Section of William Street becomes pedestrian plaza to boost ByWard Market daytime traffic

Ottawa Market
Left to right: Major Jim Watson opens the pedestrian plaza on William Street with costumed tour guides, Ottawa Market chair Peter Hume, and Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury. Photo by David Sali

The organization that runs the historic ByWard Market building says a $50,000 pilot project to convert a stretch of William Street into a pedestrian-only plaza is the latest step in its long-term plan to reinvigorate the flagging tourist zone.

Ottawa Markets, a not-for-profit municipal services corporation created in 2017 to oversee the city-owned ByWard and Parkdale markets, unveiled the new project on Monday morning.

Vehicles will be barred from a one-block portion of William Street between George and York streets from now until Labour Day. Instead, the street will be reserved for Muskoka chairs, picnic tables, food stands and children’s games, including a life-sized version of Connect Four.

Ottawa Markets chair Peter Hume said the city needs to get creative in an effort to lure more shoppers and vendors back to the ByWard Market, which has been losing ground to farmers’ markets in other parts of the region for the past couple of decades.

“Our response to change was often more bureaucracy and more regulation,” he said. “What we know is that we need to create a better environment, a better Market experience.”

The William Street plaza is one of two pilot projects designed to make streets in the Market more pedestrian-friendly this summer. Temporary ramps have been installed to make a section of Clarence Street between Parent Avenue and Dalhousie Street more accessible for patio-goers and a pedestrian promenade has been added.

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury, whose ward includes the ByWard Market, said the projects will give the city valuable feedback as it prepares to table a major study on the future of the Market this fall.

He said the city expects to pour tens of millions of dollars into new streetscaping and other enhancements in the area over the next decade in partnership with Ottawa Markets.

“We hear from the community that there’s no (public) space when you come to the Market to just hang out,” Fleury said. “I think the use of these public spaces will make the Market overall more attractive.”

Capturing the public's imagination

Hume said the pending arrival of light rail will make the historic tourist district more accessible to transit users, and he hopes such projects will make the Market a must-see destination for both out-of-towners and residents. Ottawa Markets will use the pilot projects to gauge public response to the pedestrian zones and seek suggestions for improvements.

“We’ll look at all of that and hopefully it will lead to a program that will help us elevate the Market experience,” he said. “When light rail comes, we’re hopefully going to get a whole lot more people here.”

ByWard Market BIA executive director Jasna Jennings said although she likes the look of the colourful chairs, games and food stands, it remains to be seen if the plaza will capture the public’s imagination.

"At the end of the day as a business organization, we need to make sure the business environment is improving.”

“I think it’s really important that we’re doing the proper surveys and research,” Jennings said. “If we haven’t moved that needle with bringing more folks down, then it’s a nice addition to the space, but at the end of the day as a business organization, we need to make sure the business environment is improving.”

Ottawa Markets executive director Jeff Darwin said the organization turned down a proposal to host a beer festival at the site and another for a portable screen to show the NBA playoffs in the plaza at night.

He said organizers want to see how the daytime activities play out before adding events in the evening.

“I think our biggest challenge right now is getting the families and the children back here through the day,” he said.

Considering bylaw changes

Hume said the William Street makeover is just one item on the corporation’s multi-year slate of proposals to breathe new life into the Market.

The group ​– which funds its $1.4-million annual budget through rents charged to merchants in the central market building and nearby 70 Clarence St. as well as permit fees from farmers and vendors ​– is already investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations to the aging central market building, which is more than 90 years old. But Hume said it needs a much bigger influx of cash to bring it up to 21st-century standards.

“We have to start thinking about how we modernize our building to meet retailing and food preparation (needs) in 2020,” he said.

Ottawa Markets is also eyeing potential bylaw changes that would loosen restrictions on what type of merchandise farmers and other vendors can offer.

For his part, Hume said he’d like to see the city give farmers who run stalls in the Market the green light to sell prepared foods, something they’re currently prohibited from doing.

“Farmers are saying, ‘We need that value added to make things work for us,’” he said. “We can’t do that now.”

But Hume also said Ottawa Markets will have to be “strategic” in its approach, noting that past attempts to change the vending rules ended up pitting stall operators against each other and were ultimately scrapped in the face of fierce opposition.

“We want to be careful, we want to be deliberate,” he said. “The Market wasn’t built in a day. The last thing we want to do is rush ahead and do something that results in a setback.”