Ottawa businesses await a plan from downtown revitalization task force

The Downtown Ottawa Revitalization Task Force has been meeting regularly over the past several months as it seeks ways to inject new life into Ottawa’s downtown core – but business advocates say local merchants are getting restless as they struggle to recover from the effects of the pandemic.

The task force was announced in July 2022 by Ottawa Centre MP Yasir Naqvi to study challenges to affordable, accessible housing in the area, reinvigorate local businesses, and provide ideas for a more sustainable environment and more inclusive community spaces that promote Indigenous reconciliation. 

Its recommendations will be made public in late spring, a spokesperson for Naqvi’s office told OBJ Monday.

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The spokesperson said the task force was meeting almost weekly between mid-September and the holiday break, missing only a few weeks in the aftermath of October’s municipal election. 

“It’s difficult to put an exact deadline on things, as the task force would like to ensure they have enough time to listen and engage with everyone who would like to provide their input before finalizing recommendations,” the spokesperson said. “That said, I think it is safe to say that the task force will publicly release its report before the end of spring.”

A plan for the downtown can’t come soon enough for the businesses affected by the current slowdown in foot traffic, according to the executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas. 

Downtown Ottawa has changed significantly over the past two years, Michelle Groulx says, in large part because downtown office workers from communities across the region have changed their commuting habits.

“It was good news, to a degree, that the public servants are having a hybrid return to the office, but we know there is still going to be a gap with the businesses,” said Groulx, referring to the recent announcement from Treasury Board president Mona Fortier. “Even pre-pandemic, the city of Ottawa, with the way that business downtown was, was dead after 5 p.m. on a weeknight and not busy on weekends unless there was an event.

“I’d love to see the task force create a plan that helps bring a livelier downtown 24/7.”

There is a sense of urgency among local businesses, she added, and uncertainty about the future. In many cases, business owners are unsure whether to renew their leases in downtown locations without a plan in place for revitalization.

“Any kind of exciting plans or next steps would be nice,” Groulx said. “We know that many major cities are forming these plans and forging ahead. It’s not going to be easy or cheap, but at least forming a plan would be good.”

According to an emailed statement from Naqvi’s office, the task force will spend the “coming weeks” working to “finalize a suite of robust recommendations that focus on enabling the development of a people-centred environment throughout downtown Ottawa – an environment that is safe, clean, combines accessible, affordable, and market-rate housing, promotes quality architecture, has maintained a sense of place through its heritage, offers considerable green space, amenities, and a broad range of social services adapted to the needs of local Ottawans.”

“The creation of this task force comes at the perfect time,” Neil Malhotra, vice-president of Claridge Homes and co-chair of the task force, told OBJ in July, when the task force was announced. “We need to build consensus on a way to move forward to bring activity back to Canada’s national capital and we’re all excited to see what we can come up with as a group representing many different voices within our community.”

Malhotra, who is co-chairing the task force, told OBJ in September there’s no magic formula to replace the thousands of workers who used to patronize downtown stores, restaurants and other services but are now staying home. 

“It’s not a simple issue,” he said. “I’d love to give you a one-word soundbite, but it’s going to be very complicated. I think the best way to describe it right now is it’s a blank slate. Everything is on the table, and we’re just at the start of that process. There are no easy answers here.”

Made up of social housing advocates, not-for-profit and for-profit housing developers, Indigenous leaders, sustainability advocates, local business improvement area representatives, and tourism stakeholders, the task force is in good shape for creating “some good propositions for every level of government,” said Groulx.

“Downtown needs a plan, and then they can start to execute or at least communicate a timeline to businesses,” Groulx said. “Hope – and the promise of enterprise – is what keeps people going.”

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