Commercial conversions to residential are considered by some RE/MAX brokers to be a key strategy in breathing much-needed new life into the downtown core of key markets from coast to coast, while others have argued that it isn’t a practical solution from an engineering or financial perspective, according to the RE/MAX 2023 Commercial Real Estate Report. Meanwhile, socio-economics problems colliding with business centres may have devastating consequences down the road if action isn’t taken now.

RE/MAX examined 12 commercial real estate markets from coast to coast, and found that given the affordability crisis, population growth, inventory challenges and density/intensification plans amid a shortage of urban development land, the potential that conversions present is significant. A recent Altus Group report, titled Office Needs and Policy Direction for the GTA, for the National Association for Industrial and Office Parks (Toronto Chapter), released May 24th, 2023, suggests the current excess of office space could take more than two decades to absorb, and yet, still may not be fully absorbed.

Calgary is leading by example with 10 buildings set to convert, creating residential housing while eliminating one million sq. ft. of commercial space. Will Calgary be the blueprint for city centres of the future?

Other markets have followed suit, re-imagining the possibilities for existing building stock, especially when it comes to heritage properties. Plans are in place to repurpose some of Halifax’s heritage properties in the downtown waterfront area. Application is also underway to revitalize the century-old CP building in downtown Toronto – starting to see more and more buildings that incorporate the heritage aspect of the landscape. Several are already in existence. In Winnipeg, a turn-of-the-century warehouse in the exchange district has been converted to residential lofts.

The case for retrofit and re-use is a strong one, especially as cities move to address serious issues and, simultaneously, address the crisis of climate change. The case for salvaging existing buildings and the embodied carbon that goes with them may prove essential in efforts to slow global warming.