Obsolescence as an Opportunity: The Role of Adaptive Reuse in Calgary's Office Market

  • Rylan Graham
  • Jenna Dutton

Abstract

Though remote work has become a necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of office vacancy is not a new issue to Calgary. Economic booms and busts are mirrored by accompanying levels of construction, occupancy and vacancy. The most recent recession brought an unprecedented loss of jobs and subsequent partial or complete vacancy of buildings in Calgary’s Central Business District (CBD). This new reality led to the agglomeration and elimination of businesses and re-evaluation of the necessity of office space and its associated costs.

Trends in the knowledge economy and ways of working over the preceding decades have coincided with associated vacancy of office space that is no longer adaptable to the changing needs and demands of office design. These patterns have reduced the demand of certain office stock and highlighted limits on its versatility and capacity to be repurposed, making a certain proportion of buildings relatively obsolete. Office conversion, being changing the use or uses of a building, has also become increasingly arduous with updates in planning rules and building, energy and safety codes. When considering conversion of office to other uses the standard solution usually discussed is office to residential conversion. While this may present as the optimal approach in some cases, there are many limitations when it comes to converting buildings.

Since the economic downturn some projects have been piloted by the City of Calgary to facilitate office conversion including the Centre City Enterprise Area. While some successes have come from these relatively short-term solutions they have been limited in addressing the full extent of the situation. These small-scale interventions were successful in reducing customer costs and timelines however did not result in recommendations of longer-term solutions for widespread changes. Complex problems such as office vacancy in Calgary require comprehensive, adaptable and innovative strategies.

To update and improve the existing processes to more simply enable office conversion or adaptation there is a necessity to clearly outline the role of everyone involved, the limitations, and the potential options that may exist.  In this regard it is not simply the question of the use of land and the building footprint but also the building owner, the surrounding stakeholders including business associations, municipal government, provincial government and a variety of other related parties.

This paper examines the present state of office vacancy in downtown Calgary; looks at barriers to office conversion, limitations in existing processes and structures and potential policy considerations, drawing upon best practices from other jurisdictions. Finally, it will conclude with a series of policy recommendations and mechanisms which may enable efficiency and innovation in addressing the existing office stock.

Published
2021-02-03
Section
Briefing Papers