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Conversions won't solve Calgary's office vacancy issue: Experts – Real Estate News EXchange

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Calgary's Latest Economic


The Cube, an office-to-residential conversion in Calgary by Strategic Group. Despite much talk about office conversions, only five have actually been completed as the city’s office market continues to struggle. (Courtesy Strategic Group)

With Calgary’s downtown office vacancy rate stuck in the 25 per cent range, many real estate experts have suggested converting empty space in the Central Business District into residential use as one solution for the market.

But landlords and property owners haven’t been stampeding to actually follow through on that strategy. RENX has learned only five buildings during the past two years have been converted from office to rental in inner-city neighbourhoods such as Southwood, Beltline, South Calgary, Eau Claire and Tuxedo Park.

And, there are no further conversions planned, at least for the short term.

“We don’t have any in the queue right now, nothing in the queue at this moment,”  said Sonya Sharp, the City of Calgary’s team lead, business and local economy, in an interview with RENX.  “These (five buildings) are the ones that have been completed.”

According to commercial real estate firm CBRE, the downtown Calgary office market has an inventory of 42.3 million square feet across a total of 148 buildings.

That means about 10 million square feet of vacant space. So why haven’t there been more conversions?

Challenges repurposing office to residential

At the recent Calgary Real Estate Forum, a session highlighted the challenges landlords face in repurposing those offices to residential uses – Giving Older Assets A New Life: A Look at Repurposing Existing Properties & Sites.

Six buildings in the downtown core are more than 75 per cent vacant, while three buildings are empty said Greg Kwong, CBRE‘s executive vice-president and regional managing director in Alberta.

“People from the city and other people want to say ‘what are the solutions to getting our vacancy down, let’s repurpose half of downtown Calgary.’ It’s really just not possible given the current vacancy right now,” said Kwong.

In the suburban office market, 11 buildings are greater than 75 per cent vacant and nine buildings are 100 per cent vacant. There are 366 buildings in the suburban Calgary office market with a total of 25.8 million square feet.

“Even if we took (the completely vacant buildings) and converted them to condos – took them out of the office market – we still would have a very high vacancy rate,” Kwong added.

Also during the forum, Marco Civitarese, Calgary’s chief building official and manager, said the age and classification of a building is important in how it could be repurposed.

City tries to remove red tape

On June 13, 2017 Calgary council approved an initiative called the Centre City Enterprise Area. The directive made a number of amendments to a land use bylaw, removing significant barriers to save businesses thousands of dollars if they choose to open or relocate into the Central Business District.

The initiative was developed in collaboration with Calgary Economic Development, city administration, BILD Calgary, NAIOP, local business improvement areas, community associations and small businesses.

“The strategy behind it is really to increase vibrancy in the downtown. Gain some activation to residential living and repurposing buildings that are facing the crunch of vacancies right now,” said Civitarese.

During the real estate forum, Brian Rowland, associate with Zeidler Architecture, said architects can face design challenges in these conversion projects. These include existing layouts, windows that don’t open, and how exteriors are designed to suit the original purpose of the building.

“Usually they don’t include a bunch of vents. So they’re not anticipating 12 or 14 kitchens, and bathrooms, and washer/dryers on every floor,” he said.

Then there are surprises that are not anticipated in the architectural drawings.

“You start cutting into these buildings and finding these surprises you have to deal with as you go through. So it does create a new challenge,” Rowland explained. “The idea is just that we can take something that’s existing and repurpose it and really make it into something that’s contributing again to someone’s portfolio of holdings.”

Strategic Group’s office conversions

Ken Toews, senior vice president of development for Calgary’s Strategic Group, which has been busy converting office space to residential use in both Calgary and Edmonton, said it has been involved in six conversions. 

He said while conversions are important to add residential space in downtown Calgary, for property owners they can take a non-performing or low-performing asset and convert it to a much more attractive asset.

“Why can’t we do more of these? Well, there’s a whole bunch of challenges that come when you’re repurposing a building. The first challenge is that the residential floor plate is almost always different than what you have for an office floor plate. So you have to really work with it to make it work,” said Toews. “And most buildings, it won’t.”

Even with the success of its conversions however, several weeks after the forum Strategic Group announced it was putting 56 of its Alberta properties under creditor protection.

