Future of Downtown: Turning empty offices into new homes

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The way people move and work in the core is changing. In our Spring/Summer 2023 issue, we explore the possibilities by talking to industry leaders and engaged residents about how to build a great downtown.

As more people work from home, all eyes are on the high vacancy rate of commercial units in the core. This essay explores the question: Could empty cubicles be the answer to enlivening downtown?

The post-Covid reality has only exacerbated the downtown problem. Shopify, which formerly had 850 employees at its Elgin Street headquarters, went digital by default. Government employees have refused to return full-time to their offices. Plenty of other businesses and law firms have adopted flexible work strategies to keep their employees happy.

Combine this with a slew of commercial leases coming to an end and you have all the ingredients for a city without a heart. While it’s all coming to a head now, this is a problem that’s been plaguing Ottawa and many other North American cities for a while. Despite occasional attempts to animate Sparks Street and bring people to the area by offering light shows on the facade of the Parliament buildings, these do nothing to address the basic issue: healthy, vibrant neighborhoods combine offices, residential, and commercial spaces.

“Covid didn’t cause this problem,” says Andrew Reeves, architect and the owner of Linebox Studio. “It was always there. It’s the result of years of bad planning. The ratio of offices to residential is way off. Covid gave us the opportunity to ask, what was wrong? What was right? What needs to be fixed? I hope we use this to keep momentum moving forward, to correct what was wrong in the first place.”

Reeves has been working on a project for the adaptive reuse of a building on an unspectacular office block at 473 Albert St., which he describes as “a building that only an architect could love.” Working with developer CLV Group, the team has created 130 units in a building now called the Slayte. It’s packed with amenities such as a gym, salt-water hot tub, Zoom rooms, shared office space, yoga studio, rooftop terrace, and bike storage. “Our challenge was how to take a building from commercial to residential. It’s a collision of style and technical needs. But we take complicated problems and see them as opportunity,” says Reeves, whose firm has previously converted a large, deconsecrated church in Vanier to condos. They were also behind the renovation of an old bank building into the high-end eatery Riviera, and a former cinema to offices for Klipfolio.

A rendering of one of the common areas in the new Slayte residential building on Slater Street.

Reeves would like to see more of these conversions. “Fixing one building won’t solve the urban planning problem and to have a proper mix is a fine balance,” he says. He envisions a series of “tiny towns,” whereby buildings offer the opportunity for accidental collisions — people meeting people to and from work, at the gym, in their apartment building, or when popping out to get a snack or a drink. In other words, focusing on the places where humans naturally gather.

None of this will happen without all levels of government and the private sector getting involved — and it’s going to be expensive.

These things require real commitment, says Reeves. More density requires bylaw changes, rezoning, and a reassessment of development charges.

Meanwhile, Calgary seems to be the Canadian city where adaptive reuse has a stronger foothold. Close to 200,000 square feet of office space in the Palliser One building is being converted into 176 apartments. Officially called the Downtown Calgary Development Incentive Program, it’s the most successful of its kind in the country, providing incentives to convert office buildings to residential. According to a November 2022 report published by the city, since 2018, over 665,000 square feet of office space has been converted into 700 homes. But then there’s a greater imperative: the city has a 31 per cent vacancy rate.

By comparison, commercial real estate broker James McNeil, estimates that there are only about 12 buildings suitable for adaptive residential reuse in the downtown core.

Reeves agrees, noting that office buildings tend to have elevators and toilets clustered around a central well, as well as inflexible floor plans.

McNeil notes that many of Ottawa’s buildings are built right to the property line. “There’s not a lot of airspace around our buildings,” he says, “so how do we deal with 10-foot views on three sides? What are the buildings that have decent views and good light?”

Blame the Peace Tower. Due to regulations that limit the height of downtown buildings in the capital, to allow for unobstructed views of the Peace Tower, developers have typically chosen to maximize their investment not in height, but in density. And this makes converting office buildings to apartments all the more difficult.

McNeil also believes that it’s only a very small part of the solution. Let’s say that those 12 buildings suitable amount to 1.2 million square feet of space, which is about 1,400 units and would bring approximately 3,000 extra people to live in the downtown core. “Nice, but really not meaningful,” he says.

What do we need to do to create that vibrancy downtown in light of the new way in which we work? “I am skeptical that this [conversion from offices to residential] is going to happen in a meaningful way,” says McNeil. And given that there are presently 86 new buildings, which equates to 18,000 to 20,000 units currently under construction or planned, he believes that residents will choose new builds over an adaptation. But this could mean that affordable housing becomes more available in the downtown core. “Frankly, any development is good development in the residential sector at present, except for sprawl,” he says.

In 2023, the projected vacancy rate in Ottawa is 14 per cent, which is high compared to the previous record of 12.2 per cent in 2015. “The challenge is we really don’t know where we are still. We need to look at where we are in the lease cycles, but it’s my theory that lease renewals are coming to roost now,” says McNeil.

Cornerstone Housing for Women is one organization that has taken the plunge into adaptive reuse. The organization recently made public its plans for 44 Eccles St., a former school built in 1934. More recently, it has been used as an office building. It’s close to other Cornerstone facilities, “which helps to build the sense of community,” says executive director Sarah Davis. The building will feature 46 single-occupant affordable units and a community room, kitchen, and laundry. It’s not a straightforward job.

A former office building on a side street in Chinatown was recently purchased by Cornerstone Housing for Women and will soon be home to 46 residential units

“Dealing with an existing building that has undergone many renovations is always a challenge,” says Jessie Smith at CSV Architects. “Surprises in the walls and floors have created many small obstacles, however we continue to find solutions on a case-by-case basis and adapt the design as needed.”

Smith notes that the existing windows are quite large compared to what would typically be used in a residential setting. To maintain the heritage character, especially on the street-facing exterior, triple glazing is being used to compensate for the larger area. On the opposite side, smaller windows will offer privacy. It took careful planning to co-ordinate mechanical services with the existing floor joists and the layout of deep steel beams, which were ideal for those large classrooms. The building is slated to open in February 2024.

One thing is for sure: downtown Ottawa has an amazing opportunity right now. With the Sens coming back to the city core, the opening of the new library and the other development at LeBreton Flats, there’s potential everywhere you look.

“Right now, I feel that Ottawa is off momentum. It’s been tired for a long time,” says Reeves. “I would not consider Ottawa a world-class capital city. We have to acknowledge that to change that. There’s so much opportunity. We need to think really big — and that comes with real investment, a little bit of arrogance and bravado.”

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