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Calgary's Downtown Dilemma

Some degree of conversion incentives was/is a good thing to get a few pieces moving and align with a variety of affordable housing programs. I recall the per-door costs being quite low for the conversion program on realizing affordable units relatively quickly. That's a great win.

I also buy the argument that some form of subsidy was required to kick start the market response. Risking waiting around for values to decline in the city's most important neighbourhood is not a really feasible strategy for effective city building and long-term health of the city.

Those points aside, I fully agree the focus should always have been and increasingly be on the public spaces. Part of the problem is that the conversation downtown has always been so dominated by the existing stakeholders - corporate office owners - that the prioritization was effected, looking at conversions first, public realm later. The 5,000 existing residents in high density towers along a tragic 8th Street that have suffered from absolute garbage public realm for decades would have made a very different choice in prioritizing streetscapes over subsidies, for example.

Conversion incentives and public realm investment are both needed, but conversation is flipped of where it needs to be - instead of 90 -10 focus on conversion incentives, it should be something like 90-10 in favour of improving public spaces.
 
Subsidization of these office conversions with public money is such a waste - any dollars should be spent as Calgcouver says - on improving the downtown environment so that people might actually want to live there. The city needs to stop treating downtown as a cash cow and invest some of the property tax revenue generated there back into the district.

The fact that paying developers to convert these buildings seems to be the best idea we've come up with is concerning.
Ultimately we need to do more than just one thing. we need to do the infrastructure upgrades Calgcouver mentioned, and we need to increase the level of security and safety, but we need to get more residents in the core and that wont happen unless some of these buildings are converted.
I know money doesn’t grow on trees, but if the city and the province are going to do this, they need to do it right and that is by putting money into all three of those aspects.
 
I'm still not buying this argument. If you create enough demand for downtown resi then the economics of these conversions will work without giving cash to private entities.

It's still crazy to me that people will whinge and whine endlessly about an arena or Olympic bid - yet there was essentially zero criticism when council voted to hand millions of dollars to one of the sketchiest developers in the city.
 
To me giving the money to private developers for conversions is kind of like taking bad tasting medicine. I'm not in love with the idea, but at least there will be something long term and permanent coming out of it, and it's a one time cost. Every time a building is converted to residential, it's converted and will stay residential going forward. If you can add extra residents to the core, it's most likely that extra population boost will always be there.

I firmly believe that improvements to downtown can't be just one thing, like infrastructure, extra retail, or public safety improvement, it should be at least public safety, infrastructure and adding people. Unfortunately it will cost money to all three of those, but if we can improve all three at once, it's got a much better chance of success. We should absolutely address safety regardless of anything else, as it's a necessity, not a nice to have. Infrastructure is a nice to have also, but if we don't add any more people to the core, who are we improving the infrastructure for? The only people downtown will be the in and out workers leaving at the end of the day. That's also not going to help improve retail, and won't improve the vibrancy after hours. Extra people is great, but those new residents need better infrastructure and safety. IMO all three of those need to be addressed, or it's not going to make a difference.

The province invested what, $1.5 billion into keystone? Would $100 million from the province be such a big deal, for something that could have a lasting effect?
 
Downtown is going to be a crummy place to live and walk around until 4, 5, 6, and 9 avenues are converted back from semi-freeways into urban streets.

Unfortunately, there is no political constituency to do that right now. Suburban car commuters vastly outnumber downtown residents.

I see the value of residential conversions as starting to build a community of people who actually live downtown and care deeply about the experience, and a group of rental apartment building owners whose economic fortunes are tied to how attractive it is to live there. Over time these groups will advocate for changes to the streetscape that make that experience better.
 
Downtown is going to be a crummy place to live and walk around until 4, 5, 6, and 9 avenues are converted back from semi-freeways into urban streets.

Unfortunately, there is no political constituency to do that right now. Suburban car commuters vastly outnumber downtown residents.

