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Calgary: The rise of the suburbs, the decline of downtown

Calgary has always been a suburban city from a residential perspective.

In the 21st Century, the suburbs have also risen in importance as a place for Calgarians to work, play and be entertained.  There is less and less and need to go to downtown Calgary.  

You know the suburbs are on the rise and the downtown is in decline when two of the city’s most recent, and controversial, public art projects – Giant Blue Ring and Bowfort Towers – are at the edge of the city, not downtown Calgary.  Public art was always downtown in the 20th century.

RELATED: Green Alley Project spruces up downtown Calgary forgotten spaces

Inland Port City

While employment has declined downtown, it has increased the city’s northeast and southeast quadrants, as well as outside the city’s boundaries.  Some of the big names that have mega regional warehouse and distribution centers in Calgary are – Amazon, Home Depot, Walmart, Whirlpool and Tim Hortons.

Indeed, Calgary has evolved into major North American inland port with both Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways having major Intermodal Facilities and CN had created Canada’s only intermodal business park in the north east community of Conrich.

Over the past 10 years, The City’s Industrial Land Program has serviced and sold over 700 acres, which has supported the development of over six million square feet of space with a 2018 assessed value of over $1 billion. For the citizens of Calgary that has meant over $70 million in new cumulative tax revenue and more than 8,000 jobs.

 “What’s unique about the City’s Industrial Land Strategy,” explained Spencer McClurg, Manager, Real Estate Sales & Acquisitions with the City of Calgary, “is that we contribute five percent of our gross sales proceeds to support the development of new affordable housing in Calgary.”

Since 2013, when the Industrial Land Strategy was approved, RE&DS has contributed over $10 million to affordable housing.

Source: https://www.calgary.ca/realestate/Pages/Blog/Municipal-industrial-land-development-benefits-all-Calgarians.aspx

In 2019, almost 1.3 million square feet of industrial space has been leased. That’s almost the equivalent the Bow Tower. (CBRE Q3 Industrial Report Calgary)

In the third quarter of 2019, the downtown office market experienced almost 200,000 square feet of negative absorption, while suburban office space has a 230,000 square feet of positive absorption. (CBRE Q3 2019 office report Calgary)

Indeed, the economic engine has quietly shifted from downtown Calgary to east of Deerfoot Divide.

Recreation & Sports

Seaman Stadium, the home of the Okotoks Dawgs. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

The suburbs are the place for recreation and sporting activities in Calgary. The City of Calgary and YMCA recently partnered to open the two largest YMCA complexes in the world – Shane Homes YMCA at Rocky Ridge and Brookfield Residential YMCA at Seton. 

The Tsuut’ina Nation opened the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex & Chief Jim Starlight Centre. It’s a 228,000 square foot facility that includes two NHL-size rinks and a huge fieldhouse.  Strathmore also has a new fieldhouse and Cochrane has created the 325,000 square foot Spray Lake Sawmill Family Sports Centre through a series of expansions. The Crescent Point Regional Field House in Aldersyde has three indoor playing fields, one hardcourt that can accommodate 3 volleyball or 3 basketball courts, indoor pickleball and tennis courts, and an 800-foot elevated walk/running track.

In 2007, the Seaman Stadium opened in Okotoks and has quickly become a very popular family place for baseball fans. In 2019, the ATCO field (5,288-seat soccer stadium) opened at Spruce Meadows with future plans for 12,000 seat stadium.  Spruce Meadow attracts over 500,000 visitors to its various year-round events including major international horse shows. 

In 2015, the Century Downs Racetrack and Casino opened in the northeast, bringing back live horse racing, which went dark in 2008, when horse racing was shuttered at Stampede Park.

The 138 km Rotary/Mattamy Greenway (think ring road for cyclists and pedestrians) was completed in 2017 and links 55 communities at the edge of the city.    No longer do all pathways lead to downtown Calgary.

Downtown Calgary shopping

CrossIron Mills mall in Balzac. GOOGLE STREET VIEW

From a shopping perspective, Fairfield Commercial’s Mike Kehoe ranks the CrossIron Mills as one of the top five regional shopping centres in Alberta based on sales per square foot. It has been the catalyst for the development of a mega retail/entertainment tourist attraction.

