Q&A: How do we revitalize Ottawa's downtown core?

Ottawa’s once-thriving downtown core has suffered through hard times over the last 18 months due to the pandemic.

In OBJ’s Behind the Headlines, publisher Michael Curran spoke with this week’s newsmaker, Mary Rowe, a leading urban advocate and civil society trailblazer. A frequent commentator on national and international city-building programs, Rowe now serves as president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute, and she will be a keynote speaker next week at Ottawa’s Economic Outlook 2021, an event that will shine a spotlight on the biggest economic challenges facing the city in the year ahead.

As Rowe explained in this episode, a successful return to a prosperous downtown core is critical. But where to start? This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

OBJ: Bring us up to speed. As you just heard in the buildup, Ottawa's downtown core is suffering greatly because it's essentially empty these days. But zoom out for us a little bit and tell us what's happened to downtown cores in the pandemic.

MR: I'm very pleased to be in Ottawa speaking to the chamber about this because I think that you have your own set of challenges that are unique to Ottawa. A significant percentage of people that work in offices and who work in commercial engagement of some kind can work from home, and they haven't been coming into the office. That has had an extraordinary impact on the retail that exists and that is actually in service to a working population that comes into what we used to call the central business district. So, that's one set of challenges. The retail sector has just been decimated from COVID. So, the place where you used to take your dry cleaning or get a cup of coffee or get a sandwich at lunch, and all the kinds of services that exist to support us in concentrated work centres have been severely impacted. 

The other things that happen in downtown cores are cultural events, cultural institutions, recreational activity, tourism, and business tourism. That myriad of economic activity and social activity has been affected by the emptying of downtown, because we've had a shuttering of a lot of services that support vulnerable populations, like people that are experiencing homelessness or have mental health challenges. And without having these components, the kind of interactions that you normally have in busy downtowns with lots of comings and goings, you're left with a fairly bleak kind of landscape. 

This is a scenario that we're seeing in many Canadian downtown areas. On the one hand, it's devastating, and it's pointing out for us the challenges that may have pre-existed in downtowns, and, frankly, we didn't see them. Now, you see them, but it's also a moment to be thoughtful about what the future of downtowns could be and how we should be investing. What kinds of policies do we need to be putting in place to incentivize downtowns as they change? Which cities are always changing? And our downtowns are in the midst of extraordinary change. 

OBJ: Mary, what can be done about a situation like Ottawa's or more broadly downtown cores? The pandemic is the most recent cause of their demise. So, what should we be thinking? Do we have to sit back and passively wait for the pandemic to pass? Or can we be a bit more proactive about this?

MR: Well, firstly, we're not going to passively wait for anything, right? I mean, is the pandemic going to pass? Have you got a crystal ball here? I think we need to start understanding how we can be more resilient to different kinds of risks. That may be a pandemic, it may be a climate event. There are all sorts of things that impinge on cities all the time. And the question is: how can we nimbly be responsive? So, I think there are some interesting ideas we could start to think about. 

Let's look at downtown as a neighborhood. That's a big, big focus for us, is for us to look at the granular and get down to your main street, the main street you live on, but also the main street you work on. What do you need in that main street? You need a mix of uses. You need a mix of users, and that's one of the disadvantages, or one of the vulnerabilities of downtowns is that we tended to have downtown dominated by people that were coming into work and then leaving, which meant you didn't have a 24/7 feel in those communities. And I think that's a change we're going to see is an opportunity to put more housing into downtown areas. Maybe some of those commercial buildings can be adapted to accommodate some residential needs, cultural activities and different kinds of businesses and enterprises because you've got these fantastic assets in these buildings. You don't want them to sit empty. When you have empty space, people will be imaginative about how to reuse that space, and some of what we may need to think about is if zoning needs to change. Do our tax patterns need to change? What do we collectively want to put back into downtowns to make them attractive and vibrant? 

Remember that a lot of cities, Ottawa being one of them, depend on tourism. You depend on people coming in for two days of meetings and then spending another two days going to the gallery or another attraction. It's particularly true of places like Ottawa that have a significant tourism base as the nation's capital. And you already have some strong assets there in terms of recreational and cultural assets. So, it may be that you're going to start thinking about how you invest in those differently and connect them downtown. Ottawa had already started to do some brave things around pedestrianizing areas and made this huge investment in the LRT. So, I think Ottawa is very well-positioned to come up with some management of the repurposing of how we see downtowns. And it's going to take some courage and some risk-taking and some strong political consensus.

OBJ: That's a great preview of your keynote address coming up. And I'll just share a bit more information at this point. It’s Tuesday, Dec. 14 at the Shaw Centre. There will be a luncheon put on by the Ottawa Board of Trade and OBJ. Tickets are available to the public at ottawabot.ca. Thanks for joining us, Mary. We really appreciate it.