A ghost town of barren streets and empty buildings: how to resurrect Calgary’s core

It’s no secret the inner city is deserted these days, but what can be done to lure people back?

By Julie Vincent | January 10, 2022 |5:00 am

The demise of the Calgary Arena and Events Centre earlier this month is delivering a major blow to downtown revitalization plans.

Photo: Julie Vincent Photography

Recently described in a forum as a “deserted hell hole,” downtown has never boasted a reputation for being vibrant. 

It’s even known for being barely occupied after the daily mass exodus of office workers heading back home to the ’burbs when the workday is done. 

Despite many iterations of restaurants and clubs trying to make a go of it downtown, the city’s core persists as a virtual ghost town on weekends. 

Now, the demise of the much-talked-about Calgary Arena and Events Centre earlier this month is delivering another major blow to revitalization plans. 

Add in the rising crime along Stephen Avenue and the high office vacancy rates, and the result is a city struggling to enact a plan that will have a real, long-term effect. 

How it started and how it’s going 

Multiple economic downturns, and particularly the 2008 recession, have seen downtown vacancy rates climb every year, to a high of 29% in 2021. 

Between downturns in oil and gas markets internationally beginning in 2017, and the onslaught of a pandemic hitting the city (and the world) in early 2020, office towers started emptying and have largely remained empty as we start 2022. 

Since 2019, city council and its partners have taken a serious look at the downtown vacancy problem and crime in the area, culminating in the downtown revitalization plan. 

The Greater Downtown Plan includes a total of $195 million in financial incentives for office conversion and replacement, residential development, +15 walkway improvements, public space improvements, and funds to support festivals and public events.

Another $80 million is earmarked for phase one of the Arts Commons Transformation. 

From a commercial leasing perspective, downtown Calgary is… 

Talha Niazi, a senior commercial real estate broker, sees a lot of potential in the core but has witnessed the deterioration of the core over the last two years. 

“It feels unsafe and it’s dirty. I’ve seen it get a lot worse. I have pictures on my phone of things people who don’t work in the core don’t see; drug kits, needles, feces smeared on walls,” Niazi says. 

“Calgary’s downtown is stagnant if you compare it to Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto.” 

Niazi says there are around 4,600 purpose-built rental units built or being built in the core. 

When asked about the funds earmarked for office-to-residential conversions, Niazi was unimpressed. 

He sees those conversions as putting a bandage on the problem and suggests the city shouldn’t be in the business of converting office space to residential in a location where there is no good access to amenities, and where people feel unsafe at night. 

“We need to attract businesses into Calgary. Business will bring people to the core.” 

That’s great, but you need businesses to lure people back 

While Niazi agrees creating a populous downtown is worthwhile, he says more needs to be done to create a sustainable, busy, vibrant core. 

“Businesses bring people to the core,” Niazi says. 

His client base is downtown retail leasing, and he believes there are many great businesses and restaurants in the core.

“They deserve our patronage.” 

Despite that, he doesn’t see a proactive effort by the city to address certain problems. 

“The homeless population is downtown, not in the suburbs,” Niazi says, adding he would like to see the city doing a better job curbing crime in the area, and providing for unhoused people who need help. 

That’s an issue that has been making the headlines lately and we will explore in a story next week. 

From a heritage perspective…

As the CEO of Heritage Calgary, Josh Traptow views downtown redevelopment from a unique perspective. 

Traptow is involved with several heritage building projects including the Barron Building, which sits at the west-central edge of the core. 

After many shifts in plans and purpose, in 2021 the building owner obtained a land-use change. In early 2021, the city approved a grant to convert the building’s above-ground floors to residential. 

Traptow says news of tech and other companies moving into the city’s core is positive, noting that heritage buildings are a draw for many companies.  

“In some of my off-the-cuff conversations with those companies, they’ve said they like heritage and character buildings.” 

The Barron Building
Calgary’s Barron Building

So much history to tap into 

According to Traptow, there are well over 100 such buildings between the beltline and downtown, the majority of which can be converted for business or residential.

Traptow agrees safety in the core is a challenge but notes it can be improved. 

“The more people there are, the more safety and vibrancy there is. Density changes the atmosphere,” he adds. 

That’s a sentiment echoed by Calgary Economic Development’s interim CEO, Brad Perry, who said in an email, “A vibrant downtown is a deterrent to crime. 

“We welcome a return to more people working in their office more often.”

A balancing act but there is hope 

Perry also referred to the city’s Greater Downtown Plan, released in 2021. 

The plan addresses ways to improve liveability and safety, means of increasing residential population in the core, and increasing engagement in social activities, making better use of public spaces and supporting businesses all to foster community in the downtown.   

The difficulty remains a balancing act of attracting businesses, creating density, and establishing amenities, all of which are part of the rejuvenation mix. 

Traptow notes that while the pandemic has impacted development projects, the general economic downturn in the city is the more significant factor and has created some unique challenges for city council in its efforts to rejuvenate the core. 

With respect to various projects in the works, Traptow confirmed that despite the Calgary Arena and Events Centre deal falling apart, the BMO expansion and the Eau Claire projects are unaffected and well underway. 

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Julie Vincent

Julie Vincent is a contributor with Calgary Citizen.

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