The assets are primarily office buildings in Calgary. The challenging real estate market and continued uncertainty in the economy were cited as the reasons for the move.

New flexibility for vacant offices

Under Calgary’s Centre City Enterprise Area plan, businesses no longer require a development permit for changes of use, exterior alterations and small additions in the Beltline or Downtown for a three-year period (ending July 1, 2020).

Sharp said the Centre City Enterprise Area is a mapped out area of the downtown and into a small area of the Beltline to reduce retail and office vacancies in the core.

The city also wanted to make it easier to allow pop-up and interim uses in vacant office spaces.

“Pop-up uses are uses in approved buildings and no approvals are required. So a retail store can go in and out as long as they aren’t breaking any code rules,” said Sharp. “An interim use is up to six months and we’ve waived the development permit, and we’ve waived the business licence, and they would only be required to get a building permit if the building had been vacant more than six months or they’re doing any changes inside the building that will be required to get a building permit.

“We focused on the city wide for that because we have vacancies all over the city. We wanted to animate city spaces citywide. We wanted to provide opportunities for businesses to try out their product without having to go through all the city permits. It was an opportunity to reduce barriers and costs of starting a business in Calgary.”

RELATED ARTICLES:

* e11even: Strategic Group’s first office-to-residential conversion

* Strategic Group turns vacant Calgary office into Cube apartments

* Calgary’s The International a unique conversion for Minto 

* Converting existing buildings: Part One

* Converting existing buildings: Part Two

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A real estate transaction gave me neighbours. A car crash taught me to value them – CBC.ca

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This First Person article is the experience of Becky Sarafinchan who lives in Calgary. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

The crush of glass and metal silenced us mid-phrase, the kids and I on that early spring day. I saw their frozen expressions as I wondered if I had really heard or felt that sound. We ran outside. 

Across our busy street, a SUV straddled the yellow line. Its grill faced the crumpled remains of our neighbour’s two parked cars. Two cars, swiped by one driver. My neighbours stared in shock at the sad mix of wreckage, nose to bumper.

But this is a feel-good story. It’s not about race track streets or distracted drivers. It’s about neighbours. It’s about me discovering that I care what happens to the people across the street, even when their lives merge little with mine. It’s about the unexpected cheer that brings.

For most of my 16 years on Coventry Hills Way, in the suburbs of north central Calgary, the greatest common bond I shared with my neighbours was geographical. The random act of real estate mixed me up with folks I only knew in smiles and waves outside our garage doors. My life was filled with kids and work; I rarely thought of those who lived around me.

Until the pandemic, that is. Until human interaction became a source of anxiety worldwide and we were told to run for cover. In those long and bizarre periods of isolation when I couldn’t see friends and family, I could still see my neighbours walking by every evening. We could share a weary smile and sometimes — from a distance — we talked. 

A group of five people stand around talking on a driveway.
Front driveways are a natural gathering place on this street in Calgary’s Coventry Hills. From left to right: Gina Williams, Jennifer Robinson, Jesse Williams, Becky Sarafinchan and Glen McLaughlan. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

On the afternoon of the accident, I noticed Jennifer standing with the stunned car owners on the other side of the street. She was talking and pointing; the first to offer assistance. Although I’ve only ever spoken with Jennifer a few times, I knew she was open and kindhearted. It relieved me when I saw her talking with the neighbours. It felt like they were in good hands.

Someone called the police and a few people left to check their home security cameras for footage. Another neighbour motioned for the driver of the SUV to move to the sidewalk; he was still standing in the street. 

A group of teens, armed with the vehicle description, headed off to find an eyewitness who had left the scene. The adults compared stories of what each had seen and felt. 

Across the road, a young man dragged the bumper of his car onto his lawn. He crossed the street to a group of us, onlookers, huddled in a semicircle. He was debating if he should accept the offer: should he just settle with the driver of the SUV?

The group reacted at once: No! You can get help. It will be OK.

We lingered on the sidewalk and a conversation expanded beyond the crash. We began to talk about hockey and school; about work and the vacations we hoped to take. Normal stuff, but I had never stood and talked, never opened up about anything with my neighbours before. It felt new. 

