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Calgary downtown office-to-residential conversion project nears completion

The Cornerstone building from Peoplefirst and the Astra Group, one of the first projects announced in the City of Calgary’s office-to-residential conversion program, has reached a major milestone towards completion.

The project, which is set to accept residents in the first quarter of 2024, will have 80, two-bedroom and 32, three-bedroom suites, with four of those suites being designed to be accessible for individuals with mobility challenges.

Approximately 40 per cent of the units will also be priced 20 per cent below the prevailing rental market price—and all of the units regardless of market pricing have what Peoplefirst’s managing director Maxim Olshevsky calls attainable luxury.

“We really want to make sure that individuals that live here, get the best they can… we did our best to set the bar high,” he said.

Interest from potential residents has been high, with Olshevsky saying that the waiting list for people renting units in the building was at 250 people.

The exterior envelope is added to Cornerstone at 909 5 Avenue SW in Calgary on Friday, November 10, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Substantial work done to prepare building for residents

He said that considerable work was done to convert the exterior of the building, adding a substantially improved building envelope that would allow for balconies to be installed on each unit, in addition to providing superior energy efficiency.

“We have balconies, we have luxurious finishes, and at the same time, we’re going to add a whole other layer of affordability and energy efficiency. So we really hope that other developers will follow what’s possible, and really put the effort into maximizing these projects in such a way where they don’t really resemble an office tower anymore,” Olshevsky said.

The finishes in each unit are identical, he said, regardless of market affordability, with the standard set to the same level as the market price units—including high-quality floors and counters, self-closing cabinets, Samsung appliances including washers and dryers, triple-glazed windows, 8.6-foot ceilings, and unit independent cooling and heating.

“When it comes to the energy efficiency, we really went above and beyond ensuring that this building is energy efficient. Our exterior assembly is eight inches thick, and then of course when it comes to heating and cooling, we’re using fan coil units that are energy efficient,” Olshevsky said.

He said that overall there was a reduction in energy use of 25 per cent under the 2017 building code.

Olshevsky said that attaining a high level of finish in a project of this type, given its former use as an office building was a difficult challenge, but that he was grateful for the assistance of the City along the entire process to ensure that permitting was completed in a timely manner and to help work out challenges when they arose.

One of the bedrooms in a completed office-to-residential suite at Cornerstone at 909 5 Avenue SW in Calgary on Friday, November 10, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Project spurring more interest in conversion projects

Mayor Jyoti Gondek said that the pending completion of Cornerstone was a signal that the plan Calgary City Council passed in 2021 to spur on private redevelopment of the downtown core through grants was a success.

“We asked people to have faith. We said there’s many, many people who contributed to this plan and we believe it’s going to be successful, just give us time to prove it out. Here we are, two-and-a-half years later, we are standing in an amazing home. I think this is the thing that matters.”

The addition of 112 new families to the west end of Calgary’s downtown, she said, would be a catalyst amongst those of other City of Calgary-approved projects, to return amenities to that end of the city.

The City of Calgary has approved 13 of a projected 17 projects for office-to-residential conversion, with an additional four projects under review. Peoplefirst is planning on developing a second building next to Cornerstone at 800 Place (800 – 6 Avenue SE).

Mayor Gondek said that when all 17 projects are approved, there would be 2.3 million square feet of office space turned into homes and hotel rooms, representing nearly 2,300 new units and 226 hotel rooms.

The other aspect of Cornerstone, retail on the first level and a co-working space on the second floor, would also be a boon for residents in the west end of downtown, Mayor Gondek said.

She said that the City of Calgary has continued to get phone calls from other cities and developers to learn from the success of the Downtown Office Conversion Program.

“We continue to engage with any city that’s interested. These conversations are important to have. You will find that mayors of big cities across North America right now are very interested in working together to make sure that we are taking care of the public that we serve,” the mayor said.

“It’s not really a secret recipe that we keep to ourselves. When one of us experiences success, we share it with others.”