Ottawa Centre MP hopes CMHC, feds can play role in funding downtown office conversions

Downtown Ottawa L'Esplanade Laurier
L'Esplanade Laurier, shown in the background, is one of the Ottawa office properties on the federal government's disposal list.

Ottawa Centre MP Yasir Naqvi says he’s hoping federal agencies such as the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. will play a role in funding projects that would convert decaying downtown office buildings into apartments or other uses including hotels, schools and performing arts spaces.

Naqvi, who sits on a task force that’s looking at ways of revitalizing Ottawa’s downtown core as it recovers from the pandemic, told OBJ this week the group expects to release its final report next month.

The task force, which also includes developers, social housing advocates, small business leaders, Indigenous representatives and others, has spent several months deliberating over how to inject new life into Ottawa’s pandemic-battered core. 

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Naqvi said the committee received “robust” feedback from the public as well as businesses and community groups. Calling its final report “a work in progress,” the veteran Liberal politician said the document will likely include recommendations for repurposing vacant office space as well as making Ottawa’s downtown more “livable” for residents and attractive to tourists.

“We’re looking at all those aspects, going back to the fundamental premise that the best way to revitalize the downtown is by bringing more people,” Naqvi said.

One of the cities the task force has turned to for inspiration is Calgary, which launched a program two years ago that provides incentives to developers looking to convert unused downtown office space into rental apartments. 

The city is now considering adding hotels, schools and performing arts spaces to the list of permitted uses for vacant office buildings.

Naqvi, who visited Calgary last fall to get an up-close look at how the program works, said Alberta’s largest city offers “a very good example” for Ottawa to follow.

“They, I would say, have been leading the way in conversion projects,” he said in an interview this week. “I definitely see an opportunity for us to look at a variety of uses for (vacant offices).”

The centrepiece of Calgary’s program is a municipal fund that gives qualifying developers a subsidy of up to $75 a square foot for conversion projects, up to a maximum of $15 million. Ten projects have been approved since the program was launched in 2021.

Naqvi said he likes the Calgary model, adding he hopes the Ottawa task force will recommend further investigation into whether “there is an opportunity to create a fund, whether at the municipal level or federal level or both, to incentivize” such conversions in the nation’s capital.

“There is some risk-taking involved as you speak with developers who are engaged in conversions,” he said. “There are costs associated with it. No two conversions are alike.”

Naqvi said he’s spoken with officials from CMHC about potentially helping to finance conversions and also hopes money can be freed up under the federal government’s multibillion-dollar National Housing Strategy. 

But he admits it’s still early days and nothing is set in stone.

“I think more work needs to be done to get to a place where there’s a fund or some sort of incentives that are being created at the federal level, but that’s something that I’m starting to pursue and that’s why this report is important,” Naqvi said. “I’m hopeful that one of the (task force’s) recommendations will be along those lines.”

Members of the task force have stressed that office-to-residential conversions are just one aspect of what needs to be a comprehensive long-term approach to helping Ottawa’s downtown bounce back from the pandemic.

Neil Malhotra, chief financial officer of Claridge Homes and a co-chair of the task force, told OBJ this week there’s “still a lot of work to be done” before a cohesive plan is in place.

“We need this city to make some major investments downtown,” adding municipal officials and other economic leaders need to “stop navel-gazing about how we want to fix things and actually start taking some action.”

Naqvi agreed, saying the task force is a good start but won’t cure all the downtown’s woes.

“I really think that the need is now to find ways to revitalize downtown Ottawa,” he said. “One report is not going to be sufficient.”

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