The hidden costs of Ottawa’s ‘revitalization’

Montreal Road
(Photo by Julie Oliver)
Editor's Note

This article originally appeared in the summer edition of OBJ's newsmagazine. Read the full issue here.

There are some business problems you don’t know about unless you’re in that business. 

Get an MBA. Two. Three. You’ll never know about the problem.

Bassel Awada is a businessman with a problem you’ve likely never thought about. Awada is co-owner of the Lorenzo’s pizza shop at 94 Montreal Rd.

Montreal Road is in year three of a four-year “revitalization” of the street. Construction began in June 2019 and is slated to end next summer at a projected cost to city taxpayers of $64 million. 

The cost to businesses on Montreal Road is harder to calculate.

The City of Ottawa has posted signs saying that businesses on the street are open during construction. If you want to try it, I would suggest a few practice runs through a quarry. When I did it, both the sidewalk and the sidewalk-arrow sign disappeared on me. Left me standing in front of what looked like a Rideau Street sinkhole.

When I asked a nearby construction worker what happened to the sidewalk, he laughed and pointed at the hole. I didn’t bother asking about the sign.

Open for business? I suppose. If your customers are brave, physically active and never wear flip-flops.

But getting back to business problems you’ve never thought about. I talked to several pizza shop owners when I was hiking down Montreal Road. There are a lot of good pizza shops on Montreal Road. (I’ve never been inside a bad one.)

Bassel Awada
Lorenzo's Bassel Awada. (Photo by Julie Oliver)

“How in the world do customers get here?” I asked Awada, as we stood outside his pizza shop, staring at the starting line for this year’s construction – the Vanier Parkway – a half block from Lorenzo’s. 

“That’s not a problem,” he says.

“Are you kidding?”

“No. We never get that many walk-ins.”

“So, construction isn’t affecting your business?” 

“I didn’t say that,” and he points toward the sinkhole on the other side of the Vanier Parkway. “Try delivering a pizza over there.”

Compensation questions 

The business problems you never think about. According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, 41 per cent of small businesses in Canada report being disrupted by government construction projects. 

And five per cent of its members – or roughly 65,000 businesses – report being “severely impacted” by such projects. 

Ottawa seems to have a particular fondness for “revitalization projects.” (That’s what we call them, by the way, in the nation’s capital. Infrastructure projects are for places like Hamilton.) 

The city has moved through downtown neighbourhoods like a revitalizing weed-whacker. Bank Street, Rideau Street, Elgin Street. Main Street. Montreal Road. They’ve all been whacked. 

No business has ever been compensated.

“It has always been the city’s position that businesses will benefit from revitalization once the work is complete, therefore no compensation is necessary,” says Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury, whose ward includes the Montreal Road revitalization project. “It is an investment by the city that will benefit businesses on the street in the long run.” 

Most cities in Canada see it the same way (the reason for the CFIB study), although Montreal started offering compensation to construction-affected businesses in 2018, up to a maximum of $30,000.

Given Ottawa’s love of revitalization, is it time to consider a similar program? 

Fleury is one city councillor who thinks it is. 

“(The city’s) economic development department is doing a study on that issue right now,” he says. “I’ll put in a request for an update.” 

Businesses being cc’d

I’m hiking my way from pizza shop to pizza shop on Montreal Road, standing inside Eastview Pizza now, talking to Nick El-Sahibi, whose family opened the shop in 1964. 

It is late morning, the pizza shop has just opened, and El-Sahibi is in a good mood. He laughs when I tell him that the construction in front of his store is an investment the city is making on his behalf.

“Here, let me show you my investment,” he says, and we walk outside. “What do you think?” 

Eastview Pizza
Eastview Pizza on Montreal Road. (Photo by Julie Oliver)

And there stands a new traffic-light pole. Erected one foot from the front door of Eastview Pizza.

“Why did they do that?” I ask.

 “I don’t know. I’m afraid to ask in case they put it inside next.”

“It almost is.”

