Barrhaven officials look to establish community as more than a ‘sleepy suburb’


As one of the province’s fastest-growing suburbs, Barrhaven is more than a bedroom community and has a lot to offer residents and businesses, officials say. 

“We’re really focusing on adding that place-making vibrancy so that people realize that we’re no longer the sleepy suburb anymore,” said Andrea Steenbakkers, executive director of the Barrhaven BIA. 

The community recently reached 100,000 residents, which has led to efforts to reimagine the future, including further development. Last year, all three levels of government committed funding to help create a downtown district that would be the “beating heart” of the community, according to Steenbakkers. The initiative would include a new civic building, performing arts centre, library, outdoor plaza, shops and residential apartments. 

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But even before these projects get underway, Steenbakkers said Barrhaven has already become its own self-sustaining community. 

“We really are a true work-shop-play-live community and a very large one at that,” she said. “We have all the amenities here. We have over 500 stores and services, recreation centres, parkways, pathways, rivers, you name it.”

The “I Heart Barrhaven” campaign, designed to bring urban experiences to the suburbs, is part of that effort. 

“As a BIA, we’ve traditionally focused on reaching our primary market with outreach, but now we intend to expand and let people in surrounding regions know all that Barrhaven has to offer,” said Steenbakkers.

Last month, four eight-foot-tall hearts were unveiled across Barrhaven. The red metal structures were created as a backdrop for people to take photos, much like the Ottawa sign in the ByWard Market. 

The BIA has also wrapped 20 traffic control boxes around the community with four designs produced by a local artist meant to represent the various types of businesses that make up the community. Barrhaven T-shirts were also unveiled with proceeds going to support the Barrhaven Food Cupboard. 

“We are excited to bring urban style installations to our community to add a sense of pride and excitement,” said Crystal Logan, Barrhaven BIA’s marketing director. “We like to be leaders and are working to reinvent what it means to be a suburb and this was a large motivation in our new place-making initiatives.” 

BIA officials say they started to notice a positive shift in community pride during the pandemic. Residents were spending more time at home and local businesses saw a boost in traffic. 

“For years we were a bedroom community where businesses thrived Thursday night, Friday and Saturday. But now they have a steady seven-days-a-week stream of customers,” said Steenbakkers. 

Rising costs, staffing shortages, and transit all pose challenges

However, as with most business districts, Barrhaven faces challenges, including the rising cost of doing business and staff shortages across industries. 

“It affects everyone,” said Steenbakkers. “Things that are top of mind in terms of cost are lease and rent, hydro, the cost of food, the cost of labour, just generally dealing with inflation. It’s a huge issue for everybody. Plus, people are a lot more particular with how they’re spending money from the consumer standpoint because their own personal cost of living has gone up as well.”

Barrhaven has several unique challenges. Accessibility has been a big issue, especially for employers, according to Steenbakkers. She said the community lacks good, reliable transit routes that service the business district. 

“We have definitely seen cuts and changes to our routes since the LRT started to be built,” she said. “A lot of express routes have changed. It was a problem before the pandemic, but now, locally, it’s even more of a problem. Just getting around Barrhaven is very, very difficult. You can’t just take one bus to get around.”

The lack of transit has made it difficult to attract customers from outside the community, as well as workers. 

“We want to make sure that the people who want to work in Barrhaven are able to take transit and access our business centres,” she said. “The Amazon facility opening in our far west business area has improved transit in that area, but we definitely need more internal transit in and around Barrhaven.”

Growth brings shifting demographics

According to Steenbakkers, Barrhaven’s growth and increased residential offerings have led to shifting demographics in the area. 

“It’s allowing empty nesters to sell their four- or five-bedroom family home and it’s offering smaller spaces for people who are buying their first home or are young professionals who don’t have kids yet.”

As Barrhaven continues to grow, so do newer residential communities such as Half Moon Bay. The City of Ottawa has received applications to bring commercial retail development to that side of the Jock River, including two grocery stores. Barrhaven West Coun. David Hill said he expects shovels to be in the ground by the end of year. 

Residential development and demographic changes have had a significant impact on business in the area. 

“We’ve had quite a bit of retail and business park growth coming down the pipe as well,” Steenbakkers said. She added that the influx of new residents with different household types has prompted more diverse business offerings, especially in retail. 

“I have seen a lot more balance in terms of the makeup of our business community,” she said. “We’re definitely seeing more little independents pop up. We were pretty heavy on professional services … before and I feel it’s becoming a lot more balanced, with more traditional retail.”

Barrhaven has low vacancy rates for retail space, which has led leasing costs to rise. 

“It’s a supply and demand thing,” Steenbakkers said. “It’s just so fast-growing. The number of businesses wanting to come here exceeds the amount of available space.”

Councillor keeping focus on Barrhaven expansion

Barrhaven East Coun. Wilson Lo said the changing retail landscape means residents no longer need to travel to Merivale Road to access services. With more people staying in the community, his focus has been on ensuring infrastructure keeps up with growth. 

As a supporter of remote and hybrid work, Lo said it can’t be up to suburban residents to support downtown businesses. 

“I don’t think we should be responsible for supporting downtown businesses. I think downtown residents should support downtown businesses just like how Barrhaven supports Barrhaven and Kanata supports Kanata,” said Lo. “Downtown needs to support itself. It can’t rely on people who don’t want to be there.”

Part of that change, Lo said, is having more people live in the downtown core. 

“It can’t just be a residential building, a commercial building, or an office building. It needs to be a mixed space,” he said. “You can have shops on the ground floor — the first few floors even — and a shared work space above.” 

With files from Charlie Senack 

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