The Great Downtown Shift is Coming

With new office towers at the ready, what will Edmonton do with all of its new commercial space? Converting older buildings is an answer

Courtesy Stantec

The Stantec Tower, all 62 storeys of it, should be complete in two years. The Kelly Ramsey Tower, which already boasts heavy hitters like KPMG and Enbridge as tenants, is offering leases. The EPCOR Tower still is leasing space.

These new towers will change not only the city’s skyscape, but the nature of Edmonton’s downtown. And, it’s time for landlords to start looking at alternative uses for some of the ageing commercial buildings in the core.

That’s the clear message from the Downtown Business Association’s meeting Thursday morning. University of Alberta student Satish Narayanan presented the findings of his study on how Edmonton office buildings can be converted for other uses.

“Our job is to bring more people to the city centre,” he said.

Narayanan said that Edmonton’s commercial vacancy rate jumped from 9.83 per cent in the first quarter of this year to 15.3 per cent in the second. Because new office spaces are available, what we’re seeing is business moving to the shiny towers – and leaving the old digs behind, with no one left to fill it.

He talked about projects in Europe, the United States and Australia where vacant buildings have been transformed into suites, lofts or student housing. In one example, a vacant commercial building in Amsterdam was converted into a mix of student dorms and a four-star hotel. The students staying in the dorm work at the hotel. Jim Taylor, executive director of the Downtown Business Association, said there are several ways to address the changing nature of the core.

“We have a perception of a problem, I think. I understand why people are concerned. There are a lot of tenants switching from existing buildings to the new buildings. The Stantec building is a really big building, the Kelly-Ramsay and the Edmonton Tower, and EPCOR still has a couple of floors to go. There’s a lot of new office space on the market, and law firms and accounting firms are switching. Engineering firms. So, I think there’s a bit of a panic.”

But, he said that 15 years ago, a dozen buildings were converted. He noted that the Marriott downtown, with a great balcony overlooking the river valley, was once an office building.

Because it will take a couple of years for construction crews to complete the Stantec Tower, Taylor said the time is now to assess what existing buildings can continue as office towers, and which cannot.

“It’s a race,” he admitted.

As well, Edmonton Economic Development is reaching out to firms in the suburbs, telling them they can move downtown and get great lease rates.

“It’s converting out of towners to downtown,” said Taylor, “I think the most modern of the office towers would be the hardest to convert, just because of their structure and size. Those might be the buildings where we encourage young firms to come downtown and move into.”

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