Empty downtown offices: A problem or an opportunity?

Filling empty spaces downtown could offer a solution to some of the city’s biggest concerns.

Downtown Edmonton has seen better days. Instead of wanting to visit, people are avoiding our city’s core. Vacant office buildings aren’t helping, either. Not only are these vacancies eyesores, but they can increase crime, vandalism, and create targets for arsonists. Empty office buildings in our downtown area only worsen safety concerns. It is sad to see, but these vacant spaces could be converted into housing alternatives, specifically for homeless and low-income Edmontonians. The City of Edmonton is wasting a great opportunity by allowing these office spaces to just sit there. 

To get people off the streets and improve our downtown, governments should be putting people, not profit, first. To ensure this, public housing should be a priority. Co-op housing is another way to keep rent affordable and create a better sense of community. Driven by affordability and not profit, co-op housing relies on the cooperation of individuals to maintain the building. The government needs to prioritize these housing projects over more for-profit apartments people can’t afford.

People don’t want to live or work somewhere that they feel unsafe. The vacant buildings only contribute to the ongoing problems in Edmonton’s downtown that many people are concerned about.

The city is making some efforts to improve our downtown and attract more people to live and work in our core. Largely these efforts focus on giving grants and funding to businesses and organizations to support the arts in our downtown and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, there is funding available for storefront and window repairs to help businesses cope with the crime occurring downtown. This is great, but there is more the city could be doing.

What’s more is that the provincial and federal government are willing to help. The provincial government has programs to create affordable housing. Moreover, the federal government committed $600 million to converting office spaces into housing in the 2021 election. As well, the federal housing plan offers additional assistance toward finding solutions to the housing crisis. The assistance of the provincial and federal government can make this easier for the city to pursue. But, the city is still dragging their feet and changes aren’t happening.

Edmonton has had success in converting vacant office buildings into residential spaces in the past. City council encouraged developers back in 1997 when office vacancy rates were close to what they are today. They reduced the office vacancy rate and attracted 10,000 residents downtown by converting the offices into residential spaces. Other cities are finding success with these projects right now — investors and developers have shown a lot of interest in Calgary’s building conversion plan. There is interest, demand, and need in converting these office spaces.

Converting office buildings to apartments offers a quick solution. Developers and investors can focus on turning these spaces into liveable apartments, with the basics already in place. With a growing need for housing, we need quick and creative solutions like these.

However, there are concerns surrounding the quality of these types of housing initiatives , and they aren’t unfounded. This is why its important that this is led and overseen by different levels of government, all working together. Whether its regulations to ensure adequate living standards for affordable housing or funding for these projects, government leadership is needed to ensure these projects are done right. The priority should be improving people’s lives, not cutting corners for an easy solution. 

Basically, reducing the vacancy rates and housing people can help increase safety downtown. The more affordable housing we have, the easier it will be to tackle issues such as crime. To do that, the city can provide affordable and accessible housing to those who need it the most. Crime is often driven by social factors like homelessness and addiction. Being homeless puts people at a higher risk of being victims of crimes, and worsens mental health problems. If the city gives individuals a secure and affordable place to live, there may be a reduction in the factors that lead to crime. Tackling crime downtown will make people feel safer and more willing to spend time in our city’s core. 

In turn, this helps downtown businesses thrive as more people feel comfortable in our city’s core. The city should be directing more efforts and funding towards  converting empty office buildings into much needed housing.

We don’t have to sacrifice improving our downtown to address the need for affordable housing in Edmonton. By getting creative and using what the city has, they can tackle both of these issues.

Leah Hennig

Leah is the 2024-25 Opinion Editor at The Gateway. She is in her first year studying English and media studies. In her spare time, she can be found reading, painting, and missing her dog while drinking too much coffee.

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