On any given weekday, you might find Ashley Hopkins aboard one of Ottawa’s new light-rail trains on her way to an important meeting downtown. This may seem like a mundane occurrence, but in the nation’s capital, it’s a sign of a city on the rise.
Ms. Hopkins, the president and chief executive officer of Ottawa’s Paradigm Properties Inc., has been with the commercial property management firm for nearly a decade. She says the conversation in Ottawa has shifted dramatically over the past few years from if the city can meet the rising demands of its residents, to how much more can it do.
“It has a lot to do with the LRT and the announcement that the City [of Ottawa] is working in conjunction with developers for intensification,” Ms. Hopkins says. “Just by saying they are interested in intensification, is saying they are open to the ideas never considered before.”
As a result of recent investments in light-rail transit (LRT) and other new infrastructure, Ottawa seems poised at last to step out of the long shadows cast by Toronto and Montreal.
Transit investment paves path for growth
Although marred by technical issues since its launch, Ms. Hopkins maintains that the LRT will be an important puzzle piece in Ottawa’s continued growth.
The $2.1-billion system opened in September with 12 new stops running East-West through downtown, complementing the five existing O-Train stops that run North-South.
“At the end of the day, this first stage has already shown people the possibilities of what this city could do,” Ms. Hopkins says.
Ottawa hasn’t seen such an impactful piece of transportation infrastructure since the construction of the Rideau Canal nearly 200 years ago, according to Shawn Hamilton, senior vice-president and managing director of CBRE Group Inc. in Ottawa.
At that time, no one knew exactly where the Rideau Canal would enter Ottawa’s downtown or how much of an impact it would ultimately have on business and transportation, Mr. Hamilton says.
“With the LRT today, Ottawa is again at a crossroads of positivity,” he says.
Ottawa’s work force is poised to grow
As the Greater Ottawa Area has grown to a population of 1.5 million, the technology industry has kept pace, expanding to fill the spaces left by recent government downsizing.
Now, however, the government’s work force is on the upswing. In fact, 2017 saw a record-high number of public administrators – more than 167,000 employed by the federal government in the National Capital Region. In addition, Mr. Hamilton says, a confluence of well-timed events – a thriving tech scene, multiple postsecondary institutions, easy access to green space, and new municipal infrastructure such as a new library and new hospital coming down the pipe – have contributed to an upward spiral for the city.
“I’m hard-pressed to find a strike against us for growth,” Mr. Hamilton says. Ironically, he adds, the very pace of that growth is a factor that may be holding the city back. It may take three years before new developments are in place to accommodate expanding businesses, he says, and in a world where speed-to-market is key, Ottawa could miss its chance.
Ottawa’s overall vacancy rate for office space, per CBRE data and including industrial space, is at a record low. The large blocks of space that do exist in Kanata, just west of downtown and long known as a technology centre, in the suburbs, and in the downtown core are scarce.
Flexible space creates opportunities
For now, with no option but to wait for downtown development to catch up, Ottawa finds itself reluctantly at the forefront of the flexible real estate trend in Canada.
Currently, flexible office arrangements account for 276,000 square feet of downtown office space – just 0.7 per cent of the total – but there has also been a 96-per-cent increase in total available square footage since 2017.
“The problem is that the [new] buildings are big and expensive. There is a risk, and are global companies going to invest in Ottawa? Or are they going to invest in Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal? And this is part of where the education comes in,” Mr. Hamilton says. “There are numerous grassroots business groups banging the drum, but Ottawa needs to be regarded in the same level as those cities.”
Despite the perceived lack of space, businesses are still taking notice of Ottawa’s new role as a global development hub in technology. There are more than 1,800 technology companies active in the city and, at approximately 44 per cent, Ottawa’s tech job density in 2017 almost matched that of San Francisco, according to CBRE data collected from that year.
But since Ottawa is already known as a “government town,” it’s become hard to get out of that bubble and be known for anything else, according to Michael Tremblay, CEO of Invest Ottawa.
Mr. Tremblay says the LRT will help open up the city like never before, as technology hubs in Kanata will soon be connected to Bayview Yards, a new area just west of the downtown core that is primed for development as an innovation village, and will ultimately drive even more international interest.
Aurrigo, Britain’s leading self-driving firm, has already announced plans to open its first Canadian location in Ottawa.
“Bayview will be the centre of the development,” Mr. Tremblay says. “We’re super excited right now.”
City planners have already recognized the need for a solid future vision and a brand-new draft of the official plan is expected to be announced by city council in June of this year, with the final version expected to be adopted in March, 2021.
“We are very much looking beyond the tip of our nose in terms of how we want to position ourselves,” says Alain Miguelez, manager of policy planning for the City of Ottawa.
For so long, he says, Ottawa was self-deprecating – the “forgotten one” between Toronto and Montreal. Now, as a mega-region home to more than 15 million people, he says he’s hopeful the trio of cities will work closer together.
“If Canada has an urban block that competes on the global stage, it’s this corridor,” he says, “and we’re in the middle of it.”
Key pillars for Ottawa’s future, Mr. Miguelez says, will form around the expansion of the downtown core. “We want to grow the geography of the city where people can function without a car and the enormous impact of the LRT.”
Much of the city’s development policies, he says, are converging for the new official plan.
Ms. Hopkins and Mr. Hamilton both say that the excitement from their clients and fellow business leaders in the city is palpable. The conversations, Ms. Hopkins says, are over. Now it’s about getting shovels in the ground and seeing how quickly Ottawa, once a seemingly forgotten city between two giants, can grow.
“For so long you’ve had investors and people who work in our industry calling us the ‘sleepy town’ or ‘the place Canada forgot’ and everything moves past us,” Ms. Hopkins says. “All these puzzle pieces are coming together and turning us into something that’s actually on the map.”