One of Calgary's largest property development and management companies has put 50 properties — a combined 3.7 million square feet — with mortgages totalling nearly $651 million, under creditor protection.
Strategic Group cited the city's high office vacancy rate and prolonged economic downturn.
"Alberta's severely negative economy has seen our company try to battle the storm for the past five years. Despite my teams' innovative approach to an ever-changing landscape, we must immediately deal with the current market conditions and pessimistic outlook for the real estate office market," said CEO Riaz Mamdani in a statement posted to Strategic's website on Wednesday.
Mamdani told CBC News that the situation is the hardest he's faced in his career.
This is just another proof point of the fact that we are in a prolonged economic difficulty and uncertainty. - Sandip Lalli, CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce
"Our Alberta office portfolio is in year five of a pretty distressing situation," he said. "It's an incredibly challenging environment."
The company said that between 2014 and 2019, Strategic had 78 tenants occupying more than 573,000 square feet that didn't survive or otherwise didn't remain in their leased spaces, despite being under lease agreements.
Calgary's overall office market stands at 32 per cent vacant or available for sublease, Strategic said in its court affidavit, a number that only stands to increase with the recent completion of Brookfield Place and the soon-to-be completed Telus Sky.
1 in 4 Calgary office buildings vacant
In its third-quarter office market report, realtor Avison Young said the overall Calgary vacancy rate was 22.3 per cent, but the downtown rate was 24.6 per cent. Edmonton's office vacancy rate was 14 per cent, and the Greater Toronto Area's downtown office vacancy rate was 2.2 per cent.
Calgary's vacancy rate is "the highest by a large margin" among major Canadian cities, Greg Kwong, regional vice president for real estate brokerage company CBRE Alberta, said.
"Calgary, in the heyday of oil at over $100, we got to a low 0.2 per cent vacancy rate," Kwong said. "What's happening with Strategic Group is not unique to them, there are many levels that are suffering … it's just finally taking a toll."
This year, 21 tenants in Strategic's Calgary portfolio shut their doors.
"We've had midnight moves, tenants who just surrendered. We've had situations where brand name tenants you simply wouldn't expect to close their doors. We've had Starbucks, Five Guys, Boston Pizza … and the landlords have to take the brunt of it," Mamdani said.
The situation, the company said, was compounded by increased property taxes on businesses outside the downtown core.
Since the economic downturn, buildings in Calgary's core have lost a total value of $14 billion — leaving a $250-million hole in the city's finances, leaving thousands of businesses to pick up the financial slack.
"High vacancy and default rates have reduced revenues and left the rental portfolio entities with no means of recovering the increased property tax burden placed on affected properties. Second, reduced rental revenue has led to a material reduction in the market value of many buildings and properties in the rental portfolio," the company's affidavit reads.
Kwong said likely not all of the buildings will be put up for sale — some might be refinanced.
"Keep in mind this is not a bankruptcy, it's creditor protection status … so I don't think you're going to see you know, the whole portfolio on the market or sell all at once. It might be bits and pieces down the road."
The company said it's taking actions to stabilize the business, including:
- Repurposing existing commercial buildings into residential rental apartments, with two conversions already complete and two more buildings set to be repurposed in 2020.
- Reducing staff by 19 employees.
- Repurposing office space to storage and retail.
But despite those actions, the company said, it currently has more than 586,000 square feet of vacant property, which could peak at more than 700,000 square feet.
The company said the affected properties represent about five per cent of the city's Beltline and downtown Class B and C office space, and about seven per cent of Calgary's suburban Class A office space.
Calgary Chamber of Commerce president Sandip Lalli said the situation is representative of the difficult position Calgary and Alberta will likely be in for years.
"This is just another proof point of the fact that we are in a prolonged economic difficulty and uncertainty … and so it's not surprising that they're having to take this move," Lalli said.
Lalli said she hopes that by Strategic sharing its plight and taking steps to remain in business, it will highlight the need for policy-makers to take urgent action.
You look at historical absorption rates in Calgary, this is a 12 to 15 year solution before we get to a normal market. And that's a long time to wait. - Riaz Mamdani, Strategic Group CEO
The initial filing, which was granted on Tuesday, gives the company a stay until Dec. 20 but the company is seeking an extension until March 31, 2020. The company's next court date is scheduled for Dec. 19.
"I am an optimist and I believe tomorrow's a better day, but I'm also a realist," Mamdani said. "You look at almost 25 per cent of our office space is vacant, that's one in four buildings. And you look at historical absorption rates in Calgary, this is a 12 to 15 year solution before we get to a normal market. And that's a long time to wait."
The Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act allows companies to restructure while continuing operations, similar to a Chapter 11 proceeding in the United States.
The stay means Strategic Group will continue to manage the properties, but gives it time to restructure and sell properties without creditors taking action. Projects under construction won't be affected.
The Alberta Court of Queen's Bench has appointed Hardie & Kelly Inc. as monitor of proceedings under the CCAA for the Calgary properties, as well as six in Edmonton.
Strategic Group owns a total of 171 properties, a total of about 7.5 million square feet.
A full list of the affected properties is below: