When condos replace offices …

Vancouver has been “enjoying” a condo tower boom for some years. Early on in the boom, the demand for condos was so hot that existing office buildings were converted to condos. For example, the iconic BC Hydro building (the highrise with no ground floor) was converted. Critics began to speculate that residences would drive commercial uses right off the prime peninsula space, an interesting reversal of the usual community activist nightmare of expanding commercial uses driving out the residential uses around the core.

Apartment towers differ from townhouse developments in Barrhaven and Riverside South in that the towers stick up in the air and are thus more visible to the casual observer. This inevitably leads to expressions that the boom is unsustainable. Fewer people say that about the suburban sprawl, because it is less visible and more acceptable to the low-rise preferences of much of the population. And the Ottawa population is very conservative.

For the high-rise doomsters, there is much to be recommended in reading The Greater Fool blog which is a constant doomsday prediction about unsustainable real estate prices. Don’t take this as being that I agree or disagree with that blog or the condo tower woesters.

For several years there has been a vacant lot just east of the Telus building on Slater at Bank. Formerly the home of Ted Tilden’s then National Car Rentals, it has for the last year or so sported a sign promoting a new high rise office building. Without a huge floorplate, it would have been attractive to private-sector tennants rather than government offices (compare to the mammoth Export Development Bldg or the new one replacing the Lorne Building to get an idea of how big government floorplates are now). But alas, the private sector is abandoning the downtown, leaving mostly civil servants, and as one major landlord tells me repeatedly, they are the kiss of death to urban vitality. The Tunney’s Pasturification of the downtown continues apace (and don’t for a minute dream that Federal civil servants can redesign Tunney’s to be a genuine downtown).

That “coming soon” commercial development sign is gone now, and a sales centre is under construction. Not a major developer, the imaginatively named The Slater project is sponsored by a building contractor (Broccolini Construction) and local condo realtor Bennett Pros. It will have a hotel component and condos. Although I am not sure who wants that stunning view of the windowless back of the Bell switch building or the side of the next office building. At least there won’t be someone peering back into your bedroom — there goes the market for exhibitionists.

a sales centre grows just beyond the Telus garage entrance

The Slater is another glassy box, the front of which will look somewhat like this:

Alas, no view of the back.

There seems to be some sort of outdoorsey space on the fourth floor, which shows some potential. But the two floors below it are an echo of The Mondrian, sporting an above grade parking garage:

Vancouver didn’t collapse when offices were converted to condos. Nor will Toronto, where older hotels are being converted to condos. Nor will the world come to an end when older rental buildings are converted to condos.

But I do wonder who will want to live right in the heart of Ottawa’s “financial district”, as the adverts put it. It is a sleepy civil service downtown becoming more and more 9 to 3, where the most exciting storefront uses seem to be dentists and eye surgeons.

I think the downtown would have been better off with a private-sector office building on the site. It would have promoted a better mix of uses.

On the other hand, yet more apartments will increase the supply of accommodation, which will moderate prices for renters and buyers. It doesn’t matter that the new buildings are initially “expensive”. So were all those high rises built in the 60’s and 70’s, which we today covet as the core of our “affordable” housing stock.

The price of a lot plus building is made up of the building value and the lot value. A high rise building has a high ratio of building value to lot value. Except buildings depreciate and eventually must be replaced. Expensively. Low rise buildings have a higher proportion of their value in the lot, which appreciates over time. That’s why low rise buildings (ie, really its their lot…) go up in price more over time than do apartments. Today’s apartment condos are tomorrow’s affordable housing.

Except … condos are bought and sold on a retail market; rental buildings are sold on the wholesale market. Hmm.

On an aside, one excellent replacement of an office building with condos would be the conversion of the vacant hulking Sir John Carling building to condos, sitting as it right on the shores of Dow’s Lake and adjacent to the condo land rush going on there now. The asbestos has to be taken out before knocking it down, so why not clean it up, and flog the concrete hulk to Claridge or Starwood?




9 thoughts on “When condos replace offices …

  1. I completely agree about the Sir John Carling building. I live in the area and often walk in the Farm or in the little park below it (Queen Juliana maybe? Which we know will be developed and we all want retail – Grocery, Drug, Liquor please!). I never gave much thought to the Carling building before. I just thought of it as one of those mid-century disposable stalinesque boxes but it’s actually quite compelling visually. I like the look of it anyhow. And sitting up on top of the ridge I suspect it commands a good view in all directions.

  2. That is a great idea for the Carling building. I briefly worked in it before they shut it down. It would make great condos, and the cafeteria (the cool looking building attached to the main) looks like an award winning design, that would make a great restaurant, night club, or Wedding Hall.
    (It is a sad statement about the institutional blandness of Ottawa Architecture when any building with any kind of Architectural flair is seen as ‘award winning’ )

  3. “The Tunney’s Pasturification of the downtown continues apace”

    How about Tunney’s Pasturization?

  4. Why are public servants in particular bad for urban vitality? Presumably any commuting worker would have the same effect? Or is it that GC buildings are so large and, therefore, remove so much real estate from contention for more “interactive” uses?

    1. According to my source, it’s because civil servants commute in and then out, and don’t shop, and don’t buy nice lunches so they don’t support restos and bars. In addition, they junk up bldgs by placing enormous bulletin boards everywhere. They dress down market. All generalizations… but recall that several landlords tried to exclude CS from their buildings, eg Constitution Sq, WEP, one of the PdeV towers, promoting their bldgs as being elegant, with boutiques, nice restuarants, with some sort of lively environment. I don’t buy the argument 100%, but having worked downtown for 30 years there is definitely something in it: CS inhabited bldgs are sloppier and duller, as they take up more of a bldg the retailers get driven out. Oh, and CS types all rush home promptly, and do their shopping and restos at suburban malls. Maybe its because they spend their own money and dont have much in the way of expense accts. As I say again, something to ponder: are CS occupants the kiss of death to vitality??

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  6. The City of Ottawa is rezoning Queen Juliana Park (8 acres of land) on Carling Avenue, see the petition entitled “Stop the rezoning of Parks to Condos, Queen Juliana in Little Italy.” Dow’s Lake is prime real estate, I’m just waiting for the privatization of CFB Dow’s Lake, Commissioners Park and buildings at the Experimental Farm. Nothing is sacred or off-limits to developers—a National Historic Site (the Farm); a Recognized Heritage Building (the Sir John Carling Building), or remembrance land (Commissioners Park and Queen Juliana Park.)

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