Want Amazon? Build a more liveable city, says Ottawa’s chief planner

downtown ottawa

With a task force working on a bid to bring Amazon’s second headquarters to the capital, Ottawa’s top planning guru said Tuesday it’s time for the city to step up its game when it comes to going after new business opportunities.

"I think we have to be a bit more ambitious,” Steve Willis said after a panel discussion on the future of urban planning in the National Capital Region. “We have to believe we can actually do this.”

Mr. Willis, who took over as the city’s manager of planning, infrastructure and economic development earlier this year, told the audience that Ottawa is competing against cities from all over the world in the race for talent and can’t afford to get left behind.

“We have to not take for granted that we’ll retain the people we’re educating at our universities,” he told the crowd of businesspeople gathered at law firm Borden Ladner Gervais for the event, which was sponsored by the Toronto chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

“I’m thinking as a dad, will my kids stay here or will they go? We have to stay very focused on that basic goal of giving people a reason to stay and giving them all of the benefits of staying.”

Fellow panelist John Manconi said his son, a millennial who lives in Toronto, told him recently he didn’t want to come back to his hometown because it doesn’t offer the opportunities and lifestyle many young people want.

“It’s about how liveable our downtown core is for someone at his age,” said Mr. Manconi, who heads OC Transpo. “Can we become that? One day.”

Stephen Willis
Stephen Willis is Ottawa's manager of planning, infrastructure and economic development. Photo provided.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson is slated to tour Amazon headquarters in Seattle on Thursday as part of the city’s fact-finding efforts for its HQ2 bid. Amazon has said it plans to spend $5 billion US to develop the new site, which will eventually house up to 50,000 workers. 

Mr. Willis said he believes the city checks off almost all the boxes the tech giant is looking for, including a well-educated workforce and world-class research facilities.

“I think it’s fair to say if Amazon (comes to Canada) … we’ve got a hell of a good chance of it coming to Ottawa,” he said. “We think our main competition is Toronto and, with all due respect to ...  those who live in Toronto, we actually think we’ve got a much better infrastructure here already. I think we have a lot going for us here."

Valuable exercise

Mr. Willis said even if Ottawa fails to land Amazon’s HQ2, the city will have gained valuable experience for the next time a similar opportunity comes around. 

“One of the things that we need to keep in mind is Ottawa does bids like this all the time,” Mr. Willis said. “For us, there’s nothing to be lost bidding because we already know how to do it. If we don’t get the main (headquarters), there’s certainly other things Amazon’s doing that we’re very interested in getting, too. Learning to bid (on projects) like this is terribly important for us. I think it’s absolutely worthwhile to go for this, and I think we’ve got a really great offer.”

Still, Mr. Manconi said the city needs to find ways to revitalize underused assets such as Sparks Street in an effort to put the region on the map with the Amazons of the world and the people who work for them. 

"I think we have to be a bit more ambitious... we have to believe we can actually do this."

He said Ottawa is still often perceived as a second-tier city, describing a dinner he had in the ByWard Market on Monday night with guests from Germany and Toronto.

“Their line was, ‘It’s pretty good – for Ottawa,’” he said to laughter.

Mr. Willis, who oversaw the bidding competition to redevelop LeBreton Flats in his previous job at the NCC, said he’s working on cutting red tape at City Hall to make it easier for developers and other entrepreneurs to pursue the kind of projects that fuel economic growth and add new vitality to areas such as the ByWard Market.  

“‘Just get it done’ is a good mantra. We have to be creative in our strategies, we have to be responsive to feedback.”

In an interview with OBJ after the discussion, Mr. Willis said builders and private citizens alike have told him there are too many layers of bureaucracy involved in approving development applications and other planning decisions at City Hall.

“We need to just review our own processes and make sure that files aren’t getting handed off to too many different people along the way. This is not sexy, but it is hard work that we need to do in order to make the process more effective.”

City caught off-guard

Mr. Willis told the audience Tuesday he thinks city planners were caught off-guard by the influx of tech firms such as Shopify that have chosen to set up shop in the downtown core, and the city’s infrastructure has yet to catch up. 

He said the Confederation light-rail line will help spur new housing and economic development near transit hubs downtown and in places such as Bayview Station, where Trinity Development Group is spearheading a massive project to build three mixed-use highrises of at least 50 stories.

But Mr. Willis added his department can’t ignore the need for more economic diversity in suburban neighbourhoods such as Orleans and Barrhaven.

Shopify offices
Shopify's downtown Ottawa headquarters on Elgin Street.

“The challenge for us is … helping some of those areas that don’t have this advantage” of being near LRT stations, he told the crowd. “We would like to get jobs located in outlying areas.”

That will require sitting down with the private sector to figure out exactly what services employers need to make those parts of town more attractive to business, he explained after the presentation.

“They want to find the type of office space that meets their needs, they want to have the amenities that their employees are going to need,” he said. “It’s about finding that marriage of all those different elements to make it actually work."