Future of Downtown: Views from the core

Future of Downtown: Views from the core

The way people move and work in the core is changing. In our Spring/Summer 2023 issue, we explore the possibilities by talking to industry leaders and engaged residents about how to build a great downtown.

In this series, four residents living in our area of interest — north of the Queensway, east of Bronson, south of the Ottawa River, and west of the Rideau Canal — talk about why they love their neighbourhood and what changes they want to see in the short- and long-term future.

Donna Holtom

Donna Holtom inside Art House Cafe. Photo by David Kawai

Why do you live downtown?
My husband and I both have businesses based downtown and we have worked downtown for many years. When the children were young they attended Elgin Street School, Hopewell, and Lisgar; all were great schools.

What do you enjoy about the location?
I love the area because it is a diverse, walkable community in the heart of the city. The area is recognized as a heritage neighbourhood with many turn-of the-century homes and buildings. Also, it’s close to many small businesses with owners on site who are very committed and engaged with their community. There are wonderful cafés, bakeries, restaurants, yoga studios, as well as unique retail stores. Art House Café, owned and run by Genevieve Betournay, is a great community hub, always abuzz with young artists and patrons. It hosts many live performances by local artists and its walls are filled with creative art. In the spring and summer months, the cafe hosts Music in Dundonald Park on Friday nights.
Le Poisson Bleu Restaurant on Somerset is a great destination for seafood lovers. Dessert First, a new boutique bakery by Julia Gindra on Bay at Somerset, has become a neighbourhood favourite.

What would you like to see improved?
Parks in the area need to be upgraded and maintained. This area has very few green spaces. As the city continues to intensify there is a greater demand than ever for spaces where people can be outdoors, get active, and benefit from nature. With many young families moving to the area, there is a need for more investment in the
infrastructure that would support healthy, sustainable lifestyles. This also means a reinvestment in community centres, schools, and parks to ensure young families have the amenities they need.
Also, as residential units are being converted to studio apartments, student accommodations, or small one- or two-bedroom apartments. Larger homes and living environments are required to sustain a vibrant mixed community.

What project(s) or issues are you paying attention to these days?
Community building and engagement. Whether through a group of volunteer gardeners at Dundonald Park or artistic groups such as Music and Beyond, Odyssey Showcase, or the Ottawa Library, bringing art to the outdoors is a perfect fit for this welcoming community.

Tom Evans and Heather Wilcox

Heather Wilcox and Tom Evans were photographed inside HighJinx, Kent Street’s funky antique and retro store. Photo by David Kawai

Where do you live downtown?
Heather: We’re renting in the Golden Triangle. We were renting for 20 years, until 2021, in West Centretown.
Tom: We live on Delaware now, between Cartier and the canal.

Why did you first move downtown?
Heather: Well, it was a deal. It was a semi-detached house, and it was really central so I could walk to work.
Tom: I previously owned a house in Carleton Place. When we moved to Ottawa, we both worked downtown and found that we really couldn’t afford to buy a place. So we decided to rent. We’ve lived in a few places that were not central, but Heather knew somebody who lived downtown and told us about a half-duplex on James where the rent was pretty reasonable. The longer we stayed there, the more reasonable it became. So yeah, it was great for us — we didn’t need a car.
It’s kind of interesting how we ended up here on Delaware. We had lived quite a while on James Street and the landlord kept the rent low for a long time. I think
it was kind of a tax write-off for him, but as a consequence he didn’t do any of the work on the place — we did that. Heather built a nice garden and it’s quite a nice home, but ultimately the house needed a lot of repairs that he wasn’t prepared to do. We did what we could, but it sort of became unlivable.
Heather: And then this opportunity came up and I said, “Let’s go for it.”
Tom: I do some work for Tippet-Richardson; I’m a moving consultant for them. So the landlady here wanted to move downstairs; this was her family home, and she was quite elderly. So she called on me to come and do the survey of her place and give her an estimate on moving. She was actually one of the founding DJs of Chez 106 — Shelley Hartman. Sadly, she died less than a year ago.
In any event, when she was still living here, I moved her down to the main floor of the house. As I was chatting with her, I looked around and thought the space she was in would suit Heather and I really well. We moved in after I moved her downstairs, and it’s been about three years now. We kind of lucked out. I mean, it’s very expensive, but we didn’t have to do a lot of searching.

What do you like about the area?
Tom: I like the character of the neighbourhood. In Carleton Place, I lived in an old farmhouse that had become absorbed into the town. I prefer to live in a place that has character, and Centretown certainly provides that. It’s frankly more interesting. We became a part of the community on James Street when we were there for solong.

