Calgary putting old buildings to new use

In a city with a history of tearing down big buildings and creating new ones from scratch, the Calgary Police Service headquarters is an example of the advantages of working with what already exists.
There was a dire need for a new headquarters, but the associated price-tag for potential plans simply wasn’t realistic, says Calgary Police Commission chair Mike Shaikh.
“We were working on a plan that had at least fifty years of growing in it,” he says. “It was a billion dollar expenditure. There was no way the city could afford that.”
Then came Nortel and an opportunity to cash in on several hundred million in savings. Or put another way, it was a chance to re-purpose an existing property and find an affordable way to get that sorely needed headquarters to replace the cramped downtown digs where officers tripped over one another.
“We felt very comfortable we could refurnish it for our needs,” he says. “Now, we have a huge parcel of land so we can expand until the cows come home.” The deal was done and over recent years, three buildings on the property which was once Nortel were renovated.
The property sits 60 acres of land and has more than 770,600 sq-ft. of space as well as some indoor parking.
Police commission stole the building
Police said it cost about $100,000,000 to purchase the property which was in receivership with renovations running about $32,000,000.
“We felt we stole it,” says Ald. Diane Colley-Urquhart, who sits on the police commission. “It was a stroke of luck and good timing we could capitalize on the misfortunes of Nortel. We picked up a state-of the art building. It was an incredible acquisition.”
Colley-Urquhart says purchasing an existing building to be refurbished is certainly a departure given many municipal buildings are created from the ground up.
And it’s a good route to go. “This was unique, a one-off,” she says.
“We benefited from the re-purpose it for the city of Calgary’s needs. More and more we are trying to find duel and multi-purpose (properties). We don’t have the money any longer to build these beautiful, huge capital projects. We have to be more creative. We have to partner and we have to re-purpose old buildings.”

Building site leaves room for growth
Deputy police chief, Roger Chaffin, agrees. “The building was in such good shape, we didn’t have to do much,” he says. “What we got far outmatched what we could have built.”
And the undeveloped acres allows the service to have room to grow and unlike downtown has 1,685 free parking spots out front.
That’s not to say there weren’t a few bugs along the way. So-called signal-dampening technology put in by the previous owners designed to shield radio-frequency and cell phone reception was clearly contrary to the needs of police but quickly remedied.
Alexi Olcheski, a commercial realtor with Avison Young said there is demand for more quirky, historical buildings in Calgary.
“That sort of character stuff is highly sought after by certain groups,” he says. “Marketing agencies, the more creative types flock to it. It is something that goes with their cultures.”
Old buildings can mean new costs
And while there are numerous examples of older, heritage buildings being converted to modern-day use, he says it’s not necessarily a cost-savings option. “There’s just not a lot of supply of heritage stuff,” he says.
But re-purposing less historical buildings is increasingly a good option to building from the ground up.
“New construction is time consuming and costly,” he says. “You need significant investment to build new, time is a big thing whereas re-purposing an existing building is very straight forward.”
With more than a dozen deals done so far this year, Olcheski says one saw a business purchase a property to lease out for extra revenue.
It was a quick renovation before a not-for-profit tenant moved in.
“There is very little planning, no time to build from scratch which would take you at least a year and a half, it’s time and energy and (money) they saved,” he says.

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