Inside the Office-to-Residential Conversion of Calgary’s Petro Fina Building

The Petro Fina Building will be converted from an abandoned office building into a residential rental tower, while maintaining its heritage exterior.

Fina Residential renderings courtesy of Astra.

On May 7, as part of Avenue’s Future of the City Festival, around 40 Avenue readers toured the Petro Fina Building with Astra Group, Peoplefirst Developments, the companies redeveloping it from an office to residential use.

The tour demonstrated some of the advantages and challenges of residential conversion and underscored the importance of reinventing downtown.

Fina Tower was purpose built in 1959 as the Calgary home of Petrofina, a Belgian oil company founded in 1920. In 1981, it sold its Canadian retail operations to the Canadian government and they became part of Petro-Canada.

The tower features a beautiful front facade with decorative grille-work and green tile detailing, and it was designated as a municipal heritage site in October, 2023.

Fina Residential renderings courtesy of Astra.

Astra Group, Peoplefirst Developments is now working on converting the building to residential use as part of the City of Calgary’s downtown office conversion program. Currently 14 buildings have been approved by the City for this program with three more under review. Astra has already converted the Cornerstone building just a few blocks away from Petro Fina as part of the same program.

Inside the building, many of the offices have been left totally intact, says Maxim Olshevsky, CEO and managing director of Astra, showing the tour group through a floor of the building that still sported office furniture, abandoned files and even a pair of shoes that had been left behind.

Petro Fina is an 11-storey building with more than 162,000 square feet of space. The building will reopen as Fina Residential and will be managed by Peoplefirst for rental use. There will be 103 suites in the building, with both two- and three-bedroom apartments available.

“We’ve managed to make the units bigger,” says Olshevsky. “And when you get nine-foot ceilings in an apartment it feels better.” The three-bedroom units for example will range between 1,100 and 1,400 square feet and will rent for between $2,600 and $2,800 a month. While smaller suites can rent for more money per square foot, office conversions often work best for larger units, meaning that the conversion program also brings variety of apartments into downtown.

While the units will all be rental, Olshevsky notes they will have “condo-style” amenities such as in-suite laundry, a dog-washing station and gym.

The Petro Fina Building is connected to the Plus-15 network and that floor will feature public space and building amenities, as well as commercial space for vendors and services.

Fina Residential renderings courtesy of Astra.

One of the things that made this building a good option for conversion was that there was almost no asbestos that needed to be removed and the design of the building allowed for it to be carved into apartment-sized units relatively easily. That’s not the case for all office towers.

“This is a heritage conversion,” says Olshevsy, “so there are extra challenges… Certain architectural details have to be maintained.”

Office conversion cost is typically around $350 per square foot, but the Petro Fina Building costs are a bit higher because all of the mechanical systems need to be replaced. Because exterior changes can only be made on one side of a heritage designated building, no extra balconies can be added, and all the additional venting needed for homes such as bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans have to go out through the back of the building.

“When you have an existing canvas you have to work within the parameters, which can be tough,” says Olshevsky.

Changes in building techniques can also create a challenge for heritage conversions. “These buildings were built to breathe,” notes Maxim, pointing to cork used as a barrier between the exterior walls and the old radiator heating system, whereas newer building techniques seal all the elements out.

The renovation will increase the building’s energy efficiency and will exceed the energy code requirements by 25 per cent. In part, this is because 25,000 square feet of glazing will be replaced with more efficient triple-glazed windows that can be opened.

Fina Residential renderings courtesy of Astra.

Looking out through the windows of Petro Fina, Olshevsky points to several empty or nearly empty towers nearby. “We need to do something with these buildings and serve the market that’s emerging, which is residential.”

Astra aims to have Fina Residential open by October, 2025.

“Calgary has managed to catch the eyes of the world,” says Olshevsky, noting that the office conversion program has been written about by The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, the Lincoln Land Institute and others. “Now we need to live up to it.”

For access to more tours and behind-the-scenes events, join Avenue’s A-List.

Fina Residential renderings courtesy of Astra.

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