Social destabilization unsettles city fabric

Social destabilization unsettles city fabric

Edmonton and Calgary stakeholders rally around safety and revitalization
Monday, October 9, 2023
By Barbara Carss

Data, collaborative networks and a suite of tested best practices can be valuable resources for property managers pressed to respond to the unsettling social destabilization occurring in many Canadian cities. In Edmonton and Calgary, local chapters of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) have been instrumental in pulling these pieces together, helping their members quantify the impacts of safety and security transgressions, and connecting them into broader city-level action plans.

Lisa Baroldi, president and chief executive officer of BOMA Edmonton, and Lloyd Suchet, executive director of BOMA Calgary, outlined their efforts during a panel discussion on downtown safety and revitalization at the recent BOMA Canada national conference in Edmonton. After sponsoring independent research projects to identify priority concerns and collect measurable data in their own cities, the two BOMA chapters are helping to launch an Alberta-wide alliance and are also seeking cross-Canada input from the commercial real estate sector.

“Maybe there’s something that we’ve done that you can learn from us, but we’re certainly here to learn from you,” Baroldi told conference attendees. “We’re in conversation with other BOMA local associations and BOMA Canada so that we can have national data to help with both advocacy and decision-making as we really take downtowns to the next level and revitalize.”

Data distinguishes evidence from anecdote

Circa-2022 surveys have helped to establish a baseline for progress in both cities. BOMA Edmonton engaged the research firm, Leger, to conduct its work with the support of a grant from the City of Edmonton’s Downtown Vibrancy Fund. The research included 30 in-depth interviews with property managers and an online survey that elicited 110 submission from a fairly even split of building management and tenant respondents. A mix of qualitative and quantitative questions complemented the need for data to fill information gaps, which was earlier identified in Edmonton’s downtown strategic plan.

“It was really helpful to get this data,” affirmed Andre Corbould, Edmonton’s City Manager, who also participated in the panel discussion.

Among some of the key findings, survey participants revealed that they had spent more money since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic to address safety and security concerns. That’s pegged at an average $200,000 additional expenditure for building owners in the roughly two-year period from 2020 to 2022 and an extra $30,000 for the average tenant.

As of 2022, 72 per cent of respondents considered downtown public safety uncertainties to be a discouraging influence on workers’ return to the office, while one third of respondents indicated they were likely to relocate from the downtown. Those sentiments also align with some of Leger’s national and provincial data for the same period, showing that 45 per cent of Canadians and 47 per cent of Albertans perceive that downtowns are in decline in either the city where they live or the nearest urban centre (for non-urban dwellers).

Baroldi cited reservations about the potential for sensationalistic misinterpretation behind BOMA Edmonton’s decision not to publicly release the larger share of survey findings. Rather, they have been reserved for advocacy and strategic planning to provide measurable insight on the repercussions of social and economic upheaval — homelessness, mental health afflictions, overdoses, violence, etc. — that are increasingly playing out in public spaces.

“When we share this information, it really helps to open decision-makers’ eyes and brings it all together in a very clear and concise way rather than us all just sitting around the table with anecdotes,” Baroldi observed.

Similarly, Suchet characterizes the findings from BOMA Calgary’s survey as the kind of verifiable data that policy-makers demand to support program and spending decisions. That survey produced a comprehensive overview of property crimes and disturbances at more than 70 downtown office properties over the course of 2022, with a detailed breakdown of types of incidents, the times they occurred, the victims involved and the costs of response and recovery. Notably, related monetary costs for the year are estimated at an average of $120,000 per property — evidence that BOMA Calgary has presented to Calgary’s Mayor, Council and senior bureaucrats.

“This is the first empirical data coming out of our downtown,” Suchet reported. “At BOMA, we are perfectly situated to collect the tangible data that political and community leaders are planning for, and that can drive change.”

Collaborative efforts leverage partners’ connections

Baroldi agrees the commercial real estate sector can be particularly effective when it works within its sphere of influence and leans into its strengths. That’s both the clout of the industry’s collective economic contribution and a myriad of potentially productive, creative partnerships leveraging members’ vast connections. For example, BOMA followed up on the City of Edmonton’s desire to get the Alberta government more engaged in a provincial-municipal discussion of the issues.

“We were able to be the association that convened the first meeting of three provincial Ministers to get it on their radar — just to plant that seed and say: Hey, come to the table. We’ve got all of these knowledgeable people in Edmonton trying to do good things,” Baroldi recounted.

“This is a big problem and we operate in one corner of it.” Suchet reflected. “Understanding the opioid crisis, the mental health crisis, that’s not our corner, but we can certainly be in the room in supporting those efforts.”

BOMA’s niche strengths are also at the heart of the envisioned broader alliance to address public safety concerns, promote continued recovery from pandemic-related setbacks and support vibrant, welcoming downtowns. The root causes of social destabilization may be outside the industry’s control, but a cohesive and well-resourced network of supports can make it easier to respond empathetically and tackle what is solvable. In this, the Calgary Downtown Association and the Edmonton Downtown Business Association have been key partners with the two BOMA chapters.

“We’re seeing so much collaboration — meeting regularly, sharing ideas, sharing data, cooperating, advocating collectively to people in government,” Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Downtown Edmonton Business Association, advised conference attendees. “We’ve had so much good engagement from the City, and one of the most important things for us has been relentless advocacy to all levels of government.”

The Alberta-based proponents are now calling on peers from across Canada to share their experiences and examples of property-level or community-scale actions they have implemented. “Perhaps some of the best information we’ve gathered thus far are best practices — just things that are being tried that are producing some results,” Baroldi reiterated.

McBryan speculated that’s likely to entail a combination of security initiatives and “vibrancy” measures that business improvement area (BIA) associations could help to produce. She frames the latter — such as special events or exhibits in public areas of commercial properties — as “positive interventions” that entice people to congregate and spur positive spinoffs from the enjoyment they derive from the space.

“I think there’s really a sweet spot in the partnership and collaboration between BOMAs and property owners and managers and BIAs. I think we create so much magic when we work together,” McBryan submitted. “Just as much as this is a tactical and operational challenge at properties and across downtown, it’s a leadership challenge. It’s taking control of the things that we can control.”

Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.

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