Monday, June 17, 2024

Opinion: Visiting Ottawa, it was sad to see what has become of my hometown

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Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Growing up in Ottawa, our family took an outsized pride in touring friends, relatives – even freshly released Soviet dissidents – around Canada’s national capital. Compact, beautiful and user-friendly, as “PKs” or professor’s kids, it topped living in Washington and London, two other capitals we called home occasionally during sabbaticals.

Sure, Ottawa was and still is one of the coldest capitals in the world, but the joys of skating on the Rideau Canal, documenting the fall colours of the Gatineau Hills on our Instamatic cameras, or cycling on endless bike paths through protected greenbelt areas amid steamy summer days, more than made up for those brutal months of shovelling snow and freezing at bus stops. In my books, the ByWard Market in summertime still rivals notable seasonal spaces elsewhere in the world.

My Ottawa bursts with nostalgia: It’s where I snagged my first job – selling ice cream from a bicycle cart while my musician brother busked on its streets. Carling Avenue is where I had my first kiss. Ottawa is where I graduated from high school and university, puffed on my first cigarette, learned the skills of journalism, served Her Majesty’s Government as an executive assistant to a member of Parliament, and produced an award-winning, current-affairs radio program at Carleton University’s campus station, CKCU-FM.

Whenever I return to Ottawa, those cherished memories from my teenage and early adult years flood back into my mind like an unstoppable tsunami – warm, fuzzy feelings that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

But sadly, that didn’t happen this spring when I dropped in for a few days for the huge UN plastics summit that attracted delegates from almost 180 countries.

Not only did the central core resemble a ghost town – mostly because thousands of civil servants, backed by powerful unions, refuse to return to their office desks – but many of the walking routes I used to take through downtown have morphed into a distressing obstacle course of homeless people camped out on the sidewalks. In fact, the last time I felt like that – and I’ve been to some of the meanest cities in the world – was in Pretoria, South Africa, around the time of the BRICS summit last year, when a wrong turn to the diplomatic quarter brought a few anxious encounters. On many strolls through my former home, I shook my head in disbelief thinking, “This isn’t the Ottawa I know or love.”

Turns out, I’m not alone. Several foreign delegates at the UN plastics summit told me they were surprised at the number of homeless people and others causing disruption in the immediate vicinity of the Ottawa conference centre. Old friends from student days who remain in the capital say they aren’t proud of what they see day in and day out.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for the small mom-and-pop businesses that are struggling to survive amid a sharp drop in foot traffic. Scores of cafés and lunch stops are suffering, including the deserted Presse Café.

Hotels and corporate travel venues are feeling the pinch as the federal government isn’t hosting as many events. “Corporate travel is a little lagging because of the government and how they’re operating. And with work-from-home policies, the federal government now does not entertain the kinds of meetings that they used to,” said Steve Ball, president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association.

At the moment, the feds are mandating a two-days-a-week-in-the-office policy, but it’s not widely enforced. That is set to increase to three days a week come September, CTV Ottawa reported, citing an article in Le Droit.

I am rarely in agreement with Ontario’s bombastic Premier, Doug Ford, but he seemed to make some sense recently when he called on federal workers to return to their desks: “You got to get the economy going [in Ottawa’s] downtown. These restaurants are hurting, the shops are hurting. Ridership on the transit’s hurting. I think that’s a normal request. You get hired, come to work. Imagine if I told everyone else in the province you don’t have to go to work? Our economy would be shot. So, they shouldn’t get special treatment.”

He’s right. And I’m not betting money on the current federal Liberal government to grow the spine needed to bully the unions into submission any time soon.

To be sure, Ottawa is a complicated organism. Officials from several government entities, including the National Capital Commission and provincial, regional and municipal officials, and even the transit service on occasion, all have a say in its development and day-to-day operations. Squabbles between the unelected poobahs of the bloated NCC and elected city councillors are commonplace, right down to the positioning of walking paths.

Another vivid example of Ottawa’s too-many-chefs-in-the-kitchen governance style is the much-maligned Rideau Street area between Sussex Drive and St. Patrick Street, which despite billions of dollars of investment over the decades has resisted attempts to transform itself into an urban legend. The sinkhole disaster of 2016 might have been a sign from the heavens that it is meant to be something else.

When I was a cub reporter covering the city in the 1980s, I wrote for The Globe and Mail about ambitious plans to transform the artery into a covered, heated pedestrian mall. As I predicted, it never worked out and these days the street is open to buses, cars and pedestrians. Discount stores, fast food outlets and cannabis shops line much of its length. It’s low-end and trashy, and must be one of the most unsuccessful urban design projects in the country. (A post on Tripadvisor refers to the mall as “the definition of an urban planning disaster.”)

And the lack of consensus on renovating the official residence of the Prime Minister – 24 Sussex Dr. had always been included in tours of the city when I was a kid chaperoning visitors around town – needs to be settled soon so that what Politico called “Canada’s most famous fixer-upper” can be returned to the NCC’s portfolio of attractions.

Let’s hope that an aggressive push to bring housing into the downtown core, mostly through high-rise residential buildings, will bring more vitality back and help alleviate the acute nationwide housing shortage.

Of course, it is easy to make a lightning visit to my former home and launch criticism at decision-makers for bad policy decisions. For one, other global cities are grappling with a host of post-COVID issues. In New York, for example, city hall has been unable to wean restaurateurs off of outdoor dining sheds, which have robbed neighbourhoods of precious parking spaces and impeded access for pedestrians, sanitation operations, pest control and emergency vehicles. (For many restaurant owners, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to grab free real estate and expand their operations, but many sheds have become dilapidated and are now canvases for graffiti artists.)

Second, things have changed a lot in Ottawa since I used to toss newspapers across neighbours’ lawns as a boy in Alta Vista. Now, the majority of the capital’s households consist of two people and the citizenry has aged considerably.

But my perspective is shaped not only by living in the city for many years, but by comparing the state of play in other capitals. Visits to major world capitals in the past months, including Washington, London, Rome, Warsaw and Brussels, showed that they’ve bounced back from COVID in a way that Ottawa hasn’t.

Let us look at this crisis as an opportunity to reimagine what Canadian downtowns should be, especially Ottawa. At the end of the day, if Canada wants to retain its image as a Group of Seven middle power, it needs to fix its front porch first.

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