Home sweet home: Vacant Calgary office tower conversion begins

Vacant office morphs from a place of work to homes for families.

The former headquarters of Dome Petroleum is being transformed into affordable housing in downtown Calgary. Photo: KIRSTEN PHILLIPS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

After two years of collecting dust, a downtown office space will be rejuvenated to provide homes for vulnerable Calgarians in the heart of downtown.

HomeSpace Society and Inn from the Cold teamed up to convert Sierra Place, the old Dome Petroleum headquarters, on 7 Avenue SW.

The project marks the first time a downtown office space will be repurposed for affordable housing.

Right now, more than 30 per cent of downtown office towers lay vacant. Meanwhile, 15,000 affordable housing units are desperately needed.

“The demand for services for families who were experiencing homelessness on the brink of homelessness is only growing, and we’re deeply concerned,” Heather Morley, Executive Director at Inn from the Cold, said.

“Families experiencing homelessness is one of the fastest growing portions.”

More than 100,000 Calgary households are forecast to be in housing need  by 2025.

Inn from the Cold currently operates out of a 110-year-old building.

“It no longer suits our purposes now, and it was not safe during COVID, so we needed a new space,” she said.

“It became clear that this was the best path forward for us. It’s an absolutely unique opportunity. … It’s going to be purpose built, … that will make a difference to the families.”

The vacant building, Sierra Place, will be transformed from 10-stories into six floors with 82 housing units. It will also have four floors of shelter, transitional and support services.

“Our vision for this project is a multi-generational family. What this represents are families who are experiencing homelessness, or on the edge of homelessness. It represents a bubble,” Morley said.

The 95,000-square-foot space will create homes for nearly 200 people.

The project

Converting the building will allow Inn from the Cold and HomeSpace to create more than just affordable housing.

“There’s an opportunity for shelter, for housing, and for support services all within this building. We also have plans for childcare, and an employment training centre,” Morley said.

“We will go from an unused dilapidated, but important building in downtown Calgary to a thriving home for people.”

The building has been left dormant for two years, until now. KIRSTEN PHILLIPS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

The project is focused on bringing kids and families into the core of downtown to create a community inside and outside of the building, HomeSpace CEO Bernadette Majdell said.

“We’ll have different offices for agencies that work in here; we’ll have common space for our residents,” Majdell said.

Another major issue the project addresses is the the number of vacant downtown offices in Calgary.

“[It] is unbelievably bad. … Now, we don’t anticipate at the moment that there will be a really long tail from COVID for people just never coming back to work, we think most people will come back to work, most businesses will want to reopen their offices. And that’ll happen relatively quickly,” Mayor Naheed Nenshi said.

“However, that still leaves us with the problem we had at the beginning, which is a downtown vacancy rate between 25 and 30 per cent. And that’s bad for everybody.”

Teaming up to control costs

Although the project is more challenging than converting a vacant hotel, the non-profits have made sure the project was cost sensitive, Majdell said.

“If we can execute on converting a building that was originally built in 1959, to housing for families in the downtown core, I think it shows that anybody can do it,” she said.

Instead of competing for funding through real estate grants and donor dollars, the two organizations were able to team up to to save money.

“Being able to provide 82 units to families, centrally located right on the CTrain line with services and support that they need. It’s a win-win for everybody,” Morley said.

Construction crews will begin swinging hammers next month, Bernadette Majdell, CEO of HomeSpace Society, said.

Funding

The project has received a number of different monetary supports.

“We’ve been working with Calgary Foundation and the City of Calgary, those are confirmed. We’re also working with CMHC Co. Investment, and we have some requests out to donors and different grant sources,” Majdell said.

The abandoned coffee shop still has all of the furniture for regular operation, with a sign reading “thanks to you” hung on the wall. KIRSTEN PHILLIPS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

The Government of Canada, through Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), created the Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI) in 2020.

“It was aimed at housing many people quickly, especially during the pandemic, and acknowledging that there are a lot of people in our communities that were not housed and how important that was,” Majdell said.

According to a statement from the Canadian government, the 10-year plan will invest more than $55 billion towards creating 125,000 new housing units, reducing housing needs for 530,000 households, and repairing more than 300,000 housing units.

Calgary has been allocated $24.6 million of funding under the Major Cities Stream.

The 2021 budget proposes to provide an additional $1.5 billion for the initiative to address urgent housing needs.

The City of Calgary has also contributed a grant for the project.

“This is our first attempt at an affordable housing conversion. It is a bit of an experiment to see how well it goes. But certainly there are buildings downtown Calgary that have very good bones,” Nenshi said.

“Our recently passed downtown plan involves an incentive to help people do these kinds of conversions. So I hope to see many more in the future.”

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