Surviving revitalization: Creative solutions to overcoming urban renewal projects

Elgin
From left, Christa Blaszczyk, Susan Murray and Robin Coull among the Elgin Street merchants who launched a customer engagement campaign to overcome roadwork disruptions. Photo by Mark Holleron

This article originally appeared in the 2019-20 BOMA Commercial Space Directory.

As the construction hoarding came down and Ottawa’s light-rail line finally opened, many Ottawa business and property owners regained access to key transportation corridors, sidewalks and other areas of downtown.

But for many tenants and landlords in other parts of the city, the challenges are just beginning. Infrastructure upgrades, urban renewal and new construction are a constant feature in any growing city.

Just as businesses along Laurier Avenue learned to accommodate Ottawa’s first segregated bike lane, other neighbourhoods – and entire industries – are learning to survive and thrive in the face of disruptive construction activity and the lingering after-effects.

Here’s a look at some of their strategies:

Elgin Street

Challenge: In early 2019, a long stretch of Elgin Street closed to traffic as the road was ripped up so that construction crews could replace underground utilities and give the popular commercial area a facelift. In the short term, however, the project caused significant disruptions for commuters, pedestrians and shopkeepers.

Solution: At The Gifted Type and boogie + birdie, store owner Christa Blaszczyk says social media has been the best way for her to engage with the public.

“We wanted to make sure that we were reaching our customers before (construction) actually happened to keep that communication going,” she says, adding that it was the easiest way to let the public know they were still open.

Some of the businesses also banded together and created the “I Dig Elgin” online campaign that attracted considerable attention with its humorous signs (“Gettin’ diggy with it” and “Drills just wanna have fun” are two examples) and was used to promote special events and sales taking place in the community. 

Besides appealing to the masses, Blaszczyk says having a relationship with the city and the contractor helped shopkeepers immensely. The community held monthly meetings with the project planners to ensure everyone was on the same page.

Parliament
In addition to restoring parts of East Block, pictured, construction workers will be undertaking significant work on the adjacent Centre Block.

Parliament Hill

Challenge: Ottawa Tourism has been busy preparing for the decade-long closure of Centre Block, one of the most popular tourist attractions and landmarks in the capital. 

Solution: There’s still lots of activity in the Parliamentary Precinct, and  two new tours – one of West Block, home to the temporary House of Commons, and one at the new Senate of Canada – ensure there is still plenty for visitors to see. 

“Both of these tours have proven to hold lots of appeal,” says Catherine Callary, vice-president of destination development at Ottawa Tourism. 

The organization is also highlighting other new attractions, such as the recently reopened Canada Science and Technology Museum and Ottawa Art Gallery.

Ottawa Tourism is also pushing the federal government to ensure the city’s most recognizable landmark doesn’t disappear during renovations through the use of a “trompe l’oeil,” or printed image that drapes over scaffolding and is commonly deployed in Europe during the restoration of historic buildings.

Elgin
Repairs to a sinkhole that opened up on Rideau Street was the most dramatic challenge that the Rideau Centre had to navigate during LRT construction, but several smaller issues required creative thinking on the part of the mall management.

LRT 

Challenge: The front door of the Rideau Centre was effectively surrounded by construction activity as Ottawa’s light-rail line was built. The mall had to deal with restricted pedestrian access and blocked entrances, which is set to continue into 2020 with the street renewal project.

Solution: Having an open dialogue with the city and its contractors was instrumental in ensuring the mall continued to run efficiently, says Brian O’Hoski, general manager of the Rideau Centre. This meant that when inevitable issues arose – such as trucks blocking a sidewalk and a poorly placed porta potty – it was easier for the mall and construction contractors to find solutions because of their rapport. 

“(Construction) is painful obviously … and as a landlord you end up playing the middle man looking out for the tenants and trying to expedite the construction schedule at the same time,” he says, adding that the visual appeal of the exterior of the mall was one of the largest hurdles.    

In order to help out the streetfront tenants dealing with the mess, O’Hoski says he checked in with them frequently and offered extra mall promotion and signage to help boost foot traffic to the most affected restaurants and retailers.