What could you do with a million square feet downtown?

How we’re partnering with Calgary Downtown Association to accelerate a million square feet in Downtown Calgary

Ken Bautista
5 min readDec 2, 2020


The pandemic has continued to have devastating effects on our downtowns and main streets, impacting business owners, space owners, tenants and residents. It accelerated disengagement downtown, emptied office towers, and exposed weaknesses in real estate and retail proformas modeled on foot traffic levels and inflexible leasing structures. It will be years before we see downtowns return to full activity. But even with the shift to work-from-home and hybrid workstyles, 74% of office workers still desire to work from the office in some capacity (JLL, 2020). Maintaining some level of connection to downtown and diversifying the downtown user base and experience in the meantime will be key to rebuilding momentum.

While it’s difficult today to see beyond the current pandemic, the question we need to ask isn’t if or when we return downtown, but rather how. How will we reconnect with each other to collaborate, re-invent and re-engage as communities? How can we use space to foster innovation if we can’t gather and meet like we used to? How might we re-imagine and re-launch the experiences that made our downtowns so vital?

In the coming months, 1M is partnering with Calgary Downtown Association, private developers, and community partners to accelerate creator-led projects that activate under-utilized spaces downtown.

“The Calgary Downtown Association recognizes that the alignment of all our program partners for 1M, the Stephen Avenue Master Plan, Downtown Ambassadors and Green Line LRT transformations, with a direct communication link to our membership is critical to the health of downtown Calgary,” says Jennifer Rempel, CDA general manager. “1M will help create the right conditions to attract private investment, stimulate economic growth and create amenities that are key to stabilizing city centre as part of Calgary’s economic recovery strategy. Together with our program partners, and the support of the City of Calgary Council Innovation Fund, we will create the right mix of investment to best support existing downtown businesses, while also addressing vacancy rates by making it more accessible for popups, artists, and entrepreneurs to set up shop here.”

Making more small bets downtown, faster

Building on our startup community organizing roots, 1M is a platform for local entrepreneurs and creators, community organizers, and space owners to test and incubate hundreds of small moves and experiments in a focused way (one block, one million square feet at a time). Here’s how it works:

  • Start, share or boost a project. Build a 1M project profile to share retail, design, culinary, and real estate projects in your downtown
  • Match and mobilize project partners. Develop your project through hands-on programs, mentorship and seed funds
  • Build a base of support. Engage users and build visibility in the neighborhood to shape and test your project, product or service
  • Grow the neighborhood. Build momentum for your brand, business, or project initiative from your community (and beyond)
Types of downtown projects being built on 1M

1M was born after years of exploring the intersection of technology, urbanization and entrepreneurship — developing startup community hubs like Platform Calgary and Startup Edmonton from the ground up; co-organizing grassroots city-wide events like Startup Week and Design Week; working with private landlords and public institutions to reposition spaces for modern creators; and connecting into global communities like Techstars and TEDx. We’ve been part of projects that worked really well, and other projects that failed miserably. We continue to learn each time how to mobilize partners and resources towards city building and downtowns, locally and beyond.

Downtown development is often driven by big moves, big vision, big bets and big capital, led by major players and stakeholders. Traditional planning and development requires a measured process and long-range methodology to manage resources and risk due to the scale of who and what’s involved.

Today, downtowns need to be built for more small bets — adapting to changing uses of space, changing business models, changing operating licenses, and changing leasing structures faster than rules can be made.

Over the last decade, we’ve seen that user/consumer/tenant behavior and tastes are evolving faster than traditional city building and downtown development can keep up. Even before the pandemic, downtowns were faced with a changing user base demanding more — more customization, more amenities, more experiences, more convenience, more flexibility, more safety, and more connectivity.

Assembling a neighborhood of spaces to support projects

We built 1M to support the creative entrepreneurs and space developers who are constantly tuning to the changing user and consumer — organizing our favorite meetups, pop-up markets, food truck festivals, co-working spaces, outdoor patios, food halls, subscription services, and unique retail brands that bring life and vitality to the places we work and live. Even as they work independently with limited resources, face regulation friction, and are deemed highest risk, they are the small bets that add multiplier value to square feet in our downtowns.

Downtowns still do, and always will, matter

1M fits in the messy middle between place visioning and place development, where early concepts turn into investable projects and ventures. 1M provides a platform for partners and operators to organize, test and scale an optimal mix of services, amenities, incentives and investments in an area.

Connecting the dots to build place momentum in Downtown Calgary

In an era where any business can be built from any city in the world, the importance of where you build from, and who you build next to, has evolved significantly. Humans inherently need physical and meaningful connection. They need the diversity and sense of purpose that downtowns provide. Just like people choose where they live by neighborhood, tenants and companies will rebuild loyalty to downtown based on who and what’s available fifteen minutes away from where they live or work (or say, a million square feet!).

‘Traditional’ needs to make way for more innovation downtown. Innovation comes when we tune the system to help more small projects level up faster, doubling down on what works and moving on from what’s not working. Investing in organic, entrepreneurial teams who’ll build actionable projects that provide real math and data to support next stage development and investment. Thinking about new ways to unlock real estate portfolio value by making investments in experience and place.

The good news is that people are already building and investing in the future of Downtown Calgary, but you might not know it (or see it) just yet. That’s why we’re amplifying and boosting these projects through 1M. From energy to agriculture, hospitality to retail, Calgary has all the brains and resources to build a resilient, confident and high performing innovation ecosystem, with downtown as its centre of gravity.

Now, what could you do with a million square feet?



Ken Bautista

Partner at @makespacegroup, Co-Founder at @publicfoodhub. Previously co-founded @startupedmonton. http://kenbautista.com