I see the value of residential conversions as starting to build a community of people who actually live downtown and care deeply about the experience, and a group of rental apartment building owners whose economic fortunes are tied to how attractive it is to live there. Over time these groups will advocate for changes to the streetscape that make that experience better.
Exactly. One of the keys to all of this is creating an actual community of people who live there. At the moment the residents of downtown are scattered around apartment buildings here and there but it’s not a community at all.
If the city can add another 2 to 3000 residents into the core, especially around the west end of the downtown core there’s a better chance of building an actual community. With those extra residents, there’s a better chance of retail surviving and staying open after 5 PM.
I agree with what you’re saying about the roads. As long as they remain one-way freeways, it won’t be a very nice environment for the residents, or anyone for that matter.
 
I'm still not buying this argument. If you create enough demand for downtown resi then the economics of these conversions will work without giving cash to private entities.

It's still crazy to me that people will whinge and whine endlessly about an arena or Olympic bid - yet there was essentially zero criticism when council voted to hand millions of dollars to one of the sketchiest developers in the city
I think everyone is in agreement the economics aren’t there to do the conversions and thus the need for subsidies.
It’s possible that the economics will never work for downtown office space conversions, but we are at a point now where we need to decide what to do with the glut of empty office space. We can leave it alone and let the free market economy sort it out, but the most likely prediction is the buildings that are vacant now will sit vacant forever.
I’d rather see the city and province put some money into this and get ahead of it before it’s too late.
 
Retail and public-facing companies can easily get caught in a death spiral, where the businesses that are there aren't appealing, so nobody goes there, so the businesses that can afford to move out, so even fewer people go there, and all the while the fewer businesses can't support public space maintenance or enhancements.
‘Death spiral’ is a great way to put it. My biggest fear for downtown is if the future of it is left to capitalist pension funds, it will enter a death spiral and never recover. 30 years from now when the pension funds finally decide to do something with the assets it’ll be too late. Downtown won’t be desirable, not for people not for businesses not for anything.
If we can make downtown semi desirable it should help sway the pension funds to to do something with the assets at an earlier time.
 
I'm still not buying this argument. If you create enough demand for downtown resi then the economics of these conversions will work without giving cash to private entities.

It's still crazy to me that people will whinge and whine endlessly about an arena or Olympic bid - yet there was essentially zero criticism when council voted to hand millions of dollars to one of the sketchiest developers in the city.
How do we create enough demand for downtown residential? I honestly don’t think we’ll ever see any conversions unless we subsidize them. For the record, I’m talking about a one time round of funding subsidization to kickstart. Put the subsidies out there now with the caveat that it’s a one time thing and get the developers to go for it and get it done.
As downtown momentum picks up due to extra residents and other improvements, there’s a better chance of the economics working out on their own.
 
Does anyone really think that any government action, especially funding, could actually accelerate dt revitalization at this point? Many office to residential projects are already in the pipeline and the cannibalization effect isn't well understood. Neither is the long term trajectory of WFH
The question should be, why wouldn’t government action work? The projects in the pipeline are there because of the city’s grant. If the province adds funding it’s only going to make it even more viable.
The long term affect from WFH is well understood with only two possible outcomes. Vacancy rates still the same or go higher. WFH is why you’d want to convert buildings now.
I agree totally about the public safety for downtown. That should be first and foremost.
 
Subsidization of these office conversions with public money is such a waste - any dollars should be spent as Calgcouver says - on improving the downtown environment so that people might actually want to live there. The city needs to stop treating downtown as a cash cow and invest some of the property tax revenue generated there back into the district.

The fact that paying developers to convert these buildings seems to be the best idea we've come up with is concerning.
I wouldn't say it's a waste. @Calgcouver is right, we do need to spend money on improving the downtown environment, but it's all pointless if we aren't somehow adding people to the core. Even if we spend a couple hundred million on improvements, it's not going to attract people unless there are residential units for them to go to. Both things need to be done simultaneously.
 

