City council approves initial $200M for downtown revitalization effort
CALGARY -- City council approved a multi-million dollar plan to kickstart the revitalization of the downtown core Monday.
Council voted in favour of an initial $200 million to get the project off the ground. The city’s planning and urban development committee has already endorsed the plan.
The $200 million will be a down payment on the city's Greater Downtown Plan, in an effort, the city said in a release, to pivot downtown Calgary "from vacancy to vibrancy."
“It's really important for Calgarians to know, we have lost $16 billion in assessed value in our downtown, which is equated to more than $250 million in operating budget," said Ward 8 councillor Evan Woolley, whose ward encompasses most of the core. “So for every dollar value that we create back into the downtown, that's less residential and commercial taxes that have to be paid outside the downtown core. And so it's really important for us as a whole city to invest in our downtown.”
Presently 32 percent of Calgary‘s downtown office space sits vacant. That is expected to rise to 35 percent by the end of 2021.
"We need to create an even-more thriving downtown community that moves beyond the traditional office-based downtown central business district and instead is a dynamic, vibrant 24/7 centre of our city," said Mayor Naheed Nenshi. "This means taking bold action and making intentional investments in public spaces, supporting vibrant neighbourhoods, and ensuring we continue to create a downtown that people want to live and work in."
Some office space in downtown Calgary is already being converted to residential. Sierra Place at 706 7th Avenue is being redeveloped into a 108 unit affordable housing complex by the non-profit agency Homespace.
“We hope this will spark, you know, interest in doing different types of conversions, and using the existing office space in the core in different ways, “ said Bernadette Majdell Homespace CEO. “The downtown plan, presented today (April 26) to council really offers a lot of different options for the conversion of office space, and this just being one of them. So we're really excited, we hope that it'll create a spark of what's possible in the downtown core.”
Converting some of the unused office space to affordable housing isn't a new idea. In February, a report issued by the University of Calgary School of Public Policy pointed to it as one tool to help ease the downtown vacancy issue.
“Not everyone has the ability to drive a vehicle, so they want to be located next to transit, and next to other things. I think having that range of different incomes that can live in that area is important," said Jenna Dutton, the report's co-author. “That’s something we don't really have right now. We have affordable housing or some housing in pockets of the downtown, but it's mostly market rate.”
The money would come from funding from several avenues including:
- $60 million from the Budget Savings Account;
- $63 million from the Fiscal Stability Reserve; and
- $77 million from the Canada Community Building Fund subject to receipt of the 2021 increase.
The proposal earmarks $45 million from the first phase of funding as incentive for office space redevelopment, potentially for housing.
City councillors are betting that by creating a hip, modern downtown with living spaces, recreation, and performance facilities will attract new businesses to the core.
That “if you build it they will come” attitude is not shared by everyone.
“I think we could use a few more people living in the downtown core. But that (the city plan) is a complete rejig, in that the people living there will require some shopping places to get groceries, and restaurants and things like that. So I think it's a good thing, initially, but it's not the only cure," said CBRE managing director Greg Kwong “The root of the problem of all of this, COVID-19 aside, is unemployment. We've got a high unemployment rate and death rate and Calgary has typically enjoyed a very low unemployment rate."
Two other major investments include the allocation of $80 million of funding for Phase 1 of the Arts Commons transformation and $55 million for the Downtown Vibrancy Capital Program.
The 10-year-plan will focus on Downtown West, the Downtown Core, Eau Claire, Chinatown, East Village and the Beltline.