Varcoe: Post-secondary schools could be key to downtown recovery

The study addresses several priorities, including providing incentives to reduce the high vacancy rate, exploring ways to diversify the downtown area, and attracting new industry and housing to the area.

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An Alberta government report on the issues confounding downtown Calgary calls on the province to take an active role in finding solutions, such as examining incentives to convert offices to other roles and bringing faculties post-secondary institutions – and students – in the region.

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The final report of the Calgary Office Revitalization and Expansion (CORE) Task Force, established by Jobs and Economy Minister Doug Schweitzer last year, is expected to be released on Tuesday.

It was designed to provide a roadmap for the province and the private sector “to restore downtown Calgary to a healthy and vibrant place to live and work.”

A copy of the report identifies key priorities and actions to address the daunting challenges surrounding downtown: empty buildings (the office vacancy rate sits at nearly 29%), a shrinking tax base Downtown erodes, security concerns and the need for more dynamism beyond the 9am-5pm work.

“There is no miracle solution for this. It’s going to take a bunch of different levers to make it a long-term success,” Schweitzer said.

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“We heard loud and clear in this report that all three levels of government will need to be involved in finding long-term solutions for the downtown core.

The study addresses several priorities, including providing incentives to reduce the high vacancy rate. It also seeks to explore ways to diversify the downtown core and attract new industry and housing to the area.

It calls for initiatives to improve downtown vibrancy and enhance safety, security and quality of life “by working collaboratively with community organizations to address homelessness, addictions and social unrest.”

One recommendation would be to establish a task force to examine the development of a post-secondary education strategy for downtown Calgary.

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“This should explore the increased presence of post-secondary students downtown through educational, residential and extracurricular activities. Post-secondary institution co-location options should also be explored,” he says.

“Provide financial and tax incentives to post-secondary institutions to expand and/or relocate certain faculties downtown.

It also proposes to exempt student housing and affordable housing for seniors from provincial property and school taxes.

John Brown, a CORE member and dean of the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, said attracting more students to the core would improve vibrancy and safety, while creating demand for additional accommodation.

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The U of C School of Architecture has operated a space in the downtown Castell Building (the former Central Library) since 2019.

“At each of the post-secondary institutions, there would be particular programs where it makes sense to be downtown — but not everyone,” he added.

“The province has levers that would enable and provide that safety net and provide that financial incentive for this (change) to happen.

The report also examines an issue City Hall is already tackling as part of its Greater Downtown Calgary plan: the conversion of vacant or older office buildings to housing and other uses.

“Investments in office conversion incentives will be needed to remove an excess of six million square feet of office space,” the CORE report bluntly states.

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“The Government of Alberta may support this effort by moving investment in affordable housing for seniors and students downtown.

Pictured is Palliser One (125 9th Avenue SE), one of the first three projects approved for Calgary's Downtown Development Incentive Program, Wednesday, April 27, 2022.
Pictured is Palliser One (125 9th Avenue SE), one of the first three projects approved for Calgary’s Downtown Development Incentive Program, Wednesday, April 27, 2022. Photo by Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

Attracting new industries to downtown may require support from various levels of government, the study says, noting that municipalities should be allowed to offer tax credits for new investment in areas. emerging.

The study also suggests funding transitional housing programs and initiatives that have proven successful in addressing homelessness.

With respect to improving the safety and quality of life in the inner city, the Province should consider increasing funding and resources available to homelessness organizations, housing partners and other non-profit organizations.

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Downtown Calgary has been struggling since oil prices crashed nearly eight years ago, leading to layoffs and consolidation in the energy industry – the main tenant of downtown towers.

A massive drop in the assessed value of downtown office buildings since 2015 has shifted hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes to other commercial properties outside of downtown. And the pandemic has undermined the region’s vibrancy as thousands of employees have worked remotely for much of the past two years.

“It’s a daunting challenge for us to meet,” said Terry Rock, CEO of Platform Calgary and member of the provincial task force.

“What this CORE report shows is that there are very concrete things that are all achievable and that we are ready to act.”

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There have been signs of progress recently, starting with City Council approving its downtown plan last year with an initial investment of $200 million, including $45 million in incentives for conversion of office buildings into residential units.

Calgary downtown office towers on Wednesday, January 12, 2022.
Calgary downtown office towers on Wednesday, January 12, 2022. Photo by Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

However, the city’s larger plan calls for the core to require $1 billion in public and private sector investment over a decade, with federal and provincial governments to contribute.

The February provincial budget only allocated $4 million to the city and $1 million to the Calgary Downtown Association for revitalization initiatives, which drew criticism from Mayor Jyoti Gondek.

After a speech to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce in early 2021, Finance Minister Travis Toews said he saw no need to create targeted programs to address high downtown vacancy rates Edmonton or Calgary, while the opposition NDP is committed to creating a plan to tackle core issues.

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A Kenney government task force was then formed – without any direct representation from the City of Calgary – to examine the challenges in the downtown area. It included academics, business leaders, and leaders of nonprofit organizations.

Aspen Properties CEO Greg Guatto, a member of the CORE Group, said increasing the presence of post-secondary institutions downtown is a key recommendation, while addressing underlying issues of safety and of security.

“People won’t want to live, work or play downtown if they don’t feel safe,” he said.

“Addictions programs and agencies, mental health support, housing initiatives – those things are really important because the issues are very large and need attention.”

Schweitzer said various departments within government will consider the actions suggested in the report as he considers moving the plan forward.

Chris Varcoe is a columnist for the Calgary Herald.

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