Op-ed: We all need to care about the downtown

ByWard Market stock image

There’s no shortage of good news happening already this year in our city. The airport is rising from the ashes, convention business is springing to life, and we continue to see companies of all kinds experiencing rapid and exciting growth.

Of course, we have our struggles. The tech sector is taking a beating (depending who you talk to) and business insolvencies are on the rise. A recession lingers on the horizon. But perhaps our most pressing problem remains at the heart of our city: our downtown core, including the ByWard Market.

I recently met with OBJ’s editorial advisory board, which consists of 15 people from various sectors and backgrounds across the city. They had a lot to say about the downtown and they didn’t mince words. Some called the commercial real estate situation “dire.” Others described our core as being in a state of “urban decay.” 

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Our conversation revolved around crime and homelessness, the parking problem and the state of public transit. These factors, combined with the move to remote or hybrid work, make it pretty unappealing for many workers to return downtown. As a result, just as we see the core decline, we see the rise of the 15-minute neighbourhood. Why attempt the trek downtown when you have everything you need within a short commute of your home office?

This brought us to a larger question. Unless they live or work regularly in the core, why should people across the city care about what’s happening downtown? Of course, there are economic arguments to be made. But for someone in Cumberland, Constance Bay or Kars – even for someone in Alta Vista – those arguments may seem thin. If you haven’t set foot in the Market for years, what do the issues mean to you?

One person even brought up the D word: de-amalgamation. What a mess that would be, but there is a rationale to be found.

Of course, the state of Ottawa’s downtown is not a new issue. But we are at a critical inflection point. There will likely be no shortage of ideas and proposals, some more practical than others. Now, it is becoming increasingly pressing that those ideas be gathered, prioritized and a budget put against them. What’s the vision for our downtown?

First and foremost, we all need to care. Because as some smart person once said, if the core is rotten, everything else follows.

Anne Howland is editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Business Journal.

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