Some Ottawa ‘food desert’ neighbourhoods to benefit from city zoning change

food retail grocer

A bylaw amendment that would allow grocery stores to be constructed in certain types of zones is being called “wonderful” by at least one small business advocate. 

On Wednesday, city council carried a motion to allow food retail stores to operate in any area currently zoned retail. Food retailers include supermarkets, butcher shops, bakeries, delicatessens, produce outlets, and farmers markets. 

Five retail zones did not allow for food retail, city planner Mitchell LeSage told councillors earlier this month. 

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“This is a general housekeeping amendment,” he said. “This was an exercise in going through and recognizing where we forgot, or where it was missed, and adding it in.” 

With the amendment, 135 zones city-wide will now permit food retailers, according to an email to OBJ from city staff.

“It is important to note that the affected zones were chosen by staff as they already allow for retail stores, which should minimize any impacts as the result of these changes,” said Carol Ruddy, program manager of zoning and intensification, in the email. 

It’s an amendment deemed “wonderful” by Michelle Groulx, executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas (OCOBIA).

“(It) addresses the 15-minute neighbourhood strategy in Ottawa’s official plan,” she said. “We hope to see more small to mid-size independent food retailers in our city, as well as larger ones to bring food – a necessity – to various parts of Ottawa where it’s missing.”

Downtown is one area where more grocery stores are needed, according to Groulx. 

“In doing some review these past years, we have been hearing that more food retail is needed in our downtown core,” she said. “There is a great opportunity now to see multicultural food retailers start up in our city that match the great diversity we have.

“I hope to see so much more, and everywhere. We are already starting to see small and mid-size food retailers popping up in neighbourhoods. This will allow for much more and make it accessible for everyone.”

Several areas across Ottawa have been referred to as “food deserts” over the years, meaning residents lack access to affordable, essential groceries within walking distance of their homes. West Centretown, including Chinatown, Little Italy and LeBreton Flats, is one such area. 

According to the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study, only 15 per cent of residents are within a 15-minute walk of the nearest supermarket. 

While a number of factors, including cost and residential density, play a role, zoning can be a major barrier to food accessibility, Dave Massine, owner of Loblaw franchise Massine’s Your Independent Grocer on Bank Street, told OBJ last year in a conversation about Little Italy’s struggle to attract grocers.

“You think about everything that would go into creating a 40,000- or 50,000-square-foot retail space in Centretown, there’s not a lot of spots where you’d pop something like that (in),” said Massine. 

While the bylaw amendment increases the number of possible locations for food retailers, it stops short of a broader zoning overhaul that would address concerns such as food deserts in certain areas. 

Orleans-South Navan Coun. Catherine Kitts said the amendment may not have much effect in her ward, which consists mostly of low-density suburban neighbourhoods. 

“I’m happy to see it, but there’s a couple of my communities that are really food deserts,” she said. “Bradley Estates, as an example, it’s an hour walk to the closest place to get food, which is a Walmart, and it’s not easily accessible by transit.”

Few of the areas in her ward that struggle with food access will be affected by the amendment, she said. 

“There was a lot of interest from the community about these changes but it might not mean a grocery store in their neighbourhood,” she said. 

When it comes to attracting retailers, she added that it can be a “chicken-and-egg situation.”

“It’s tricky where you have low density because there’s no amenities, but in order to get amenities, you need higher density,” she said. “There’s no amenities and they’re not serviced well by transit, so the density is lower. But then, of course, to attract commercial, you need higher density. The vendors like Farm Boy are going to look at a minimum density in order to go on the ground floor of a building.”

She said she hopes there will be more opportunities for bylaw amendments to allow food retailers in more residential areas as the city undertakes its bylaw review. 

Zones affected by the amendment include: 

  • I2 – Major Institutional Zone
  • L2B – Major Leisure Facility Subzone
  • MC7 – Mixed Use Commercial Subzone 7
  • T2 – Ground Transportation Zone

Also impacted are R5 subzones, which are high-density residential zones where non-residential uses are permitted on the ground floor. 

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