Canada

Sutcliffe offers plan to bring people back to downtown Ottawa

“Small business owners I’ve spoken with have told me what they need is more people.”

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Mayoral candidate Mark Sutcliffe has vowed to bring people back to downtown Ottawa by converting office buildings emptied by the COVID-19 pandemic into condominiums and rental apartments.

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“Small business owners I’ve spoken with have told me what they need is more people,” Sutcliffe said in releasing the latest plank of his policy platform Monday.

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“We should be doing everything we can to have more people living downtown, make it an amazing destination for residents and tourists, and address safety issues in the ByWard Market.”

Ottawa’s downtown now faces significant challenges, he said, because many office workers and visitors have not returned to the core since early 2020 when the pandemic began.

A recent study that examined the extent to which North American downtowns have recovered from the pandemic ranked Ottawa 45th on a list of 62 cities. Conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto and the University of California, the study assessed the level of activity in downtown cores by measuring cellphone signals and comparing them to pre-pandemic levels.

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Ottawa’s downtown cellphone activity between March and May of this year was 48 per cent of its pre-pandemic level. That placed it fifth out of the 10 Canadian cities examined.

Before the pandemic, 140,000 federal employees occupied 38 million square feet of office space in the National Capital Region, much of it in downtown Ottawa.

But those office workers have been slow to return to their desks, and the country’s largest public service union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, has vowed to make the right to continue remote work part of its next round of contract negotiations.

Meanwhile, Wellington Street remains closed between Bank and Elgin due to security concerns raised by the truckers’ occupation of downtown Ottawa in February.

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All of it has left businesses in downtown Ottawa struggling.

“Without a plan to attract more people, the future of our downtown is at risk,” said Sutcliffe.

He vowed to:

• speed the conversion of vacant office space into market rate and affordable housing units by securing at least $30 million from the federal government to help incentivize property owners to make the change

• work with the federal government and tourism leaders to develop a plan for a major new attraction in downtown Ottawa, such as a museum or cultural centre

• animate the downtown core with more festivals and events

• allow right-of-way access for sidewalk patios and outdoor sales

• support an LRT connection that would link downtown Gatineau with downtown Ottawa

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Gatineau’s transit authority is currently studying ways to link the downtowns of Ottawa and Gatineau with a tram, possibly along Wellington Street.

Sutcliffe has said he’s not opposed to reopening Wellington Street, but contends any decision about its future must be made pursuant to a larger debate about downtown Ottawa.

As part of his proposal to revitalize downtown, Sutcliffe also said that, as mayor, he would stop ignoring the safety issues that plague the ByWard Market.

Sutcliffe said he would work with community service agencies and the Ottawa police to develop a dedicated neighbourhood resource team and an operations centre to address crime and addiction issues. He also endorsed the targeted use of close-circuit television cameras “to support and monitor” police work in the area.

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Sutcliffe said he would increase the number of car-free areas, public walkways and park benches to encourage people to stay in the ByWard Market, while also establishing a permanent cleaning crew to maintain the area’s public spaces.

In July, Ottawa Centre MP Yasir Naqvi launched the Downtown Ottawa Revitalization Task Force to examine how the city should adapt to the new reality of hybrid workplaces and a downtown with fewer office workers.

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