People stand beside a residential street with vehicles driving past.
The street in front of Becky Sarafinchan’s house can feel like a race way. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

Soon the teenagers returned from their search for an eyewitness. “We found the guy who left the scene!” they grinned, triumphant. They had checked his vehicle. “We even felt the tailpipe on his truck and it’s still warm!” To their delight, the police wanted to know.

I watched those tall boys talk, eager to share and flush with their success. 

Standing in this group of people, suddenly feeling that they were my people, I felt lighter. It took me by surprise. I’d never thought of them as my people before. In the past, I was aloof and comfortable — a wave and smile would suffice for neighbourliness.

In truth, we don’t share interests; we don’t share the same ethnic backgrounds or weekend habits. We weren’t all on the same page about COVID-19 – some of us were supportive and others against mask and vaccine mandates. 

Maybe that’s what makes the huddled conversation on the day of the accident so special. It doesn’t matter if we’d naturally be friends had we not physically lived beside each other. It doesn’t matter that we have different views and beliefs. We are neighbours. That counts for something.

In the months since the accident I’ve thought a lot about what changed for me that day. It’s like the pieces fit together and I was able to discover a gift I’d never seen before.

We visit more now. We share gardening tips and someone suggested a block party. There’s even – imagine! – an inside joke or two we share. Community is growing where once I saw a street of strangers. I don’t ever want to lose sight of that gift.


Telling your story 

CBC Calgary is running a series of in-person writing workshops across the city to support community members telling their own stories.

Read more from the workshop hosted by the Northern Hills Community Association:

To find out more about our writing workshops or to propose a community organization to help host, email CBC producer Elise Stolte

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Here's what you need to know about Squamish Real Estate – Squamish Chief

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With Canada’s annual inflation rates spiking in June and a market still reeling from a global pandemic, local real estate in Squamish has seen its fair share of unpredictable ups and downs. 

“In May, I started saying that it felt like someone had flipped a switch,” said Jennifer Sale, a local Realtor in Squamish with Sutton West Coast Realty. “I’d say the peak was probably end of March, beginning of April. That was when I [saw] multiple offers and things going for quite a bit over. That has definitely changed.”

With various factors coming into play, such as higher mortgage rates and low inventory, Sale says that some buyers appear to be growing wary of the local market while having trouble qualifying for a mortgage.  

“We were experiencing a really hot period earlier in the year because the inventory was so low that there were so many more multiple offers versus pent-up demand,” Sale said. “So buyers were competing for properties.”

“Now with the increased rates … it’s really tapered off the number of sales,” she said. “There were only eight detached home sales in July.” 

(See prices and trends for the last 28 days in Squamish.)

Feeling the pinch

“Everybody’s feeling the pinch in one way or another,” said Lisa Bjornson of Royal LePage. “Since the beginning of June, probably into May, we started to see a shift in market trends in that … multiple offers are off the table, days on the market have lengthened, inventory has come up somewhat. So it’s definitely slowed the market down.” 

Yet historically, real estate sales during the summer are often low. 

“Summers traditionally aren’t a hugely active market in the Squamish area,” said Bjornson. “It’s not uncommon to have July and August be on the slower side.” 

However, looking back at summer sales in Squamish real estate from last year, Bjornson says there has been a drastic difference.

“Last year was a record-breaking year,” she said. “We’d never seen the likes of it in Squamish, in B.C., in Canada.”

COVID factor

Originally when the pandemic first hit in 2020, Bjornson says that the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation advised realtors that housing was going to plummet with a market drop of 20%. Yet their predictions were incorrect, with sales going up at the same rate they thought they would fall.

“COVID had the opposite effect of what everyone anticipated,” said Sale. “Since then, we’ve had these unprecedented increases not only in Squamish, but throughout B.C..”

When remote work became more of an option during the pandemic, many people realized that they did not have to remain in cities and began looking to buy outside of urban areas. Those within the Vancouver region who were of middle to high income were able to afford the prices just outside of the city, bringing an influx of buyers to Squamish. 

“It locked everybody up, changed everybody’s mindset,” Bjornson said. “Many people started to work from home and people started to homeschool. People thought, ‘I’m not putting my loved one in care’. We’re going to generationally live. How people viewed housing and what their needs were changed drastically.”

