Development, tourism, legal pot: Highlights from Mayor Watson’s State of the City address

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The successes of Ottawa 2017, the city’s booming development scene and trepidation about incoming marijuana legalization were top of mind for Mayor Jim Watson as he delivered his State of City address to council on Wednesday.

‘Transformative’ development

Ottawa’s planning committee saw 107 applications in 2017, the mayor told the crowd gathered in city council chambers. Watson highlighted the approval of multiple high-rise condo towers near current and forthcoming O-Train stations as examples of transit-oriented development.

Slated to open later this year, Watson called the light-rail transit line the city’s “most transformative (project) since the Rideau Canal.”

The city is currently undertaking a $3-million study on a potential expansion to the line that would connect the downtown to Bayshore and Kanata.

In recent weeks, the handover date for the LRT has been unclear as the construction consortium behind the project asked for an extension on the initial May date.

Watson lauded recent statistics from the city’s real estate sector: housing starts, for example, were up 35 per cent in 2017, year-over-year. The mayor also stated the industrial vacancy rate was down to 4.6 per cent, but a report last week from Colliers International has it even lower at 3.7 per cent.

He also noted that the number of Ontario Municipal Board hearings dealing with Ottawa disputes are down 68 per cent over the past two years, a decline he traced to the city’s more collaborative approach to development.

Last month, OBJ spoke to industry stakeholders who offered different explanations for the drop. Dean Karakasis, executive director of Ottawa’s Building Owners and Managers Association chapter, said he hadn’t seen any change in the city’s approach. Rather, he believes the drop in OMB appeals is likely a result of less development in general.

Watson also looked ahead to the new Ottawa library development. He said the process can’t move ahead until the city clarifies the level of federal support it can count on from Library and Archives Canada, adding that he discussed the issue with Finance Minister Bill Morneau during a meeting on Monday.

Seeking cannabis cash

The impending legalization of recreational-use cannabis will place an extra burden on Ottawa police officers, Watson said, and he’s expecting the provincial government to provide compensation.

The enforcement and implementation of new marijuana laws will be felt most intensely by municipal police as well as other first responders, Watson said. City staff have pegged the cost of legalizing marijuana in Ottawa at $8 million.

Citing that figure, the mayor sent a letter to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Finance Minister Charles Sousa asking for support to offset the costs when the drug enters the mainstream.

“Their new duties stem from federal and provincial policy decisions, and I believe the responsibility should rest on those levels of government to fund the impact of this legislative change on municipalities,” he said.

Ottawa 2017 retrospective

Watson spent the first half of his address recapping the events that he said “made 2017 an unforgettable year in Ottawa.”

He ran through tourist draws such as Red Bull Crashed Ice and the La Machine spectacle which drew residents and visitors alike onto Ottawa streets. He highlighted the Grey Cup in November, which he says brought $100 million in economic benefit to the city over the weekend’s festivities.

As a result of the numerous Ottawa 2017 events, Watson says the average hotel occupancy rate in the city was up seven per cent over the year before.

To keep up the momentum, Watson highlighted initiatives such as the four per cent hotel and Airbnb tax that will bolster Ottawa Tourism’s marketing services, as well as the city’s continuing effort to bid on high-profile sport and cultural events.