Thousands will soon be moving into Calgary's converted office towers. What are they going to do there?​


The news article title is geared toward office space conversion, but the article is more toward the public realm of the downtown core.
It's not a bad article about the public realm, but my god what terrible framing.

But let me take on some of the hypothetical questions about the office conversions. And just for fun, let me also answer these same questions for the thousands of people who are moving into Redstone, a reasonably typical new build suburban community. The Redstone take is in red, the west downtown office conversion take is in blue.

there are a few questions that need to be asked on behalf of the future residents of the 2,300-plus 9,000 plus new homes about to be built. For example: What are they going to do there?
They are going to watch TV, talk to their partners, raise their children, and sleep.
They are going to watch TV, talk to their partners, raise their children, and sleep.


Where will they buy their groceries or meet friends for a coffee?
They could walk two blocks to Kays Food Market, a small strip-mall style grocery store (with surprisingly good reviews). They are also within 800m walk of the Beltline Safeway, and about 1 km from the Midtown Coop (although you can cut that down to 600m if you take the free train to Kerby). If they want a broader selection, there is a Superstore 1.7 km away (13 minutes by free transit, every 5-10 minutes). They could meet their friends at one of the half dozen or so coffee places within a few blocks. If they want to have coffee at 9 PM, and they don't want to go to the Tim Horton's in the neighbourhood that is open until 11 pm, they will sadly have to walk 15 minutes to Kawa or Higher Ground.

About 2/3 of the community are within 800m walking distance of either Punjabi Chuhla or Skyview Grocery, two small strip-mall grocery stores (with poor reviews). 1/3 of the community is outside even a long walk from any sort of retail whatsoever. If they want a broader selection, there is a FreshCo about 3 km away in Cornerstone (34 minutes by transit with 30 minute headways on a Saturday at 1 PM) and a Superstore 8 km away at Westwinds (about an hour by transit). But good news about coffee -- none of the coffee shops here close early! This is because there are no coffee shops. The closest place is a (24 hour) McDonald's,. 33 minutes walk away. If your friends are real coffee snobs, you can always walk 48 minutes to a Starbucks.


Where will their children go to school?
Their children will go to school in Connaught for elementary, Mount Royal for junior high and Western Canada for senior high; they are at the edge of the walk zone for all three schools.

Their children will not go to the new school across the street in Skyview Ranch; it's already filled up. They will go 21 km away to Keeler School in Forest Lawn for elementary, 13 km away to Dr. Gordon Higgins in Rundle for junior high, and 19 km away to James Fowler for senior high; sure that's not quite in the walk zone, but it's a mere 43 minutes by the one direct CT HS bus a day -- if you miss that, the fastest transit trip is 1 hour and 7 minutes and I swear to god involves taking Airdrie transit.


When they step out the front door on a weekend morning, staring down the empty, cavernous expanse of Sixth Avenue, or Fifth Avenue, or Fourth Avenue, where will they direct their feet?
They might have to walk a block or two on these shitty wide roads, then they'll take another street and be at the Peace Bridge or Stephen Ave in 10 minutes, or in Kensington or 17th Ave in 20. Or they could take transit to the Zoo or Jubilee in 15 minutes or Chinook in 30 minutes; or ride a bike to St Patrick's Island in 15 minutes or Edworthy or Inglewood in 20.

Thankfully, there are no 80-foot wide cavernous roads like 4th, 5th and 6th Avenues here. The community is mainly served by tight, compact, 95-foot wide roads like Redstone Gate, Redstone St, Redstone Blvd and Redstone Dr. However, if they want to go to past their community boundaries, they do have slightly wider thoroughfares, like 150 foot wide 128th Ave, 180 foot wide Metis Trail and 200 foot wide Stoney Trail. Although if those last two seem a little wide for your tastes, remember that while the other road measurements are from sidewalk to sidewalk; since Metis and Stoney don't actually have sidewalks, technically they're 0 feet wide.
 
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