Heather: HighJinx is good example of this. Originally drawn to the store’s collection, we became more engaged with its mission of ‘neighbours helping neighbours.’ Owners Karen Nielson and Leigh Reid give their proceeds to Centretown residents needing anything from finding affordable housing or furniture to groceries or a hot meal. HighJinx has a happy vibe. Customers shop while donors drop off housewares, furniture, and food. Neighbours visit each other and chat with Karen and Leigh, or enjoy something to eat. I get a nostalgic buzz from the cool things being sold, but also a positive sense of community.

What would you like to see improved?
Heather: Sidewalks! But on a larger scale, I do notice homelessness more on this side of Bank Street than I did on the other. And also the affordability of the neighbourhood: I really don’t think we can continue to live here for the long term, and there are a lot of people in this same position.
Tom: I’ll say that they do take slightly better care of the streets here in the winter time than they did on James Street. That area was abysmal and still is. I’ve got some friends on that street and it’s ridiculous trying to get there sometimes.
When we were on James we were quite concerned about the development in the area and the standards that the city was setting for it as a residential neighbourhood. They were really neglecting the character of the neighborhood, allowing a lot of development. A lot of exemptions to standards that have been set in place. We saw a lot of requests for cash in lieu of parking and attempts to build structures that really didn’t suit the neighborhood.
Also, there seemed to be a lot of backscratching going on between members of the planning committee and the developers. We are disconnected from it now, but we joined a group of people called the Friends of James and Bay, who stood up in opposition to one particular young guy from a family that has a lot of money. We got to know everybody on the street and became pretty aware of all those issues. Now it’s a brand new council, and I don’t know whether or not they’re going to clean house and change things.

If you could change one thing about your neighbourhood what would it be?
Heather: I have mobility issues and I have problems with the sidewalks in winter and in summer. They’re not cleared in winter very well and, particularly along the NCC property, there are sinkholes in the pathway. That’s a concern. And I don’t like the new design of the sidewalk the city has for driveways, with a 45-degree angle so that cars can have easier access to the road from their driveway. But if you’re walking along that sidewalk, you have to work with at a 45-degree angle. That really bothers me; the city did consult residents about this. But It didn’t work. They didn’t listen.

What project(s) or issues are you paying attention to?
Heather: Homelessness. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. A lot of people are really struggling now and I notice more people living in tents. But where are people supposed to live? Downtown used to be an affordable option for young people and students when they’re first leaving home. Now that everybody wants to retire and move downtown, where are we supposed to live?
Tom: Rental units are almost non-existent thanks to Airbnb. There’s just not much rental inventory and certainly none that’s affordable. I’m also concerned, in the macro sense, about what’s happening with city politics. I mean, it’s very obvious that the rural councillors are basically getting what they need on council. Mark Sutcliffe is a great guy, but it remains to be seen whether or not he’ll be a mayor who’s good for the city. It really depends upon what you want from the city — and where you live. That’s a little bit distressing living down here because everybody loves to come downtown.
Heather: When you have someone over to visit from out of the city and you live in, say, Barrhaven, where do you take them? You bring them downtown. You bring them to the ByWard Market. You bring them to the Glebe. You walk along the Rideau Canal. There’s a division between those voters and the real social needs downtown.
Tom: That dynamic is visible on the street here; you don’t see it in Barrhaven. But when you live with it day-to-day, you wonder about the priorities of our city council. It doesn’t affect us directly, but we see it and it really doesn’t seem fair at this point. The downtown core is required to handle the burden too, of things like the trucker protest. My point is that living here in Centretown you see these things, and it’s just incredibly frustrating that there’s not more being done. Maybe this is a more collegial council, but I’m not too optimistic.

Bianca Zamor

Bianca inside the spin class space at Barres and Wheels on Elgin, where she works. Photo by David Kawai

How long have you lived downtown?
Bianca: Since 2014. I had gotten a job with the government a few years prior to that, and then I decided to move downtown from Orleans. I’ve lived here ever since.

What prompted you to move downtown?
Mostly work, because the commute from Orleans was completely unreasonable. One of the reasons why I hadn’t moved sooner was because I didn’t really want to have roommates. I couldn’t afford anything downtown on my own. When I started dating my now ex-boyfriend, he needed a place, and I needed a place, and it was perfect.

What do you enjoy about the location?
The fact that I’m at the core of absolutely everything. I don’t mean to sound like every other person who lives downtown, but the proximity to everything is kind of a big deal. I got a car two years ago and even the things I use it for are close. Snowboarding, for example: it’s so easy to go to the ski hill on the Quebec side because I live right next to the bridge. Then there’s the fact that downtown things are open longer. If you want to get Uber Eats at three in the morning, that’s possible. And then there’s all the nice little boutique places, like the shops on Elgin.

