Calgary is moving forward with the Greater Downtown Plan and the initial $200 million investment to go with it.
Councillors voted 12-1 in favour of the plan, which emphasizes a shift to residential and public amenity improvements area. Coun. Jeromy Farkas opposed, because of a lack of specifics on safety. The funding component was passed 10-3, with Couns. Farkas, Chu and Magliocca voting against.
The $200 million is only the start of an estimated $1 billion effort to jumpstart vibrancy in the downtown, according to city documents.
“This plan lays out a vision for a new downtown that builds on our strengths while pointing us in a new direction that will make our downtown a place that can thrive in the new economy,” said the City of Calgary’s manager of Urban Initiatives, Thom Mahler.
The city reviewed the presentations from administration and then heard from three panels. These included civic partner stakeholders, the real estate and construction community and the talent and innovation sector.
Each talked about what a revitalized downtown means for the current and new economy.
“The nucleus of a city is its downtown and downtowns give us the ideas and innovations that drive our cities forward,” said Mary Ann Moser, co-founder of Calgary’s Beakerhead, and one of the panelists.
“And so how we code, our city to evolve forward is up to all of us right now.”
Irfhan Rawji, Calgary entrepreneur and CEO of MobSquad, said he thinks the plan is inspiring and inclusive.
“What I love about this plan is that it’s cross sectoral; it’s not just the business community, it’s not just the non-profits or the NGOs, and it’s not just government,” he said.
“It’s all three sectors, and I think the power of all three sectors is really important for getting us from where we are right now to where we need to be.”
The downtown debate
Coun. Druh Farrell, a driving force behind the downtown plan, said saying no would have cost the city lost revenue and lost reputation.
“Saying no today, without a better idea, will set us back another seven years, and likely longer. Doing nothing comes at a cost,” she said.
“The beauty of this plan is it won’t just gather dust. It comes with funding and the governance model needed to make it work. It’s just the start.”
Coun. Woolley asked about how quickly the cash would get to the implementation stage, without having to trudge through city bureaucracy. Administration assured councillors that a dedicated team would help alleviate those concerns.
Woolley went on to say that he’s generally a person who likes to leave things better than he left them. In this case, he’s disappointed he’s leaving office with the downtown in worse shape.
“I’m happy to leave a map, which we have before us, and some resourcing that will help,” he said.
“It will help future councils on their journey to build our downtown back and build it for a different future.”
Coun. Sean Chu said he’s pro-business and understands the need to put money into businesses to make money. But then listed off how the city has spent nearly $4 billion on projects for the Greater Downtown Area.
“I cannot help myself but thinking of the old saying, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing, but expecting a different result,” he said.
“You see that we spent $4 billion to where we are today. So I have a really difficult time to supporting spending that kind of money.”
Mayoral candidate weighs in
Brad Field, who is currently a Calgary mayoral candidate, weighed in earlier in the day, pushing for a referral of the downtown plan to the next council.
“Funding decisions should not be rushed to meet legacy desires of outgoing councillors who want something to brag about at their post- retirement champagne socials,” Field said.
“Decisions of this magnitude need to be linked to clear outcomes that citizens can expect for their hard- earned tax dollars.”
Field said he supports the general goals of the plan, but questions the $45 million incentive as another layer of bureaucracy.
“The $45 million is a significant amount of money for taxpayers but a very insignificant amount when you consider the huge costs required to convert office floors to living spaces that require massive plumbing and electrical conversions for bathrooms and kitchens,” he said.
The Calgary Chamber of Commerce also issued a statement after Monday’s decision.
“The plan begins this work through reimagining our downtown for mixed-use neighbourhoods and transportation; addressing climate change through design and land use; continuing to build a strong, well-developed public transit network; and focussing on innovation and regulatory reform,” the statement read.
“It will also generate investment and support the growth of our business community downtown, which can alleviate pressures on the property tax system caused by downtown vacancy in the years to come.”