“I know. I probably shouldn’t complain. I’ll survive this. Not everyone on the street is going to be so lucky. They’ve been cc’d.”

“Cc’d?” 

“Yeah. COVID and construction.” 

That’s not bad. I’m stealing it.

You can already start compiling a list of cc’d businesses on Montreal Road that didn’t make it. Karaoke bars, laser-tag rooms, restaurants – they’re papered over or abandoned, including the constituency offices for the local MPP and MP.

There is your standard COVID warning posted to the doors of MP Mona Fortier and MPP Lucille Collard. The notices say the offices will reopen – sometime.

Right next to the constituency offices are open businesses, trying to get through the construction and the lockdown.

If that doesn’t leave a business owner on Montreal Road with a sinking, someone-got-out-of-Dodge-ahead-of-me feeling, I don’t know what would. 

Study expected ‘in due course’

Two days after putting in his request, city staff reply to Coun. Fleury with an update about the compensation study. The first paragraph has the pith and substance of the staff reply: 

“We have not looked at what other municipalities are doing to support local businesses during City construction projects. As you know, we have been over-whelmed with COVID-19 recovery-rebound efforts.” 

I believe this is the polite way of saying, “don’t hold your breath.” 

When Fleury asked if city staff could be more specific about the study update – how long is the overwhelming expected to last? – he received a second reply. 

This time, the pith and substance of the staff reply was in the last paragraph: 

“As time and resources permit, we will undertake an environmental scan of best practices/programs in other municipalities and determine what opportunities may exist and communicate back to you in due course (late 2021/2022).” 

This is perhaps stronger than don’t hold your breath. 

Montreal Road
Photo by Julie Oliver

Although you may also notice two interesting things about the city staff replies. One – the City of Ottawa defines due course as next year. 

Two, city staff believe saying “we are overwhelmed” is a hall pass. 

Construction zone records 

You’re on your own, Montreal Road. Welcome to the five per cent. 

No need to be lonely, though. There are many other five-per-centers in Ottawa (that’s the number the CFIB uses for businesses “severely impacted” by government construction projects).

I may even know the leader of the local Five Per Centers. The business that, by my calculations, holds the record for longest time operating in a construction zone.

Steve’s Music on Rideau Street. The record is eight years. That’s how long there was a backhoe parked next to the guitar strings.

Construction around the store started in 2012 with “revitalization” of the Rideau Centre. Then it moved to King Edward Avenue. (Steve’s Music is half a block from the intersection.) Then it moved to Rideau Street. 

Then came LRT construction. Then came the sinkhole. Then came the pandemic.

Despite holding the record, the manager of Steve’s Music isn’t an advocate of compensating businesses. He worries about the cost to taxpayers.

“If the city just finishes the project, moves on and forgets about it, what have we accomplished?”

“The bigger issue is what the city does once the project is finished,” says Dan Sauve. “What are we doing to bring people downtown? If the city just finishes the project, moves on and forgets about it, what have we accomplished?”

It’s a good point. The city tends to treat its “revitalization projects” like maturing bonds. The project is complete. Here’s your investment back, with profit (look at the traffic-pole flags!). Go have fun.

The city does little after the maturity date to promote businesses that lived through years of construction. Nor does the city seem to have grasped this little urban-renewal fact – streets don’t need a city plan to change. They can do that all on their own.

Look at “revitalized” Rideau Street. One year after construction ended around Steve’s Music, the city came back to remove the benches it had erected nearby. Too many people were sleeping on them. 

Six months ago, a methadone clinic opened next door.

The city has yet to find a way to revitalize addiction. Although someone may get back to us in due course.

“As an investment, after eight years, no, the payoff was not there for us,” says Sauve. 

Does he have any advice for merchants on Montreal Road as they enter year three of their revitalization project?

“No. I’ll just wish them good luck.” 

I’ll do the same.

Ron Corbett is co-founder of Ottawa Press and Publishing, a regional book publisher. A former columnist with the Ottawa Citizen and Ottawa Sun, Corbett was also the third editor of Ottawa Business Journal.