Calgary’s downtown core has long been a hive of commercial activity, a major energy centre in more ways than one. Not long ago the city had the second-highest number of head offices in the country. But in the evening it largely hollowed out, workers went home and citizens looking for action tended to go elsewhere, largely to the downtown fringe, such as to my neighbourhood, the Beltline.
Now the core is hollowing out during the day as well. The office towers are 32 percent vacant, four have no tenants at all. Calgary has dropped to fourth in the number of head offices. West coast developers have long been a key part of the inner city’s urban renewal, such that Calgary has been referred to as “Vancouver East,” but now they are closing offices and heading home.
City Council doesn’t much like the direction this is going and is taking steps. It has approved a revitalization plan for the core that includes an initial investment of $200-million.
The goal is a core that will be more than a business district, empty at night, but an attractive place to live as well. The intent is more residential with convenient walking and cycling, amenable green space, and more after-work amenities. In Mayor Nenshi’s words, “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.”
Manager of urban strategy Thom Mahler stresses that the downtown is “central to Calgary’s economic recovery, and we are facing a long road, there is no looking back.” The importance of the core to the city’s economic recovery is illustrated by the loss of $16-billion in taxes that the hollowing out has cost in the last five years alone.
The revitalization plan includes incentives for owners to convert office space to residential or other uses, and money for a “vibrancy program” and transformation of the Arts Commons, a multi-venue downtown arts centre.
How strong Council support remains after this fall’s election is still a moot question with the mayor and a number of councillors not running again. The provincial government has moved to increase the election of conservative councillors, by raising election spending limits and by putting a referendum on equalization on the ballot as bait to attract conservative voters. A more conservative council would mean a council less inclined to spend on a denser city.
In any case, business has bought in and that will influence conservatives. Chamber of Commerce CEO Murray Sigler commented, “To attract and retain top talent, we must invest in the capital and social infrastructure that supports community well-being, including childcare, parks, public transit, the arts and the charitable sector.”
Calgarians, like Albertans generally, are highly satisfied with their municipal government, so we might expect the general public to support the plan. A recent survey showed almost two-thirds are very or somewhat satisfied with the job Council is doing. (They are much more approving of how Council is handling Covid than how the federal and provincial governments are.)
As a resident of the downtown, albeit on the fringe—where the action happens—I am invested in what happens in the core. Needless to say, I strongly support the plan’s goal of increased residential and increased vitality. If the city is to have a future after oil, the revitalization plan is, as the mayor suggests, a sound investment.