Federal control of Wellington Street would be ‘catastrophic,’ one business leader argues

Wellington Street sign

While talks about the control and management of Wellington Street continue between the city and federal government, many business leaders are clear in their views: the street needs to stay open, and be kept under the purview of the municipal government.

“We’ve been talking extensively about creating vibrancy and gathering places in the downtown core,” Darren Fleming, CEO of Real Strategy Advisors, told OBJ. “Blocking (Wellington) off and giving it over to the federal government … would just be catastrophic.”

Fleming cites a number of challenges that plague real estate owned by the federal government. He also added that the feds have their hands full with efforts to dispose of 10 office buildings in the National Capital Region.

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“They’re not good stewards of real estate,” he said. “Most of the buildings are under-capitalized and in need of constant repair. I think giving (Wellington Street) over to them would be the worst.”

In April, the stretch of Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill reopened to vehicles after a 15-month closure that began in January 2022, when the area was overtaken by the “Freedom Convoy.” 

In advance of the opening, Procurement Minister Helena Jaczek wrote to Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe, encouraging the city to keep the street closed. She said the federal government wants its jurisdiction to include both Wellington and Sparks streets as a way to address security issues and to create a vibrant public space. Such an ownership transfer, she wrote, would offer “a unique opportunity” to “reimagine this space as Canada’s preeminent civic forum.”

While the city chose to open the street, Sutcliffe said staff will continue to work with the federal government on ways to “animate” the section of Wellington Street that faces Parliament Hill.

In response to a media request from OBJ, Jaczek’s office said on Tuesday that there were no updates on talks with the city. In a previous response on April 27, the office said the conversation was ongoing.

Although we are disappointed, we respect the City of Ottawa’s decision to reopen Wellington Street to vehicles,” said the emailed statement. “Nonetheless, we will continue to work productively and collaboratively with the city, and other key stakeholders, on a path forward for Wellington Street that creates a safe and welcoming environment for visitors, employees and representatives in Canada’s parliamentary precinct.”

Sutcliffe has suggested that the city and federal government are open-minded when it comes to plans for Wellington Street. 

Business leaders say the issue needs to be considered in the larger context of reimagining downtown Ottawa.

“It’s probably the most critical juncture to what we do with our downtown core in the last 50 years,” Fleming said.

As long as the city maintains control of Wellington, Fleming said he could see a hybrid plan to address the federal government’s security concerns while keeping the road open to vehicles. 

“Closing it would make crossing the city even more irritating and the last thing we want is to have people who want to come downtown to find it irritating,” he said. “You want people to be drawn downtown. We want to make it energized and fun and exciting.”

For security, he suggests retractable barriers like bollards be used during protests and events. 

According to Jennifer Cross, business development manager for MARANT Construction, Wellington Street can’t be considered as an isolated issue. 

“I think Wellington at the moment has become a bit buzzy,” she said. “It needs to be put back into context because it’s actually not about a street. It’s a whole puzzle. Ottawa is embarking on a broader vision for downtown.

“(Wellington Street) connects many of our capital projects and new developments,” she said. “We are currently working on plans for revitalizing and reimagining our central business district and ByWard Market. It’s a critical piece of infrastructure that impacts our residents, our business owners and our tourism.”

Cross said the city needs to take the lead on any Wellington-related project. 

“We have been heavily impacted by the feds already downtown,” she said, citing the “Freedom Convoy” protests and many near-empty federal office buildings. “We need to give those businesses every chance to succeed and if Wellington plays a role in that, we need to know as a city.”

Andrew Penny, president of Kingsford Consulting, also does not support the federal government taking over Wellington Street, but says he could see a compromise that could bolster downtown revitalization efforts. 

“The challenge with Wellington is that it has been a major east-west artery for the longest time,” he said. “However, when we shut it down, people adapted. I’d like to see Wellington as sort of Canada’s front porch, where we as the city of Ottawa get to watch the government, where we get to see the government buildings and entities.”

That vision could include improving the storefront presence on the street to draw in more foot traffic, he said, as well as adding more restaurants, public washrooms and space to host regular events. 

He also proposes introducing a free city shuttle service running the length of the street, especially if plans to build a new sports arena at LeBreton Flats go ahead. 

“That would allow people to move across Ottawa freely without needing cars,” Penny said. “And it would take the heavy traffic off Wellington.”

In mid-April, Kevin McHale, executive director of the Sparks Street BIA, told OBJ that giving the feds authority over Sparks and Wellington would create a jurisdictional tug of war.

“If you turn this into a federal district, who’s now responsible for policing?” he said, as an example.

McHale, whose BIA represents dozens of businesses on the pedestrian thoroughfare, also worried that plans to convert the area into a public space would get tied up in red tape.

The city is working on a long-term plan for the area and staff are expected to present a traffic study report to council for consideration early in 2024. Council also voted to continue discussions about a redefined parliamentary precinct and directed staff to ensure that transportation plans and land valuation are included in talks with federal officials.

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