After a year and a half out of office, many Canadians are not ready to go back – and they may never be ready.
The pandemic has left office towers empty across the country, but perhaps no downtown core is quieter than in Calgary.
About one-third of the offices in the core of the city have been vacant since the fall in the price of oil in 2015.
A downtown vacancy rate above that number would be unprecedented in Canada, and one report suggested it could climb to 34 percent – which could be a North American record for a major city.
About a decade ago, oil companies occupied about two-thirds of the city’s downtown area. Now they occupy half of that number.
Calgary’s downtown office vacancy rate hits record high and may soon reach Depression-era levels
That exodus was only made worse as COVID-19 sent office workers home, fleeing small elevators and crowded conference room tables.
“People are trying to figure out where the balance lies between working from home and working in the office,” says Greg Kwang, a commercial real estate analyst at Canada’s Energy Capital.
At least 10 buildings were more than 75 per cent vacant earlier this year, of which three were completely vacant.
Kwang said the downtown vacancy position would not be decided when the pandemic ends.
“We have an oil business or an energy business that is seriously depressed by low oil prices,” he said.
But, when some of those workers return, they may see a change.
If you ask architect Johnny Hehr, the city’s downtown vacancy problem is indeed full of possibilities.
Hehr, along with Gibbs Gage Architects, is behind a project to remodel a former oil and gas office tower as low-income social housing – to save the structure and bring more people into affordable homes.
“We really have to rethink how we take advantage of the buildings and infrastructure we already have and turn it into the cosmopolitan city that Calgary has always wanted to be. I have to have life,” he said. “The adversity of it breeds creativity and if you don’t have that problem you don’t have the creativity to solve it.”
Thom Mahler, the city’s head of downtown strategy, said people are starting to look at vacancies differently.
“I think we have taken the scary side to the exciting side in Calgary,” Mahler said. “People are starting to see it more as an opportunity … it’s really changed from reactive to proactive.”
Mahler said the city is eyeing a variety of options, from building a residential market to looking at new industries that could use buildings differently.
“With the decrease in property values there is a financial incentive,” Mahler said, for those who want to revisit the spaces. “What we can do as a city is help facilitate that conversation … Calgary has the entrepreneurial nature, it doesn’t take much to get those conversations going.”
Several office towers are in the process of being converted into residential units. After the property development company fell into financial trouble, the city council recently voted to help fund a project to convert the historic Baron Building into rental units.
Another historic red brick and sandstone building, formerly home to the Chamber of Commerce, has been taken over by SAIT for its new School for Advanced Digital Technology.
“If you think about a typical university campus, think about all the uses there… we have one of the advantages of the PLUS-15 system,” Mahler said, of the raised, indoor pedestrian walkways. Referring to the extensive network connecting the buildings the essence of the city. “People can get together really, really easily.”
Another unusual possibility might be steep, urban farming.
Travis Canelos of Ontario-based Elevate Farms says the old towers could be converted into automated, multi-story greenhouses that would allow fruits and vegetables to be grown year-round.
“If you have office space that’s declining from a usage standpoint and we can flip from there to some agro-equivalent product, I think that’s a very useful scenario,” he said.
Mahler said urban agriculture can be a great way to bring fresh produce to city dwellers and local residents alike.
“It’s a risky venture,” he said. “You’re probably going to need some sort of incentive to make it work… [but] There are a lot of people who work and live in that area, maybe that’s your market.”
Hehr said that whatever happens, the main thing will be a change in how people think about downtown spaces.
“We’re all social beings. When you come into town, and all of a sudden these streets are full of hustle and bustle… turn into places we might have forgotten because no one ever occupied them,” They said.
“Now we have to look at them with a new light and think: what could these places be?”