When Thom Mahler wrote the 2007 Centre City plan, Calgary was focused on making the downtown a hub of global oil and gas head offices.
“I remember distinctly when we were doing the plan, the price of oil was increasing throughout the process,” said the City of Calgary’s manager of urban initiatives and program lead for the downtown strategy.
Suffice to say, the landscape is different.
Calgary’s downtown is battered by plummeting property values and spiking vacancy rates first triggered by the 2014 capitulation in crude oil prices. With COVID-19 worsening an already bad situation, and the lack of an oft-expected recovery, a new plan was needed.
Mahler referred to Greater Downtown Plan not as recovery strategy, but a reinvention.
The draft plan, first started with stakeholder engagement in the summer of 2018, will be presented to Calgary’s Planning and Urban Development on April 7.
It covers a 592 hectare area that includes Eau Claire, Chinatown, Downtown West, the Downtown Core, East Village and the Beltline.
“The plan lays out a series of strategic moves that will, over time, work to change the feel and perception of our downtown core, while continuing to invest in support,” Mahler told LiveWire Calgary in an interview.
“The focus is on attracting talent; it’s the talent that’s going occupy the office buildings, but that talent is also going to drive the demand for the types of services and amenities that we want and the residential housing choices that we need to provide.”
The downtown strategy highlights
The 117-page document initially gives the impression of being another vision-focused work from the City of Calgary. When you dig beneath the surface, there’s more meat to it than one might expect.
While it has all the buzzwords like placemaking and city-building and vibrancy, each of the five strategies in the document does deliver a handful of more specific actions that need to happen.
5 Core areas: Neighbourhoods, Green Network, Streets, Transit and Future proofingCity of Calgary Greater Downtown Plan, 2021
It’s a mix, however, of pieces and strategies from other ongoing plans (density bonusing, regulation reviews, heritage incentives) and more specific items like piloting the use of vacant lots for publicly accessible space.
It does focus on transforming the downtown from a place geared towards the 9-5 business hub, to a destination for residents and tourists.
“(People) won’t move downtown if it feels like the central business district,” said Coun. Druh Farrell, one of the drivers behind the downtown plan.
“They won’t move downtown if the public realm is focused on a quick exit. That’s a big shift. It’s taken a very long time for people to let go of an old idea.”
In each of the strategies, key points around the improvement of public realm are laid out. It might be a meeting place in vacant lots, pilot projects for changes to roads and other connections into the downtown.
“In addition to adding more residents, it’s about increasing the density of cultural and entertainment attractions within the downtown core,” said Mahler.
He said the city needs more world class facilities to market to visitors.
“People don’t go to Nashville to go to the convention center. They go to Nashville because of all the cool things you can do in Nashville. And that’s what we’ve been told we need to focus on.”
Combination of prior plans
Throughout the document, there’s reference to the city’s many plans: 5A network, Calgary Transportation Plan, the Municipal Development Plan, Heritage strategies – even the Stephen Avenue transformation and Tomorrow’s Chinatown – but both Farrell and Mahler said those haven’t been focused on the Greater Downtown Area, specifically the core.
“We’ve established those plans around great public realm, around active mobility, around great spaces, even our park system – but we’ve excluded the downtown in that,” Farrell said.
“We’ve had the luxury of neglect and we still reap the financial benefits.”
Mahler said the downtown has always been its own thing. It’s important to realize that people use it in different ways, he said.
Communities like Inglewood, Mission, Sunnyside and Bridgeland see the downtown as their backyard, Mahler said.
“But we didn’t pay as much attention to connecting downtown to those neighbourhoods,” he said.
They’re integrating the plans into the downtown core area rather than operating autonomously, thinking of the downtown area as its own beast.
“It’s not just now we got the nine-to-five office, car down here and then everybody goes back to their neighbourhood,” he said.
“It’s thinking of the experiences how people use the city from their place of work, to where they are, to where they live and where they go and recreate and hang out.”
The downtown plan is heavy on pilot projects. Every category has some mention of projects that need to be piloted either immediately or in the short term.
