Downtown Ottawa needs ‘visionary and transformative’ action, report says

The report “calls on federal, provincial and municipal governments, as well as the private sector, civil society and individual citizens to work together and reinvent our collective relationship with the downtown.”

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Downtown Ottawa is experiencing “multiple crises at once,” in the form of housing and homelessness, mental health, drug use and an economic downturn, and needs “visionary and transformative measures.”

That’s according to a report by Ottawa’s Downtown Revitalization Task Force, a group of local politicians, business owners and strategists. Titled Revitalizing Downtown Ottawa: A Call to Action for Our City, it outlines the struggles facing the nation’s capital in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with much of the city’s workforce no longer commuting downtown. .

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The report “calls on federal, provincial and municipal governments, as well as the private sector, civil society and individual citizens to work together and reinvent our collective relationship with the downtown.”

Downtown Ottawa was built around a “car-centric, commuter-centric approach,” Somerset Ward Coun. Ariel Troster said Friday. Troster, a member of the task force, said the city needed “strong partnerships” with the federal government for major revitalization projects, including converting vacant office buildings into housing, among others.

Ariel Troster neighborhood of Somerset
Somerset Ward councilor Ariel Troster says the city needs to rethink the nature of downtown Ottawa. Photo by Ashley Fraser /postmedia

Downtown neighborhoods in major cities in Canada and the United States are adapting to changes in work habits, and hybrid work prevents many public and private sector workers from having to commute.

“We need to rethink the nature of downtown,” Troster said, encouraging people to live and work downtown “because they want to, not because they are forced to.”

Troster said the federal government has a “particular responsibility” to downtown Ottawa because “the decisions the feds made during and after the pandemic have had an impact.”

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The report sets out ambitious goals for the center of the capital, envisioning a neighborhood of “easily accessible amenities and available affordable housing that will attract new residents and workers.

“We anticipate that new residents, both families and young professionals, will shape a new culturally diverse and inclusive downtown, while participating in and strengthening the local economy,” it reads. “A place where the city’s programs improve the feeling of well-being and security for everyone. We can envision Ottawa as a leader in key growth industries, where communities and businesses can incubate and grow.”

Downtown Ottawa should also be a model of adaptability to climate change, benefiting from cutting-edge energy technologies and focusing on pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, with “universal year-round accessibility,” the report adds.

To get there, the task force recommends “rapid processes that encourage transformational actions.”

The report envisions a “downtown of the future” with increased residential developments to attract families to live downtown, as well as an emphasis on green spaces and active transportation and “24-hour entertainment” with restaurants, theaters, concert venues and stadiums.

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Last fall, the federal government announced that 1,600 housing units would be built on its “surplus properties” in Ottawa in light of the city’s growing housing crisis as part of an overall plan to build nearly 3,000 units on government-owned properties. throughout Canada.

“Public buildings and offices have shaped the history of our country,” Canada’s Minister of Public Services and Public Procurement Jean-Yves Duclos said in November. “They have communicated to their people the legitimacy and stability of Canada’s institutions. Now, in response to unprecedented housing needs across the country, many of these buildings can be transformed into safe, accessible and affordable housing.”

In spring 2023, the federal government said it would sell 10 properties in the national capital region as “a normal part of the life cycle of government-owned buildings.”

That list included L’Esplanade Laurier, which currently houses several government departments. The task force report identified the three-building complex as one of three key “transformative projects” to revitalize the city center.

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A “leading candidate” for city center revitalization, the towers could be converted into low-cost and family housing, along with townhouses, cafes and shops, a new municipal park and additional green space, according to the report.

The Jackson building at 122 Bank St., another federal property identified for discharge, could be converted into a housing cooperative with “income-generating functions” such as commercial space, according to the report. Additionally, the Ottawa Public Library at Metcalfe and Laurier will be vacated within the next five years and could then be transformed into a “space for quality arts and cultural events that draw people in,” he added.

However, Troster says it will take more to turn around downtown Ottawa.

“If the feds want to be part of a visionary partnership, creating truly wonderful spaces for people within walking distance of Parliament, we not only need to have federal land and buildings, we also need a partnership to be able to develop them.” she said.

Sueling Ching, president and CEO of the Ottawa Board of Trade, said an action plan following the report would be published in the early months of 2024.

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The board of trade, a business advocacy and economic development group, identified downtown Ottawa as its top priority for 2023 and called on all levels of government and local businesses to do the same.

Sueling Ching Ottawa Board of Trade
Ottawa Board of Trade President and CEO Sueling Ching says the city center is “very important to the economic growth and community prosperity of our entire region and, of course, as the nation’s capital, for the whole country.” Photo by Julie Oliver /postmedia

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 25 per cent of Ottawa’s population worked downtown. and 50 percent of those workers were in the public sector, Ching said. There is now an opportunity to “transform the city center into something more diverse and vibrant than before.”

But like Troster, Ching says funding is needed from higher levels of government for transit projects, converting office spaces into housing, mental health and addiction support, and more.

“It is vitally important to the economic growth and community prosperity of our entire region,” Ching said, “and, of course, as the nation’s capital, for the entire country.”

With files from Catherine Morrison

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