What would you like to see improved?
Though I love living downtown, the parking situation is terrible. I’m sure that it’s the same in every city in the world, but there’s snow in Ottawa. They’re usually really good about clearing the streets, but not everywhere downtown. So parking is always a pain. I guess they really want people to use the LRT. But what about people who don’t have access to those things? Like my mother who lives in the boonies and my brother who lives in Nova Scotia. When they come to visit me, they use their cars. For them, it’s an ordeal every single time they come to find parking — even paid parking.
Since we’re talking about things to improve, it would be great to have a north-south highway so that Bank Street could be a little less crazy.
Another thing that I’ve noticed is that the size of apartments just keeps shrinking as new buildings go up. Yet they’re still so expensive. Obviously bigger apartments would be nice.
More doable, maybe, is just making it a bit prettier. Centretown, which is where I live, is very concrete-heavy. Where are the pretty lights and the trees and the greenery? I know we have parks here and there but when I walk down Metcalfe, for example, it would be nice if there were more trees. I remember going to the Old Port in Montreal and noticing that it was very pretty. Why don’t we have that in downtown Ottawa?

What project(s) or issues are you paying attention to?
The so-called Freedom Convoy was a huge thing that affected me heavily, though I can’t say that I’ve paid attention to it since it ended. I know that since George Floyd, though, there’s been a lot of talk about inequality, and I am a woman of colour, so I hear about and experience these issues on a daily basis. I’ve really started caring about these issues, and it’s reflected in my work as manager at Barres and Wheels on Elgin. We’ve all worked very hard to create the right space that’s actually inclusive without being fake or tokenizing. It’s a wonderful gym and studio space where everyone is welcome and feels safe and wants to be there, and that includes the staff.

Jessie Smith

Jessie Smith with her family inside their Centretown home. Photo by David Kawai

How long have you lived downtown?
Jessie: My husband and I moved to Centretown during grad school in 2009. Then, after returning to Ottawa from studying abroad, we moved downtown again. Unfortunately, between 2016 and 2020 we had to move out of our house because our landlord was selling. We ended up a little outside of the downtown core, which we didn’t enjoy very much. We missed being close to everything.  We hated that we had to get into a car to drive anytime we wanted to go anywhere, though we did have a really beautiful park. So we moved back in 2020 and we’ve been very happy since.

What do you enjoy about the location?
It’s the walkability. We walk our kids to Elgin Street Public School and then we walk to work and then we walk back and pick them up and we walk home. Just having that daily exercise and getting out in the community is so much better than commuting by car. It’s our dream lifestyle.

What would you like to see improved?
We love all the homes that are over 100 years old, and some of them are being really well maintained. But some are falling apart due to lack of maintenance over the years. Often they’re divided into multiple rental units that provide low-cost housing — which is great and I don’t think that should change. But it would be really nice to see some sort of program by the city to help landlords make improvements to those properties without having to increase rental rates. There are a lot of properties in decline in the neighbourhood and it would be really great to see them maintained while also keeping diverse populations in the neighborhood. We love the diversity of the neighbourhood. We love the people. There’s a thriving Buy-Nothing group that keeps us more sustainable.

The only other thing I would change would be for kids activities. I find often they have a Kanata location and an Orleans location and maybe one in the south that they call the central location, but there aren’t as many opportunities downtown for a range of kids activities.

What project(s) or issues are you paying attention to?
There’s a lot of government funding being promised for housing, but even once that funding is allocated it takes two to three years for new construction and renovation projects to get from the planning stage to construction completion, and then there’s a process of getting people into the units. You need to get the commitment of funding for these projects, but we also need more short-term solutions to affordable living in the existing housing stock.
And the other issue is the availability of childcare. Again, funding for childcare centres has been promised, but we still haven’t seen that actually distributed. I was on the board of our daycare for a couple of years and I also do some work as an architect for childcare centres, so I have a little bit of insight on this. The funding is so piecemeal and even when it’s distributed sometimes it’s clawed back; it’s so hard for providers to plan for improvements. I know it’s really hard for the providers to commit to new projects, but it’s really important because it’s also difficult for young families to find childcare close to home.
As for affordable housing, I feel like we’ve been fairly privileged, but even we’ve had struggles. People need proper places to live. During the pandemic we saw an increase in people out on the streets — they need more support. We need to give back to our community. We need to help people get into proper housing because that’s going to contribute to their overall well-being and health.
We’re seeing a lot of new infill projects in the neighbourhood, which I think is great. We’re seeing some mixed-use buildings, with businesses on the ground floor
and residential units above. I think those are going to really help to enliven the commute on Somerset and Gladstone.