Our downtown is beleaguered, and this strains our capacity as a city economically and socially. I say this with a heavy heart while acknowledging the reality of the situation. We know what’s to blame: a combination of factors which no one could have predicted coinciding. We can focus on pointing fingers at what has gone wrong, or we can look forward to the work ahead with determination, boldness, and an unwavering commitment to learn from our mistakes
To date, there is strategy work led by the City underway to rethink components of downtown including Chinatown, The Green Line, East Village, Eau Claire, the Arts & Entertainment District, and Stephen Avenue. These are components of a broader overall downtown strategy. Our go forward adoption needs to be innovative, flexible, and have room to adapt as new demands from commercial and residential tenants, along with the needs of Calgarians and tourists, shift. Covid has taught us the future is unpredictable and when unprepared, devastating.
Covid has also taught us that we are resilient and capable of change. We can re-learn and re-think not only how we behave but how we want to interact with our city. Being forced to experience our city has made many people hyper-aware of both our challenges and opportunities.
We know that attraction is two-sided. Calgary needs to flirt with all they’ve got: flaunt our assets and showcase our willingness to create partnerships. With the City leading investment into the downtown core, we should have the confidence and belief to know the market will rise to meet us. With vacancy rates nearing 30% the market needs to know Calgarians are invested in their downtown space. The market, both commercial and residential, needs a home which offers tenants vibrancy, safety, livability, and predictability.
Revitalizing our downtown core will be as much about nurturing relationships among businesses, citizens and residents, and government as it will be about tackling climate objectives, homelessness, and economic prosperity. No single economy will be the future of Calgary. Having a downtown which supports vibrancy in arts and culinary ventures, fosters innovative companies, supports student learning, and bolsters our tourism industry must all be a priority while supporting existing industries from oil and gas to banking.
There are many proposals on the table for rethinking our vacancy rates. Converting buildings to housing is one of them. I am cautious about this approach because of two things: (1) The revenue the city retains from residential property tax is significantly lower than commercial property tax thus potentially creating further economic challenges. (2) The amenities to support additional density need to be part of the support system: grocery stores, pet stores, doctors, pharmacies, child care centers, schools, recreation, parks, playgrounds,
Part of the intention of a dense core is to encourage a walkable and bikeable neighborhood. At present, our downtown core is poorly equipped to support residents in this way. I am not saying conversion shouldn’t be part of a bold strategy. Striking the balance between what comes first, residents or commercial, is going to take commitment.
Another opportunity is for existing commercial spaces to rethink their leasing options. Size of space, term of lease, cost of lease, parking options, just to name a few. How can we (ie City of Calgary) incentivize property owners to innovate their leasing models to encourage new businesses to be part of downtown? Can we explore mechanisms for tax breaks to those properties which can attract new tenants? Can we waive or reduce fees for building and development permits? We will need to explore financial implications to the city if we choose to waive fees or give tax breaks in both short term budget cycles and long term planning.
I ask, knowing these are just surface level questions, which require all parties coming to the table willing to compromise, create, explore through trial and error, and willing to be open to change. It’s going to take consensus building through businesses, city departments, fellow council members, and citizens at large.