Adaptive Reuse: Can it contribute to the revival of our downtowns?

What is Adaptive Reuse, and how can it contribute to the revival of our downtowns?

Adaptive Reuse is a topic that’s generating a lot of excitement recently, especially within the Calgary region. It refers to the initiative for cities to convert their vacant, under-used, or otherwise undesirable office towers into residential units and other uses. These conversions breathe new life into these buildings, and bring both people and new activities into city centers. The concept is grounded in sustainable development and motivated by recent trends in the world, but it doesn’t come without its own set of obstacles.

There are many factors that contribute to vacancies in offices and downtown cores. The work-from-home boom accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic is the main contributor, but not the only one. The transition from under-utilized office building stock to residential uses has been underway for decades, with noteworthy projects in world cities like New York setting the precedent for innovation in architecture, engineering and interior design that other municipalities have observed and modified to suit to their own needs.

The City of Calgary, hit hard by a recession in oil prices and a thinning of its downtown in 2014, has caught the attention of planners and governments across North America for the way they have embraced and incentivized Adaptive Reuse—whether for residential or alternative uses. With an announcement on November 8th that introduced a new project at the Dominion Centre, the City now has a total of 17 downtown conversion projects in the works that would create 2,300 new homes in the core. This effort supports housing affordability targets, injects some much-needed action into the city centre, and recycles the structure and materials of a building rather than engaging in a wasteful and costly process of demolition and redevelopment. With the City having declared a Climate Crisis as one of the first actions under the leadership of Mayor Jyoti Gondek, and engaging in several initiatives to address an escalating affordable housing crisis, these Adaptive Reuse projects provide strong responses to serious issues.

However, Adaptive Reuse is by no means a simple process. There are several limiting factors for each individual office building, including age, size, floor plate, location, and setbacks to adjacent structures and property lines. These office towers were built for entirely different purposes, and simply gutting the wiring and piping and changing the floor plan is not enough in most cases. Consider for example, the requirements to be compliant with code when floor plans don’t have a central hallway, or the need for natural light in structures where entries are set impossibly far back from outer windows. And, if there are suitable answers to these types of questions, there is the matter of zoning, cost, and how each municipality is able to incentivize private sector partners to take on the initiative. No small task!

According to San Francisco-based architect Charles Bloszies, the main challenge in converting some office buildings lies in their large floor plates and lack of street exposure. The sweet spot for conversions that he identified are “ones that are mid-rise, built pre-WWII, with at least two sides facing open areas or streets near, but not within, a city’s financial core.”

Tackling the issues requires a strong partnership between municipal representatives and experienced professionals who are motivated by wicked problems and driven toward unique solutions. However, these partnerships are growing in number and ability as they look to transform vacant and unused spaces in prime locations into a multitude of new uses—whether that be creating homes for a growing population or agricultural production to feed them.

For your additional consideration, we’ve provided a few more links that weigh in on the topic from all sides:

The Cornerstone by Peoplefirst Developments

Petro Fina Building by Peoplefirst Developments

Eau Claire Place I by Cidex Group of Companies and NORR

Barron Building by Strategic Group

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