City needs to 'get serious' about revitalizing downtown core, task force co-chair says

Sparks Street
More events such as this weekend's Ottawa Asian Fest Night Market on Sparks Street will be needed to help breathe new life into Ottawa's downtown core, advocates say. Photo by David Sali

A top executive at a development firm that recently scrapped a planned condo tower in Hintonburg says he sees “zero will” from the city to encourage residents to live inside the Greenbelt, adding it’s time for council to “get serious” about the issue if it wants to help revitalize Ottawa’s flagging downtore core.

“We’ve got to get serious about a lot of things, and quite frankly right now the city doesn’t look like it’s that concerned about getting residents to live downtown,” Neil Malhotra, the chief financial officer of Claridge Homes, told OBJ on Friday. 

“That’s going to have to change – hopefully in the next term of council. They don’t realize how much damage they’re doing to the downtown core. Tens of thousands of people need to move back into the (core) if we’re going to have a functional downtown that’s vibrant. I see zero will at the City of Ottawa to deal with this issue.”

The downtown core has suffered during the pandemic as thousands of employees who once commuted to office towers began working remotely. Statistics Canada recently estimated that 46 per cent of Ottawa’s workforce is now working from home, compared with 28 per cent elsewhere in the country.

Much of that discrepancy is driven by the fact that the largest occupier of downtown office space, the federal government, has yet to mandate a return to the office for its employees. 

Canada’s top bureaucrat, Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette, recently said she expects workers in her department to come to the office two days a week – signalling that a hybrid approach is likely to be the way of the future for the federal civil service.

Downtown task force

Malhotra, who is co-chairing a new task force aimed at creating a long-term plan to revitalize Ottawa’s downtown, said he’s been noticing a bit of an uptick in foot and car traffic in the central business district lately. 

At the same time, he said there’s no magic formula to replace the thousands of workers who used to patronize downtown stores, restaurants and other services but are now staying home. 

Malhotra said the task force – whose other members include Ottawa Centre MP Yasir Naqvi as well as social housing advocates, Indigenous leaders, sustainability advocates, local business improvement area representatives, and tourism stakeholders – has its work cut out for it.

“It’s not a simple issue,” he said. “I’d love to give you a one-word soundbite, but it’s going to be very complicated. I think the best way to describe it right now is it’s a blank slate. Everything is on the table, and we’re just at the start of that process. There are no easy answers here.”

"I’d love to give you a one-word soundbite, but it’s going to be very complicated. There are no easy answers here."

Malhotra’s firm recently made headlines when it announced it was cancelling a proposed 30-storey condo highrise near the Bayview LRT station, declaring the project was no longer economically viable due to rising construction costs, inflation and higher interest rates among other factors. 

Malhotra said new development charges such as a “parkland cash-in-lieu” policy recently approved by council that comes into force next month are driving up the cost of transit-oriented developments that would make downtown living more attractive.

Under the new bylaw, developers are charged 25 per cent of the land value for highrises, money the city uses to pay for parks, while the park charge in suburban areas is just 10 per cent.

Malhotra said the increased fees will add about $100 per square foot to highrise construction costs – meaning condo buyers could pay tens of thousands of dollars more per unit.

“I don’t think people are interested in paying a premium to live in the core,” he explained, adding he’s not convinced the next council will do anything to address the situation.

“We’ll see,” Malhotra said. “It’s been a hard time for businesses in the city the last two and half years, and we’re going to have to get serious about how to help them. It’s going to take support from multiple levels of government.”

'Phone full of ideas'

Kevin McHale, the executive director of the Sparks Street Business Improvement Area, said the hollowing out of Ottawa’s downtown due to COVID-19 has been “worse than any other major city in North America.”

McHale, who also sits on the task force, is currently attending the annual convention of the International Downtown Association in Vancouver, where BIA executives, municipal politicians and business leaders from around the world are brainstorming ideas to get pandemic-battered cities back on their feet.

“I’m coming back with a phone full of photos of ideas,” he said. “We can’t just expect that the office (workers) are going to come back. I don’t think that’s realistic. We’ve got to think, ‘OK, how are we going to get people to come down here and use this place in a variety of ways?’”

In an interview on Friday, Naqvi said politicians and business leaders need to get creative to turn the capital’s downtown core into a “very attractive place to be.” 

More public spaces and cultural activities will help, he said, driven by such projects as the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats and the city’s long-term plan to revamp the ByWard Market. The task force is also planning to bring in experts from organizations such as the Canadian Urban Institute to pick their brains on how to reinvigorate Ottawa’s downtown.

Naqvi also noted he’s travelling to Calgary in a few weeks to get an up-close look at how developers and municipal officials in Alberta’s largest city are working together to convert large swaths of empty office space into housing – something he believes we’ll see a lot more of in Ottawa in the coming years as the federal government moves to shed some of its downtown real estate holdings.

“It can be done,” Naqvi said. “It is not straightforward, but it is being done.”

At the end of the day, McHale said, it will take a community effort to put Ottawa’s city centre back on the map.

“We want residents to be proud of their core,” he said. “We often talk about it being the heart and lungs of a city. If it’s diseased, the whole body is in bad shape. We need to find that balance … so that we can recover and thrive.”