One of the criticisms of the City of Calgary, regardless of locale, is the bureaucracy around the concept and delivery of these projects by community members.
Mahler said the downtown plan does address the regulatory side of things. It also suggests city investment to make area programming happen. Still, he recognizes it’s a hurdle.
“I’ve done a number of these, it’s really hard to do a temporary installation,” he said.
“We did one on 17th Ave, the back alley one; the amount of work it takes to get that done is, it’s huge for a two-day effort. And if it’s that hard to do for the city, imagine what it’s like for community groups.”
Part of the implementation includes a downtown team. Mahler said their focus is removing barriers for groups wanting to activate certain areas. The city still must mind safety, security and potential legal issues, he said.
“They will probably have some failures and they’ll still be some hurdles, but if we keep doing it, we’ll get better and better at it until we get to a point where it’s just really easy to do it.”
Investment in the downtown plan
In each of the categories, there’s a laundry list of projects to ignite activity in the downtown area. Of course, they all come with a cost.
There’s consistent mention of plans to ensure a steady flow of cash into the downtown; some are new methods, some are recycling of older systems like density bonusing. The plan also talks about incentives for the conversion of office towers into residential.
The cash side of it needs to be ironed out. It’s written in the short-to-medium term sections of each strategy. That could take time and political will. The downtown plan mentions that business cases will need to be constructed for capital projects and then prioritized in each budget cycle.
Mahler recognized that all the long-term funding tools aren’t in place today. But, when the document goes to the city’s planning and urban development committee meeting April 7 and then on to the April 26 strategic planning meeting, they’ll be asking for a “significant” initial investment.
“We need to make a start somewhere and the start has to be big enough that it’ll make some impact,” he said.
That investment will focus on the public realm improvements, but also support for festivals, events and community spaces, he said.
It will also include initial incentives to drive the conversion of downtown office towers into residential.
“(The downtown plan) will only be partially successful if it doesn’t come with an associated, sustainable budget and downtown has never had a sustained budget,” said Farrell.
“It’s an area that we’ve extracted value and not consistently reinvested in. That has to change.”
Chicken and egg
You need people to create activity. People will only move down there when there’s more activity. The classic chicken and egg scenario.
Farrell talks about changing the focus in East Village. They converted the Billingsgate fish market into a temporary artists space. They created Opera in the Village and one of the first things they did during construction was build a playground.
Potential residents need to see action in the area to see it as an attractive place to live.
“Hope is not a plan. Nostalgia is not a plan,” she said.
“It’s a mixture of these major projects as well as, as many, many little pilot programs and events to draw people down. What we need to do is show them that something’s different here.”
Mahler said they must be able to market what they’re going to deliver in the downtown area.
“If we hope to get people coming to downtown to locate their businesses and to live, you need the amenities,” he said.
It’s similar to any other new community, Mahler said.
“Not everything is there on day one.”
To that end, Mahler said this is likely a 10- to 20-year transformation. They won’t be asking for massive investments every year. The short-to-medium term projects have an eye on the next Calgary budget cycle.
The document addresses climate change, the physical environment and transportation, but it’s mainly a plan about transforming the urban space.
Fewer roads, wider sidewalks, vacant lots filled with activity and hubs where you literally can live, work and play. It even talks about ensuring visual lines so we can experience the downtown from a distance.
Mahler said Calgary’s taken a reputational hit over the past few years. While still one of the most liveable cities, the cratering of the downtown has reverberated beyond our borders.
“Your sense of pride is often represented in in your downtown areas,” he said.
“We want people to fall in love with their downtown, and we want them to have a sense of pride that that’s where they’re from.”
There’s a long-term benefit, too. Mahler said with more people comes more value – property value, to be precise. While there’s a short-term investment, the long-term gain is more stable revenue to help fund services across Calgary.
The successful start of this plan begins with this current city council. And Coun. Druh Farrell believes it’s a plan that moves Calgary forward.
It will be up to future councils to decide how the plan succeeds over the next two decades.
“If they continue to neglect the downtown, that it will be in a death spiral. So, doing nothing is not an option,” she said.