Over the course of the two years from March of 2020 to now, other challenges such as supply chain issues and labour became evident and began to affect real estate. 

“There’s so many forces at play when it comes to what makes up a housing market.” 

In addition to an influx of people leaving the city to be in smaller areas, Sale says that she has also noticed single people moving between townhomes to condos to half-duplexes.  

“People are always a little worried about getting out of the market. So it’s always nice to move within the same market,” said Sale. “Now that it’s slowed down, I think that’s gonna be a lot easier for many people.”

Overall, though interest rates are currently high, real estate prices in Squamish are seeing a return to relative normalcy. 

“We’re not seeing multiple offers. We’re not seeing things go for $200,000 over ask,” said Bjornson. “We’re seeing negotiations, we’re seeing prices moderate.”

As for the coming months heading into fall, Bjornson says that she predicts longer days on the market.

“If we suddenly get an uptick COVID coming into the fall of winter, does that change people again about how they’re feeling and what their wants and needs are? Hard to say,” she said. “The general feeling kind of across the board is that we had a tremendous run-up for 20 plus months and for any real estate cycle that was long. So the normal calming and settling of the market is to be expected.”

For those currently looking to sell in Squamish, Bjornson recommends that people be reasonable and pay attention to what the market is currently doing. “It’s still an OK market; you’re not losing anything. Govern yourself according to what the market conditions are. And if you’re a buyer, get your pre-qualification and know what price point you should be shopping in.”

“I would say to list a realistic price point,” concurred Sale. “Take the advice of your realtor and watch the market carefully.” 

Sale adds that comparing prices month to month with your neighbours is not helpful when trying to place a price on a home. 

“It’s always hard to see what your neighbour sold for in February or March,” she said. “You have to work within the market that we’re in.”

“The last couple of years there’s greater demand for people wanting to be in Squamish,” said Sale. “I don’t think there’s going to be a big drop-off. I think now it’s changed from a seller’s market, shifted briefly into a balanced market, and I think in some product categories, it’s definitely a buyers market.”

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The Self-Made Million Dollar Real Estate Entrepreneur: Steven Parks – Net Newsledger

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Steven Parks always knew he was an entrepreneur at heart. Even at the young age of 14–he knew he would make it. After working on a farm in a small town in California, he chose to go big.

Steven Parks is a real estate entrepreneur. He’s purchased over 40 properties and typically flips them for a profit. He also rents them out–turning them into Airbnb’s or long-term rentals. Aside from that, he is the founder and CEO of Cash Offers LLC which is precisely what it sounds like. He makes cash offers to those looking to sell their properties. It’s easy for the seller and profitable for him. Needless to say, Steven Parks has the acumen needed for a successful entrepreneur.

His success comes from his deep dedication to himself and what he envisioned for himself. When he was young and working on a farm, he realized the blue-collar lifestyle wasn’t for him. He ventured into the auto industry where he began flipping cars. Steven was naturally interested in the successful people around him. This curiosity led him to introduce himself to the company that financed a lot of his customer’s transactions at the car dealership–and this was the moment that shifted his career trajectory.

“If you don’t ask, you don’t receive.” Steven said. Steven Parks was able to finance his first real estate deal with this company, and as people say, the rest is history. He now owns over 40 properties. Steven eventually wants to own “100 doors” which is real estate lingo for units. It’s all about the rental income in real estate–it creates wealth and the ability to procure more properties. It hasn’t been just about the money for Steven Parks, though.

For Steven, he wanted to do something big. When asked how he got into real estate he said, “I wanted to create my own story.” He had a rough start in life. His upbringing was tumultuous–having lost both parents, he was raised by his grandmother. His experience motivated him to act, so he put a focus on himself and those around him. He was interested in what other people had to offer and he always put himself out there. Even when things got bad in his career, Steven persevered. For example,  in 2008 he lost his Dodge franchise due to the recession, but he didn’t allow it to stop him.

He kept going. Steven Parks is an entrepreneur: he’s an open-minded, curious, spirited, and hard-working individual. He plans to own more properties and become the 100 million dollar company he dreams of being and there’s no doubt that he will get there. Steven will continue to move and adapt through his career–writing his own story with every move.

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