Turning an office into a home: The city’s new idea to get people living downtown

The City of Winnipeg could be eyeing a new way to get more people living downtown – by filling the spaces left vacant by office workers working at home.

Two Kelly’s Cafe in the city’s downtown relies on nine-to-five office workers. Owner Kelly Oxelgren says the last two-and-a-half years have been up and down.

“Office workers come back, then they go back home for working from home, come back – it’s like a yo-yo,” she said.

With many now working from home permanently, or part of the week, Oxelgren says she’s had to shift her business model.

“I’m now relying on people looking for me, finding me who want to support small businesses.”

The flex-work week, which is here to stay for many companies and governments, has left empty offices in downtown.

The city’s property and development committee chair wants to change that.

“I have a lot of downtown residents and, you know what, I’d like to be welcoming more,” Said Coun. Sherri Rollins.

She has put forward a motion asking the city’s administration to explore how Winnipeg could encourage and make it easier for developers and not-for-profits to convert some of those empty office spaces to residential units.

Rollins says the city could be proactive by rezoning commercial corridors in advance to attract mixed-use development through conversions or new builds.

“What we have now is some commercial buildings that are underutilized and what we could have in the future is more residential so it’s supporting that commercial, supporting that office space,” Rollins said.

Other cities are looking at this, too. Calgary is offering millions of dollars worth of grants for conversions.

The Downtown BIZ says the office vacancy rate in downtown Winnipeg is around 16 per cent and Winnipeg can’t rely on officer workers alone to make that come back.

“Our downtown is different post-pandemic so we need to do things different, it really is about how we make that shift from a central business district to a social gathering district,” said Kate Fenske, CEO of the Downtown BIZ.

Oxelgren says more people living near her cafe would help, but adds they need a reason to move here. She wants to see more grocery stores and amenities including more local food and coffee shops. 

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