“Over the past 10 years CrossIron Mills has become one of Alberta’s most successful malls attracting over one million visitors per month from as far away as British Columbia and Saskatchewan,” said Kehoe.

Recently Costco announced it will be anchoring the “Shoppes at Buffalo Run” in 2020 which is part of a huge 1,200 acre, 17 million square feet, $4.5 billion retail entertainment complex planned by the Tsuut’ina Nation at the southeastern edge of the city. Costco is the 21st Century equivalent of the 20th Century department store. As one of my colleagues likes to say “if Costco doesn’t have it, I don’t need it.”

Another example of the decline of downtown as a place to go is fact Mountain Equipment Coop no longer has just one downtown location –  they opened a store in Seton in 2018 and a mega 27,000 square foot store will open in Trinity Hills in 2020. 

CBRE’s Q3 2019 report documents that the lowest vacancy rates in the Calgary are in suburban Power Centers at .8% vacancy and Community Shopping Centres 3.4 per cent, while the highest are Beltline street front at, 14.9 per cent downtown street front at 13.9 per cent and downtown shopping centres at 7.6 per cent.

“Today, Chinook, Market Mall, Southcentre and CrossIron Mills all out perform downtown’s The Core,” noted Kehoe.


“In the past, the burbs have largely been the domain of chain restaurants and pubs which look for a large footprint, lower rent and tax, easy access for suburban residents and ample parking says, John Gilchrist, long time Calgary restaurant reviewer.

“These attributes are becoming more popular with independent restaurants as well. Looks at Bro’Kin Yolk and its suburban breakfast/lunch locations. Or Purlieu run by Jason Armstrong, who used to own Bistro 2210 in Mission. He’s now in Bayview with his new, contemporary, French-inspired restaurant,” he said.

In 2010, Calgary’s Farmers’ Market moved from its inner city location at Currie Barracks to its Barlow Trail location in Acadia and in 2020 it will be opening its second location in Greenwich at the western edge of the city. In 2018, Calgary’s first food hall, opened in the ‘burbs the with 40 vendors in Lake Bonavista’s Avenida Mall.   It has been a huge success.

In April 2019, Avenue Magazine published its list of top 10 new restaurants and six of the ten were in the burbs – Allora (Aspen Woods), Café & Mi (Royal Vista), Diner Deluxe (Mahogany), La Diperie (Country Hills), Finesse Desserts (Kingsland) and Southland Yard (Willow Park).


Even the arts are moving to the burbs. Mount Royal University’s 787-seat Bella Concert Hall opened in 2015.  The concert hall is part of the Mount Royal Conservatory complex that is a music hub for 10,000 class registrations and 4,000 students annually.

cSpace in Marda Loop isn’t exactly the suburbs, but it isn’t downtown Calgary either.  The $28 million dollar conversion of the iconic King Edward sandstone school into a mixed-use cultural space has been a huge success. It includes studio and meeting space, as well as a theatre even space and art gallery.

The Beddington Theatre Arts Center Community Centre (180-seat theatre) a converted community centre opened in 2013, with two resident theatre companies – Front Row Centre Players and Storybook Theatre. Today, it attracts over 75,000 visitors annually. 

Airdrie boast the Bert Church Theatre and Okotoks has the Rotary Performing Arts Centre in the 1906 Methodist Church and Okotoks Art Gallery in their historic train station.  Just east of Cross Iron Mills is the Polaris Centre for the Performing Arts that includes a theatre space, as well as, rehearsal, recording and dance studios. It is  home to three resident companies – Torchlight Theatre, Aurora Dance Academy and Rocky Mountain Symphony.  

The Leighton Art Centre located in the foothills southwest of the city limits offers regular art exhibitions, art classes and a well-stocked gift shop.

Downtown Calgary: Last Word

It’s no wonder Cochrane, Airdrie, Okotoks and Chestermere are always among Canada’s fastest-growing cities.  In August 2019, Macleans magazine listed Airdrie as Canada’s fastest-growing city with a 5.7 per cent increase in population, Chestermere was third, Cochrane #23 and Okotoks #28, while Calgary was #53 with a population growth of 1.9 per cent.

Calgary’s suburbs and edge cities are no longer just longer bedroom communities for downtown Calgary, but rather mixed-use communities where you can work, live, play, eat, workout and be entertained without ever going downtown.