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Downtown West

Downtown West, Calgary, Nov. 27, 2016. The neighbourhood is home to a forest of residential towers. (Ricky Leong photo)

Skyscrapers are the hallmarks of many modern cities.
But what if our race to the sky was a mistake?
In my newspaper column last week, I shared my thoughts on some of the difficulties facing the City of Calgary as property tax revenues slump due to empty office spaces downtown.
The more time I spent thinking about the subject, the more I wondered about whether the central neighbourhoods in many of our cities were unintentionally set up to fall — and fall hard — with every economic slowdown.

East Village

East Village, Calgary, March 20, 2016. This once-downtrodden area of Calgary, on the left side of the photo, is teeming with new residential developments. The right side of the photo shows a portion of downtown Calgary’s central business district. (Ricky Leong photo)

As with central business districts (CBD) in many other places, Calgary’s is jam-packed with office towers, with very few people calling the place home.
Buildings from a certain era don’t even have retail spaces at street level, adding a deadening sterility to some parts of our CBD, even when times are good.
Other buildings have added stores and restaurants on the ground floor, adding a bit of vitality and foot traffic being a bit of welcome vitality.
But as Alberta’s current economic funk has shown, everything gets really shaky when there are fewer workers occupying those office towers. Fewer office employees means fewer potential shoppers and eaters — and less opportunity to do business.
I wonder how different things would be if people actually lived in those neighbourhoods.
Right now, we have many condo buildings on the fringes of downtown — in the East Village, Eau Claire, Beltline and Downtown West — but precious few people have a home in the heart of the CBD.
That’s the way it was designed to be … and that’s really too bad.
I can understand forcing industrial businesses to set up away (and downwind) from residential zones, but the idea of segregating the commercial office sector in a CBD seems less and less wise to me.
It’s not just about the perception of economic bad times being that much worse: It’s also about diversifying the tax base.
The city is currently feeling the economic impact of this separation but there are other unpleasant ramifications, too.
Traffic, for example, is far worse than it needs to be as tens of thousands of people from the suburbs snake their way downtown every business day.
Likewise, roads and transit must have enough capacity to move huge numbers of people in and out of the core during peak hours.
All of this comes as a cost — to the city’s bottom line as it accommodates the daily migration of workers and to people’s time as they get caught in traffic day in, day out.
Turning our gaze toward Europe, for example, you’ll find many large cities with relatively few skyscrapers but higher numbers of mixed-use, mid-sized towers. (Downtown Oslo, Norway, is shown below.)
In good times, it helps even out the origins and destinations for transit and road trips. In bad times, it should theoretically reduce the chance of an entire city block going bust if the economy falters.

Aquatic gateway

Downtown Oslo, as it was in August 2014. (Ricky Leong photo)

East Side

Manhattan’s East Side, seen from the Empire State Building back in February 2011. A few more buildings have cropped up in the area since I last visited. (Ricky Leong photo)

I’m not saying we should banish office towers from our landscapes.
But perhaps we should consider allowing more residential construction inside our CBDs.
You see above a (somewhat dated) view of the eastern portion of the Manhattan skyline.
Apart from a few blocks inside the financial district (not shown) where offices reign, it wouldn’t be unusual at all to have an office building, a condo/apartment tower and a hotel all within spitting distance of each other. To me, this is something to emulate.
In other ways, we’re already starting to see an attitude change when it comes to how we put our cities together.
In Calgary’s ring of inner-city suburban neighbourhoods (Inglewood, Mission, Bridgeland and Kensington, for example) our main streets are welcoming mid-rise, mixed-use buildings — retail at ground level with offices or homes above — replacing older, more squat structures that were previously retail-only.
Farther afield, the city is opening the door to the creation of more commercial office spaces within “complete neighbourhoods” outside the CBD, with such developments as Quarry Park, Currie Barracks and University District.
(EDIT: After this post was initially published, a friend reminded me Telus Sky, a high-rise project under construction at 7 Ave. and Centre St. South in Calgary, includes a mixture of residential, office and retail space.)
These measures could make a difference in bringing life to our downtown cores, building diversity into the property tax base and making neighbourhoods more resilient when the economy hits a rough patch. Meanwhile, redistributing commercial office space more evenly through a city’s footprint might reduce the financial and time burdens to governments and individuals if there are fewer people all needing to commute to the same places at the same time.
No one can instantly undo the development mistakes of our past, but if Calgary and other cities value the continued health and vibrancy of our cities, we would all surely benefit if those oversights are systematically corrected as opportunities arise.