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Peoplefirst development aims to transform long disused Calgary commercial tower

The first thing that Maxim Olshevsky remembers after arriving in Calgary from Ukraine more than 20 years ago was the view of the skyline from the 4 Avenue flyover.

Growing up in an apartment not far from the 905 – 5 Avenue SW property that his company is redeveloping, he joked to politicians, dignitaries, and the media on Friday about what he expected Canada to be like.

Skateboarding wasn’t just something on The Simpsons, but the RCMP Red Serge and loyal husky sidekicks of Due South would remain a fantasy on Calgary’s streets.

Yet the announcement that the former Calgary offices for SNC Lavelin, which had remained vacant for over 10 years, would be transformed into a vibrant mixed-use residential building, was a bit of a transformation from fantasy to reality.

“I stand here before you grateful to the fact that I’m able to participate in changing the landscape of downtown Calgary,” said Olshevsky.

Speaking during the initial funding announcement made by the City of Calgary for a trio of projects on Wednesday, he called the conversion project for 905 – 5 Avenue SW initially cost prohibitive. The city’s downtown office conversion program changed the math on what was possible.

At Friday’s ribbon cutting, and formal project announcement, he labelled the project as one that would be transformative for the west end of downtown.

“This building will be unrecognizable from what it is today.”

Maxim Olshevsky, managing director of Peoplefirst, shows off a taped off floor-plan for what one of the residental units could be for space at the office to residential apartments conversion announcement at 905 – 5 Avenue SW in Calgary on Friday, April 29, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Mixed-use residential block with significant affordable housing

At the core of the Peoplefirst development is a strong sense of social responsibility.

Of the building’s proposed 112 residential units, 40 per cent of those—or 45 units—would be priced at 20 per cent below the going market rental rate. Those units are expected by Peoplefirst to fill up quickly. The developer is planning to work with local social agencies to prioritize rentals towards those families which need them most.

“Hence we want to prioritize the charitable organizations that we’ll be working with, as well as families, newcomers, anybody that needs a little extra help to get their life started in our wonderful city,” said Olshevsky.

He called the discounted rental rate a significant and sustainable one. On offer would be two and three bedroom units sizable enough for families.

“It is my opinion that to sustain affordability, even if you stick to below market rents especially at such a decreased discount of 20 per cent, people will benefit from that greatly because we’re not talking about just a $100 discount.”

The rest of the non-discounted rental units available in the building would, said Olshevsky, likely be below the going market rate for a brand new condo tower. He said that the savings from doing a condo-conversion project instead of building a new tower would allow Peoplefirst to pass along the savings to new renters.

The redevelopment rather than a new building construction is also expected to save approximately 12,000 tonnes of construction waste that would have been otherwise generated through a building demolition. Astra Group, which is doing the construction on the project, was also able to save much of the office furniture left over from SNC Lavelin, and donated that to Habitat for Humanity as part of the group’s environmental sustainability efforts.

All of the units would have what the company has dubbed “affordable luxury.” Each apartment will have a balcony, nine-foot ceilings, stainless steel appliances, quartz counter tops, and with a nod to his visions of husky sidekicks, will all be pet friendly.

The goal is to be open for occupancy by the summer of 2023, but has a flexible timeline up until October of that year at the latest. It will depend on unexpected construction delays.

Architectural renderings are placed in the empty floor space for the Peoplefirst office to residential apartments announcement at 905 – 5 Avenue SW in Calgary on Friday, April 29, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Engaging non-profits in project

Peoplefirst brought experienced non-profit project manager and engagement specialist Deanna Holt on board in 2021 to serve as the company’s non-profit relations director.

She spoke to the types of non-profits and chairtable organizations that they are engaged with on the 905 – 5 Avenue SW project. Namely those working with rehousing homeless Calgarians, the Humane Society, and Momentum.

“We will be working with a number of nonprofit organizations, some of them in the homeless sector, working to help rehouse, and rapidly rehouse whenever possible, individuals that are experiencing temporary or extended homelessness,” said Holt.

“We want to start to be a piece in this wheel that will break some of these cycles, reduce and eliminate whenever possible the mental health anxieties that people experience—get them back on their feet so that they can become the individuals that they envision themselves,” she said.

And part of that was working with the Humane Society to create pet-friendly spaces for those in need. It’s something Holt said was a significant barrier to housing as individuals would rather stay on the street than leave their pets.

Additionally, Peoplefirst is in talks with Momentum to bring on tradespeople going through that organization’s specialized trades training programs to work on the project.

“So these are individuals that potentially may move into this building down the road, but they will have additional training and be prepared to go on to bigger and better things,” said Holt.

Disused furniture is removed from 905 – 5 Avenue SW in Calgary on February 8, 2022. ASTRA GROUP

Co-working and beauty salon space on second floor

Integral to the project is a co-working space that Peoplefirst said would house up to 60 small businesses, with a primary focus on creating opportunities for estheticians and hair dressers.

“The whole goal behind co-working spaces is to actually give an opportunity to small businesses to start being a sole provider without having the expense of opening up a large salon,” said Olshevsky.

“There will be an area for classes, lessons, a makeup studio and in general it will become a new beauty hub,” he said.

They want to increase the vibrancy in the west end of downtown, and to increase the number of jobs and opportunities available in the area.

Peoplefirst is also looking at creating retail opportunities on the first floor, with an emphasis on small local businesses. Olshevsky said that this would be sustained by the increased foot traffic from west end developments.

“So as the vibrancy increases from your local market, to a nail salon, to you name it—as long as the people are here in downtown those businesses will flourish,” he said.

The 10th floor view looking onto the Bow River and the Peace Bridge from the Peoplefirst office to residential apartments conversion announcement at 905 – 5 Avenue SW in Calgary on Friday, April 29, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Government involvement a necessity to get projects moving

The City of Calgary announced on Wednesday that an initial three development projects, including 905 – 5 Avenue SW would be receiving $31 million in grant funding, out of a total of $100 million, to convert 400,000 square feet of office space into 401 homes.

The grant funding of up to $75 per sq. ft. made the conversion project possible said Olshevsky.

NDP Critic for Municipal Affairs, and former Calgary alderman Joe Ceci said that the vacancy rate in the core was far too high.

“With 30 per cent vacancy, we have to do something today to change that,” he said.

Without the involvement of government in the process, he said it would likely take decades to organically reduce that rate.

“To make sure that we can incentivize the absorption of this vacant space, office to residential conversions are just one part of that,” he said.

“Of course that’s an important part to bring people into the downtown, but we’ve got to make the downtown more livable for everyone as well.”

The Alberta NDP has promised to match the City of Calgary funding of $100 million for more mixed-use, commercial redevelopment, and affordable downtown housing in Calgary. They’ve also promised targeted grant funding to redevelop storefronts, and fill vacant retail space in the core.

The federal government previously announced $24.6 million in funding for affordable housing in downtown Calgary.

Ceci, who is also the MLA for downtown Calgary, said that when municipal, provincial and federal governments work together, that these types of projects can move forward.

“When orders of government work together, that’s what the public expects, and that’s how constituents expect us to work,” he said.

Ward 7 Councillor Terry Wong spoke about the city’s strategic plan to build resiliency back into the downtown core. Speaking to his own history of moving from downtown Vancouver to Calgary in 1981, Wong highlighted the disparity then between the office tower culture of Calgary versus the vibrancy of mixed usage between the arts, culture, living, and working in Vancouver.

He called the 905 – 5 Avenue SW project unique because of the commitment to affordable housing, and thanked Peoplefirst on behalf of city council.

“With projects like this, I think we’re well on the way to making that happen,” he said.