Why we should turn Calgary's empty office towers over to the creative economy

"Here the in the land of oil and gas, in the land of suit-and-tie 'business', we could create — an artists' colony." Calgary urban design writer Richard White on a possible solution to one of our city's core problems.

'What we need are some maverick landlords downtown, some urban pioneers'

Calgary's skyline
Calgary's downtown core currently has around 1.4 million square metres of vacant office space — roughly the size of 7,500 average homes. (Ed Middleton/CBC)

You know all that empty office space downtown? Those towers where entire floors sit unused? We could do something very un-Calgary with them.

Here in the land of oil and gas, in the land of suit-and-tie "business", we could create — an artists' colony. A part of Calgary's heart could be converted to studio/work space for independent artists, painters, writers, musicians, sculptors, architects, 3D animators, fashion designers. Or an incubator for commercial galleries and/or recording studios.

I know, I know, it all sounds very touchy-feely. But it makes economic sense. And several real estate types in our city support the idea.

Artist as a catalyst

There are some 1.4 million square metres (that's 15 million square feet) of vacant office space in our city's downtown at the moment.

It's not entire towers, but rather strewn across the core — a little bit everywhere. Just how much empty space is that? Roughly 7,500 average homes. A lot.

Empty office space does no one any economic good. It's bad for individual landlords, and bad for the energy necessary for a vibrant core. Dynamic places, draw dynamic people, who in turn draw more dynamic people and business, who are the willing to rent space. See where this is going?

The City of Calgary currently has a $100-million Downtown Help fund, which was established to help fill up vacant office space. It could use some of that cash to hire a co-ordinator to fast track the development of various downtown artists' colonies for painters, writers, musicians, fashion designers, etc.

It costs approximately $15 per square foot to operate an average older office space downtown. That's an average — some more, some less. So let's say there was an owner of an older office building in the west of the downtown core who was willing to lease at cost.

A 250 square-foot studio would cost $3750/year or $315 /month. A quick chat with a few artists around town indicates that this would be very attractive to them. And some people in the world of real estate agree.

James Midwinter, recently retired executive vice-president at GWL Realty Advisors, likes the idea. 

"It would work best if there was a central organization responsible for leasing the office space to individuals. Say an artists' co-operative or non-profit umbrella organization committed to leasing a floor or two at a time and then offering it to artists," he said.

It costs approximately $15 per square foot to operate an average older office space downtown, making Calgary's glut of empty offices particularly hard on landlords. (CBC)

Calgary Arts Development (CAD) has supported that idea as far back as their 2007 Arts Space Strategy & Capital Plan study.

But whether umbrella groups are needed or not, renting to artists has worked before.

Chris Cran is a well-known Calgary artist who, back in the early 90s when downtown office vacancy rates were over 10 per cent, had a 6,000 square-foot studio space in a downtown building. And loved it.

Okay, so this is good for the art types, but why would the city and corporate Calgary want to get on board? Because in cities like Berlin, New York, London and Paris, artists have been the catalyst for urban renewal of hundreds, if not thousands of buildings.

So, why not Calgary?

Calgary can learn from Berlin

After the wall came down, there was something of a building boom in Berlin, the "new" capital of a unified Germany. A lot of the focus was what to do in the former East Berlin area. Unused buildings, abandoned industry spaces. And so, Berlin, turned to art.

For the past 20 years, artists from around the world have flocked to the city to make art — partly because of cheap studio/living space. Today, Berlin is one of the world's leading art cities with hundreds of art galleries and thousands of artists creating a vibrant city 24/7.

Economically, the arts became a major economic engine. With the creative industries generating a substantial percent of the city's GDP. Granted this includes all sorts of TV and film production, but the thousands of little guys help — by adding revenue, and by creating a creative, energized, space.

The key is creating that social energy. Remember "Be Part of the Energy?" Well that. But art.

Here in Calgary the idea has the support of Gary Nissen, who owned Sierra Place (a 10-floor office building at 706 Seventh Ave SW) in the early '90s. Nissen rented out vacant space to several city artists and said, "it worked well for a few years to recover costs."

Nissen said the best buildings would be small, floor plate, Class C spaces. These spaces, usually older, often have trouble finding tenants.

