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Barron Building reborn in Calgary as new residential and retail tower

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Work is now underway to transform Calgary's first skyscraper, a symbol of the city's place as an economic powerhouse, into a mixture of rental suites and retail space.

The Barron Building, located at 610 Eighth Ave. S.W., was built in 1951 and is part of a project that city council sees as an "incredible value" to Calgary's downtown.

The office tower is owned by the Strategic Group and has sat vacant for some time, but after work is completed, it will reopen next year with 118 new, modern rental residential suites and a number of street-level retail spaces.

The building was recently featured as a derelict space in the season finale of The Last of Us, where the two main characters, Joel and Ellie, can be seen running through the first two floors. 

Riaz Mamdani, CEO of the Strategic Group, says his company acquired the property 15 years ago and the completion of the project has been "a passion."

"Together with our partners at the City of Calgary, we are completing an incredible project that is good for our city's heritage and good for the vibrancy of downtown Calgary while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and construction waste," he said in a statement.

Ken Toews, senior vice-president of development at the Strategic Group, says certain historic parts of the building, like the front facade and some flooring, will be preserved.

"We're protecting the terrazzo floors that are on every lobby that has the Barron insignia, and that's a really critical part," he said.

"There's going to be a lot of work, a lot of effort in putting the restoration together, but it's going to be well worthwhile."

Heritage Calgary has been working closely with Toews and his team, along with the heritage planners.

"That's really kind of the role of Heritage Calgary, is to kind of bridge that gap sometimes when you're dealing with city red tape and city bureaucracy," said Josh Traptow, CEO of Heritage Calgary.

He hopes this project will be a catalyst for others.

"Conversions aren't cheap, but they're cheaper than builds. Conversions and heritage restoration actually employ more people than new developments," Traptow said. 

Mayor Jyoti Gondek says the city contributed $8.5 million for the Barron's revitalization – something she calls an investment in Calgary's future.

The developers will get the money after completion.

"Our downtown revitalization strategy is working and remains critical to seeing assessed property values continue to rise," she said in a statement.

INCENTIVE PROGRAM EXPANDED

The Barron is not one of the projects that falls under Calgary's downtown development incentive program, but officials say a separate program was created to establish a grant for the building, which is classfied as "an important downtown building for retention and reactivation."

Under its incentive program, which was expanded on Tuesday, five projects have been publicly announced while another six projects are approved by the city. Three more are currently under review.

"One of the announced projects, The Cornerstone, is already under construction and is expected to be completed before the end of the year," a city spokesperson wrote in an email to CTV News. "The other four announced projects have not announced construction start/completion dates yet."

Officials say the expanded guidelines will now provide grants to owners of office towers that are seeking to turn them into hotels, schools and performing arts spaces.

"These new conversion categories will encourage a more diverse mix of amenities and services downtown that will make downtown more attractive to live in and visit," the city said in a release.

The approval process has also been streamlined, with the approvals threshold increased to $15 million. This means larger projects will not need council approval.

Two other incentive programs have been introduced by the city - the post-secondary institution incentive program and the demolition incentive program.

The first is a benefit for post-secondary schools to establish a greater presence in downtown Calgary while the second incentivizes demolishing buildings that are at the end of their lives and are not suitable for conversion or reuse.

If all of Calgary's 14 office-to-residential conversion projects proceed, they're expected to remove two million square feet of empty office space and create more than 2,000 homes for Calgarians.

Mark Garner, executive director of the Calgary Downtown Association, is hopeful these initiatives will breathe new life into the city's core.

"We're still a very suburban-strong community and we need to get everybody back downtown and rediscovering why downtown is the place to be," he said. 

BARRON REBUILD CUTS GHG

Mamdani says the Barron project will also help the environment by preventing a significant amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) from reaching the atmosphere – the emissions that would have been produced had a new building been constructed.

(Supplied/Strategic Group)

The company says more than 11,000 tons of demolition material will be diverted from the landfill as well.

But that doesn't mean the project is easy. Mamdani says considerable challenges are ahead with plans to create an underground parkade.

"The experience, creativity, and ambition of our team makes developments like this possible," he said.

The Barron Building is expected to reopen in 2024.

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