Envisioning a people-centric and revitalized downtown

Cynthia Mitchell

Downtown is ripe for change. The vision of 1960s downtown Ottawa, largely built around cars and for 9-to-5 commuters, has lost it purpose. Downtown needs to be reinvented as a sustainable, people-centric neighbourhood that becomes the heart of the city, recommends the Downtown Ottawa Task Force.

The Task Force, composed of affordable housing advocates, developers, local politicians, community groups, BIAs, Indigenous leaders, the Board of Trade and Ottawa Tourism, spent a year crafting its vision for a revitalized urban core. They heard from over 1000 residents and stakeholders who provided input into its final report, released on January 11.

Defining downtown as the area south of Parliament Hill, west of the Rideau Canal, east of Bronson Avenue, north of Somerset Street, plus Bank Street south to Gladstone Avenue, the report laid out its case that when downtown thrives, the whole of Ottawa benefits.

Currently, downtown is struggling with multiple crises at once, including a housing crisis, mental health crisis, drug consumption crisis, economic crisis and an environmental crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Freedom Convoy occupation exacerbated these emergencies. The report calls for bold action to address these multiple crises simultaneously, and to make the neighbourhood a place that is focused on people, and not cars, with “mixed-use buildings, increasing residential buildings, around-the-clock amenities/entertainment, public assets and public spaces.” By bringing more residents downtown, to both live, work and play, and investing in strategies that help downtown’s most vulnerable residents, the neighbourhood can become a place that is the pride of the city, and that benefits all Ottawans.

Using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as a guiding approach to its work, the Task Force provides three exciting examples of what can be done to start to sustainably transform downtown. Two federal government buildings, L’Esplanade Laurier at 300 Laurier Avenue West and the Jackson Building at 122 Bank Street, are on the list of properties that the federal government intends to dispose of. As such, they are prime candidates for office conversions to housing.

EVOQ Strategies proposes to revitalize downtown Ottawa by re-designing spaces such as l’Esplanade Laurier to include mixed housing, commercial space and urban parks.
Illustration: EVOQ Strategies

The report calls for L’Esplanade Laurier to become the new heart of downtown. It suggests removing both the two-storey podium structure facing Bank and the western tower, and creating a new urban park. The east tower would remain and be converted into housing, with townhomes added to the site to increase the mix of housing needed to attract families. The Jackson Building is envisioned as a multi-functional building focused on residential uses and operated as a co-op with a ground level market, and a green roof for urban agriculture.

The Task Force also suggests the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library at the corner of Metcalfe and Laurier be turned into a vibrant hub for culture and the arts, once it’s vacated in 2026. Think studios, galleries, a multi-purpose theatre and an outdoor café. However, the building was sold to a private developer in 2018.

The report’s contributors, and indeed citizens, are keen to see this report put into action as soon as possible. A one-to-five-year action plan summarizing how to breathe new life into downtown, and make it into a vibrant, community-focused neighbourhood once again was included in closing. As reported by Alayne McGregor in the January 2024 issue of the Centretown Buzz, “the heavy lifting to get this vision implemented is expected to come from the Ottawa Board of Trade (OBT), which last summer issued a call to action for all levels of government. The OBT is working with the Canadian Urban Institute, the city, and Ottawa Tourism on an action plan for this.”

IMAGE will be following the progress of this work and will provide updates in future issues.

EVOQ Strategies proposes to revitalize downtown Ottawa by re-designing spaces such as l’Esplanade Laurier to include mixed housing, commercial space and urban parks.
Illustration: EVOQ Strategies