"I would look at is again if I still owned property with vacant space," said Nissen. "I felt like I was helping the arts community, met lots of cool people and covered some of my costs."

Crafting a cool core

Calgary is already home to a number of co-operative artists' studio in off-the-beaten-path older buildings.

Three of the oldest are Burns Visual Arts Society and Artpoint Gallery & Studios in Ramsay, and Untitled Art Society in the Beltline. And each has a waiting list for available spaces.

Recently, the $30-million cSPACE opened in the King Edward School. It offers a gallery and performance space, as well as 30 luxury studio spaces — all of which were quickly snapped up.

So there's an obvious need, but how about the actual doing of it?

Architect Tom Tittemore, who retrofitted the 8th and 8th Medical Centre into the University of Calgary's downtown campus, said, "There are many challenging, complex, yet inspiring issues associated with the idea of creating a downtown art colony."

Burns Visual Arts Centre in Ramsay provides low cost studio rental space. (Richard White)

And he has suggestions.

Tittemore said art studios should ideally be located in simple spaces, with high, unadorned ceilings and exposed, sealed, concrete floors. Say unfinished office spaces, or former open concept offices. There wouldn't be need for a lot of refurbishment because exposed mechanical, electrical and structural systems are usually appreciated in studio spaces.

And the transformation of unused offices would also meet another city goal. Calgary Arts Development (CAD), as mentioned earlier, is on the hunt for more artists spaces around town.

"In 2018 we will be working on sharing information with people who are interested in taking on spaces and then subletting those spaces to create multi-tenant arts hubs. And downtown office space at low rates with a suitably long lease length, will likely be really attractive to people looking to start these hubs," Joni Carroll, Arts Spaces Consultant with CAD said.

Still, there will be challenges.

Culture clash

Reid Henry, who developed cSPACE, which transformed the old school into a home for artists, points out artist studios are not a one size, fit-all scenario.

"Designer-makers, painters, photographers, musicians, dancers all require different spaces based on floor-to-ceiling height, ventilation, natural light, access to the public, sound attenuation, floor area configuration and loading, and robust interior materiality," he said.

In other words, not everyone will want a tiny space carved out of one of those former cubical farms.

The $30-million cSPACE in the King Edward school offers a gallery and performance space, as well as 30 luxury studio spaces. (Kate Adach/CBC)

Henry also thinks there could be a bit of a culture clash. Saying there isn't exactly a shared worldview between the artistic community and Calgary's downtown corporate culture.

"Attracting artists isn't solely about cheap space," he said. "It has to have the qualities that support creation in all its complexity and provide a canvas creatives can 'imprint' their values onto, and feel empowered to build community within."

So, if you surround art types with suit-and-tie types, Henry says, "keep in mind that the nature of artists is to question the status quo, challenge our thinking, engage us in critical dialogue. I'm not convinced embedding them in our corporate office towers would provide an environment to nurture that role successfully."

And then there is the possibility of a change in economic fortunes.

If oil and gas bounced back enough to where businesses needed more space, or if the downtown became a hipper place to hang out, and competition caused rents to go up, well, then, the cheap art spaces could be pushed out by market demand. And that would result in some clamour.

But that doesn't mean it's not worth a shot.

Creating culture, creating cash

Imagine the impact on Calgary's downtown if 100,000 square feet of current vacant office space — which is likely to remain vacant for the foreseeable future — was suddenly animated by the hustle and bustle of hundreds of creative types, their friends and colleagues. Imagine the benefits to the downtown cafes, restaurants, pubs and shops from the hundreds maybe thousands of new customers.

Anecdotally, there has been a lot of chatter about a sense of gloom in the core since the downturn. And it's always been a bit of a ghost town in evenings and on weekends anyways. But what if we could help create a seven-days-a-week culture, at all times of the day and night? Perhaps the excess downtown office space is a blessing in disguise.

Perhaps what we need are some maverick landlords downtown, some urban pioneers.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at

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Richard White

Freelance contributor

Richard White has served on the Calgary Planning Commission (Citizen at Large), the Calgary Tourism Board, the Calgary Public Art Board and the Tourism Calgary Board. He writes a blog called Everyday Tourist about the city, and has written extensively on Calgary's urban development.