Director says 2023 all about 'execution' for Calgary's downtown strategy

The city's Beltline neighbourhood. In November's budget, council voted to add $108 million for the downtown strategy, this time with a focus on capital projects. (Mike Symington/CBC - image credit)
The city's Beltline neighbourhood. In November's budget, council voted to add $108 million for the downtown strategy, this time with a focus on capital projects. (Mike Symington/CBC - image credit)

Bolstered by another cash infusion for the city's downtown strategy, the man in charge of the program anticipates 2023 will see more tangible signs of the revitalization city council wants in the core.

In November's budget, council voted to add $108 million for the downtown strategy, this time with a focus on capital projects.

The director of downtown strategy, Thom Mahler, said the focus will be getting that money working over the course of the four-year budget.

"At a high level, really 2023 is going to be about an execution, to moving into taking out the money that council gave us, getting it on the ground, getting it into the hands of the private sector,' said Mahler.

On the to-do list:

  • Completing current work on updating Eau Claire Plaza.

  • Forming a multi-year plan to refresh Stephen Avenue.

  • Developing a new vision for 8th Street S.W. from the CPR tracks to the Bow River.

  • Improving the streetscape on 1st Street S.E. and the CPR underpass.

Other capital projects, like expanding Arts Commons and revitalizing Olympic Plaza, are also in the works.

Finalizing Stephen Avenue

Mahler said there will be public consultations in coming weeks on the design for the Stephen Avenue project.

"Through 2023, we'll be finalizing more detailed design as well as starting to identify the phasing of which blocks would likely have priority in construction."

Unlike some past streetscape projects, he said construction on Stephen Avenue will take a number of years to complete and it won't happen sequentially from one end and going to the other.

Rather, Mahler said, work will be done in conjunction with other projects. For example, he hopes some work can be done on the pedestrian street near the Glenbow Museum so it's ready when the facility completes its own renovations in 2024.

Work near Second Street S.W. likely won't be completed until Green Line LRT construction in that area is underway or completed.

Mike Symington/CBC
Mike Symington/CBC

He said design work will also get going this year on updating the public realm along Eighth Street S.W.

In total, city council has now committed more than $360 million for downtown revitalization.

Office conversions continue

A key part of the strategy is converting under-utilized or empty office buildings into residential properties.

It has set aside $100 million in incentive grants for that part of the strategy.

Grants are available to building owners for up to $10 million per property if they convert their office space to residential units.

Mahler said five building conversions have been announced with three more to be unveiled in the coming months.

City officials say there are eight additional building proposals being reviewed for possible conversions.

The goal was to convert six million square feet of empty office space. Mahler said they're well on the way once upcoming projects are added to the list.

"Total, we're getting close to two million square feet. Provided there's ongoing market demand for residential in the downtown — which we think there is really strong demand right now — you will see that office space converted over the next few years."

So far, $73 million of the city's money for the program has been committed.

Progress noted

The head of the Calgary Downtown Association, Mark Garner, said he's generally pleased with how the downtown strategy is being implemented.

He said he's glad with the office conversion projects that have been announced as that will help boost the downtown's population.

On the capital project side, he said he wished there was a way to pick up the pace but he understands planning such projects does take time.

"I would like to see more of the projects either already with shovels in the ground or near completion. That's not the luck we've got right now," said Garner.

His organization is planning a number of activations this year that will contribute to street vitality. While Stephen Avenue is a focus, he said Calgarians can watch for events on other downtown streets as well.

"It can't just be Stephen Avenue, but Stephen Avenue is a core focus because that is a destination for Stampede, and a large percentage of our patios are all in that area."

More help needed

One thing that Garner is hoping for the future of the downtown strategy is that the federal and provincial governments kick in money for the plan.

The province has contributed $5 million, including money for public safety initiatives and Garner's organization.

Garner said Calgary's downtown isn't the only one in Canada with high office vacancy rates and needing renewal to generate greater vibrancy. He's advocating for a greater federal role in urban Canada.

"We need more money brought in to make downtowns a place where everybody wants to be because they are the economic hubs for our communities," said Garner.