Capital building: Megaprojects set to reshape Ottawa, help attract top talent

Blair Station LRT
Blair LRT Station. Photo by Ted Simpson

This article originally appeared in the 2019 Ottawa Business Growth Survey.

The sight of cranes, dump trucks and scaffolding has become a near-ubiquitous feature of Ottawa’s urban landscape in recent years as new homes, commercial spaces and amenities are constructed to meet the needs of a city that’s projected to surpass one million residents in 2019.

However, many of these planned and under-construction initiatives are more than just growth-related infrastructure. They’re transforming how and where Ottawa residents live, work and play, improving commuting times and changing how visitors view Canada’s capital.

Among the most eagerly anticipated projects is the first phase of Ottawa’s light-rail line, which is poised to open this summer. Early construction work on its second phase is already underway. This expansion will include a link to the Ottawa International Airport, which itself is planning a $25-million overhaul of its passenger terminal that will also see a new hotel connected directly to the facility.

Elsewhere, the $2-billion effort to construct a new Civic Hospital campus on the edge of the Central Experimental Farm will rank among the largest construction projects in the city’s history.

And, despite setbacks, the National Capital Commission remains committed to redeveloping LeBreton Flats.

In addition to changing Ottawa’s outward appearance, these megaprojects have the potential to attract skilled workers and tourists, argues Ian Faris, the president and CEO of the Ottawa Board of Trade.

“These are city-building projects … that are going to draw talent to Ottawa (and) bring visitors into town,” he says. “(They will) impact positively on how Ottawa is viewed elsewhere. We are not a sleepy government town anymore.”

Ottawa reimagined

Earlier this year, several local business and community leaders came together to help strategize the best approach to these megaprojects. The task force will work to drum up community support and get people excited about this new phase in Ottawa’s history while providing meaningful input into the evolution of their city.

“We can be (a) world-class mid-size city, and people are starting to believe it and demand things that are world-class,” says Shawn Hamilton, a senior vice-president at real estate services firm CBRE and managing director of its Ottawa office.

"These are city-building projects … that are going to draw talent to Ottawa (and) bring visitors into town."

Indeed, some of the results of this year’s Ottawa Business Growth Survey suggest that local business leaders are paying closer attention to the impact of citywide issues on their own operations. When asked to rate several issues, the percentage of respondents who said transit and transportation issues are getting worse jumped by double digits.

While that may reflect, in part, the beating that local roads took over a particularly harsh winter as well as disappointment over the delays in opening light rail, it also underscores the importance of modern rapid-transit and transportation infrastructure to the business community.

But it’s not just so-called “hard” infrastructure such as roads and rail lines that stand to pay dividends. New urban developments and civic amenities are also drawing significant attention for their potential to shape the capital.

For example, moving Ottawa’s central library to LeBreton Flats will create an anchor in a new community that will effectively expand the city’s downtown to the west. The 216,000-square-foot building will be located near the new Pimisi LRT station, connecting it to the rest of the city. Once open, the library is expected to receive nearly 5,000 visitors per day, up from the 2,000 who currently visit the existing Metcalfe Street branch. The project, expected to cost around $193 million, is scheduled to be completed in 2024 and promises to feature a world-class design.

“It will become a strong community hub … welcoming residents and visitors alike,” says Danielle McDonald, the CEO of the Ottawa Public Library. “It will be the centrepiece of the future LeBreton Flats development – one of the most important urban development projects in this city in a century.”

The broader LeBreton Flats neighbourhood still retains its potential as a vast swath of undeveloped urban land, despite the collapse of plans to redevelop the site with a series of condos and an NHL arena. The National Capital Commission is moving ahead with a new process to redevelop LeBreton Flats and announced plans in March to start with a piece of land next to the new central library building.

Together, the projects will bring thousands of new residents and visitors to a long-neglected corner of central Ottawa.

“LeBreton Flats will change how the city views its public space (and) the library has always been a hub for all Ottawans,” Hamilton says. “These things appeal to people, whether they’re at play, visiting, creating a new life or building their existing life.”

Talent attraction

In several sectors, Ottawa companies are global leaders in emerging fields.

Autonomous vehicles is one such sector, which is being supported by a 16-kilometre testing facility that’s touted as the first of its kind in North America. Ottawa is already home to more than 70 companies involved in various aspects of the autonomous vehicles industry, including heavy hitters such as BlackBerry QNX and Ford.

To succeed, these companies need top talent. For several years, the Ottawa Business Growth Survey has found that access to skilled workers is among the top issues facing local companies.

In many cases, a city’s livability can feature heavily in a pitch to prospective employees and help companies attract top talent.

“Ottawa is recognized for its quality of life,” says Micheal Burch, managing partner at Welch LLP. “When you add in these (projects), it definitely shows that we are an expanding and developing city.”

Hamilton also highlights the sense of momentum that these projects are bringing to Ottawa.

“All of these will contribute to the economy, culture, vibe and desirability of Ottawa,” he says. Whether it’s viewed through the lens of attracting talent, economic output, tourism or quality of life for existing residents, “these things really matter,” he says.

Infrastructure priorities, ranked

Ottawa Business Growth Survey respondents ranked the top infrastructure investments or major developments they believe will have the greatest positive impact on the economy.

(The first figure indicates the percentage of respondents who selected the project as their top-ranked selection. The second figure is the percentage of respondents who included it among their top five selections.)

LRT
LRT Phase One: Top-ranked (29%), top five (65%)
LeBreton
Redevelopment of LeBreton Flats: Top-ranked (15%), top five (63%)
resurfacing
Greater spending on road resurfacing/repair: Top-ranked (12%), top five (55%)
Gladstone
LRT Phase Two: Top-ranked (10%), top five (70%)
417
Highway 417 widening: Top-ranked (10%), top five (53%)
tunnel
New interprovincial bridge or tunnel: Top-ranked (6%), top five (43%)