redevelopment.


Sceptical


I must admit I was sceptical at first that the City’s downtown office conversion programs would attract more than 10 office tower owners and add maybe 1,500 new homes. When the programs were announced in August 2021, Calgary was still struggling to recover from COVID and the impact of climate change policies. Also, there were already more than 5,000 new homes recently completed, under construction or in the later stages of planning in the city centre, all located in neighbourhoods that were more residential friendly.


But it turned out, the stars were aligned. The timing was perfect as the migration of Canadians and new immigrants in 2022 caused Calgary’s population to grow at record rates due to our affordable housing and living costs, as well as our economic recovery initiatives creating more employment opportunities. This record migration is not only continuing in 2023 but likely next year, with house prices in Vancouver and southern Ontario prohibitive for most newcomers and young professionals.

Today, residential developers of all types (single family to highrises) can’t build homes fast enough. Last year was a record year for housing starts in Calgary, and 2023 is on pace to match if not exceed it.


So, it is no wonder the office to residential conversion program has been a success.


Is this game changing?


While everyone is excited by Calgary’s success so far, the real proof of success will come if the new residents create the much needed downtown vitality in the evening and weekends as promised.


The current 1,500 new homes should add about 2,000-plus more people living downtown by 2026 when fully occupied; this would increase the number of people living in the downtown core to about 11,000 people. If you add up all the people living in the area from Shaw Millennium Park to Fort Calgary and from the railway tracks to the Bow River, the population is more than 20,000, meaning the downtown is already one of the most populated neighbourhoods in the city.


In total, the approved conversions will create a 10 per cent increase in the downtown population over a five-year period — or about two per cent per year, which is a healthy rate of growth. But is this game changing?

Will a redesigned Stephen Avenue Walk and Olympic Plaza, expanded Art Commons and The Core shopping centre become these residents’ preferred places to hang out, meet friends for coffee, bite to eat and be entertained? Or will they wander over to Kensington Village or up to 17th Avenue S.W. and 4th Street S.W. to hang out on their patios, meet friends for coffee, lunch, brunch, shop and be entertained? Maybe they will they hop on the LRT and go to Chinook Mall to see a movie, grab a bite and do some shopping.


Remember the downtown core will still be dominated by more than 100 highrise office towers that are empty evenings and weekends, with few public spaces, retailers or restaurants except along 7th and 8th avenues.


Only time will tell.


Last Word


It will be another 10 years or more before we will be able to tell if Calgary’s office to residential conversions program is a real success. But it looks promising.



Comments


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page