ULI Toronto News

ULI Explores Ottawa’s Future as a Major Urban Centre at 2017 Fireside Chat

By: William Cohen, Carleton University

See Who Attended Here

Presentation: Ottawa’s Transformation, Steven Willis
Presentation: Light Rail Transit Drives Transformation, John Manconi



On Wednesday, September 19th, ULI Toronto hosted the 2017 Ottawa Fireside Chat at the Borden Ladner Gervais (BLG LLP) offices, overlooking the iconic Parliament buildings. Ottawa, a city transitioning from its mid-sized government town status to that of an up-and-coming centre for urban life, commerce, technology and culture, is investing enormously in rapid transit infrastructure and transit-oriented development centres. To shed some light on Ottawa’s future, ULI welcomed three distinguished Ottawans to the panel: John Manconi, General Manager of Transportation Services at the City of Ottawa, Steve Willis, General Manager of Planning, Infrastructure, and Economic Development at the City of Ottawa, and Cindy Vanbuskirk, General Manager at CF Rideau Centre.

To commence the event, Manconi briefed attendees on Ottawa’s ambitious Confederation Line LRT, a $2.1 billion rapid transit project and the largest infrastructure investment in the city’s history. Manconi opened with the question, “What will the LRT do for the city, and how will it shape the city forever?” The LRT is intended to replace much of Ottawa’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network, which is nearing capacity. Rather than integrating the dedicated BRT lanes into Ottawa’s extensive road network, the city plans on converting the transitway into public use open spaces. The new LRT will allow tourists to navigate the city with simplicity, explained Manconi, and will convert the CF Rideau Centre into a major hub for business, recreation and transport. The city will encourage development surrounding the rapid transit network, and plans for the revitalization of neighbourhoods such as Tunney’s Pasture and Lebreton Flats are in the works. Manconi believes that Ottawa will be a model for greatness in an increasingly urbanized Canada.


Steve Willis took the podium next to discuss how Ottawa has become a model for intensification. He championed Ottawa’s shift towards transit-oriented development (TOD), citing Toronto’s Yonge Street as an example of how mass transit can encourage development of dense urban villages. Already, the city is seeing building applications surrounding the LRT/Bike network. The City of Ottawa is anticipating massive development in its oft-neglected East End as better transit will spur better, more vibrant communities. Willis also spoke of redeveloping Lowertown, just east of the downtown core, mentioning projects including the construction of 2,100 affordable housing units, the ByWard Market rejuvenation, and the public-private partnership in building the Ottawa Art Gallery. Ottawa is seeking to capitalize on the LRT project, according to Willis, and encouraged attendees to think big regarding radical future changes.

Following the thought-provoking presentations from John Manconi and Steve Willis, Cindy Vanbuskirk proceeded to moderate a discussion. The discussion was centred around three themes: Where we have been, where we are, and where we are going.

Where We Have Been

A common theme surrounding development projects in Ottawa has been that of pushback from the community. Willis acknowledged that construction can be a nuisance for neighbourhoods, and that the noise and dust it brings can be problematic. Manconi agreed, adding that the city must be effective in communicating the idea of ‘short term pain, long term gain,’ and that communities can see real benefits from forward-thinking development. When asked by Vanbuskirk for one word to describe economic development and progress in Ottawa, Willis explained how private firms have invested heavily to encourage livability in the downtown core, arriving at the word ‘surprise.’ Manconi confidently responded with ‘nimble,’ as planners must be flexible when proposing bold changes.

Where We Are

Cindy Vanbuskirk opened the second discussion topic by asking about challenges facing the City of Ottawa in the face of intensification. Willis recognized the apprehension towards change in Ottawa, stating that for intensification to be welcomed, developers must ‘wow’ the community and provide instantly recognizable additions to their neighbourhoods, including public space and economic activity. Ottawa needs to work on a stronger brand, argued Willis and Manconi, both agreeing that Ottawa must provide more incentives for young people to remain in and move to Ottawa by means of cultural amenities and nightlife. Manconi frequently cited Denver’s 16th Street, a vibrant 2-kilometre-long pedestrian mall as a successful example of what he envisions for Ottawa’s oft-neglected Sparks Street Mall. Slow and steady change is an unfortunate trend in Ottawa, according to Manconi, and that stigma against development is common. He hopes that the city will see a ‘bounce’ from the heavy investment, citing the great possibilities that can be realized in redeveloping areas including Lebreton Flats and Tunney’s Pasture. Willis hopes to see a trend towards decentralization in Ottawa of employment opportunities and cultural amenities from the downtown core to TOD areas. Manconi, agreeing with Willis’ desire for decentralization, believes that this can be achieved by implementing an integrated, multimodal transit system with a heavy focus on serving community needs.

Where We Are Going

As the LRT project nears completion, Vanbuskirk posed the question: “In a post-LRT environment, how will the urban experience in the core of the city change?” Willis asked the audience to look towards urban neighbourhoods like Centretown, The Glebe, and Westboro. He argued that these urban neighbourhoods are some of the most vibrant in Ottawa, as they are all live, work, and play spaces. Ottawa, according to Willis, will start to see more vibrant TOD neighbourhoods in formerly sleepy areas. Manconi encouraged attendees to look towards the future in which downtown streets will not only become vibrant and walkable, but conducive to autonomous vehicles. The idea of underground linkages were also entertained, with Toronto’s PATH system used as an example. When asked about Ottawa’s suburban and rural districts, Willis pointed towards the city’s massive investment in innovative farming technologies and off-grid infrastructure. Further, he asserted that suburban development is still desirable, with massive employment opportunities in up-and-coming industries, citing Kanata North’s tech park as an example. Still, however, suburban communities will have to encourage cultural amenities and mixed-use communities to offset centralization. Manconi pointed towards Ottawa’s long-standing tradition of Bus Rapid Transit as a model for rapid transit in the suburbs. The panel further discussed the hot topic of Ottawa’s chances to become the site of Amazon’s second headquarters, as Ottawa’s big-city infrastructure, growing tech sector, and affordability may prove attractive to Amazon.

The successful Ottawa Fireside Chat concluded with moderator Cindy Vanbuskirk asking the panel to describe their Ottawa in 2025 in one word. Steve Willis confidently said “ambition,” as Ottawa is poised to become a future-centric urban centre. John Manconi arrived at the word “successful,” explaining that Ottawa’s innovation and forward thinking will set the city apart from others. The discussion was universally well-received, as attendees left with a feeling of excitement for Ottawa’s bright future, rivaling other larger Canadian cities. Participants saw how Canada’s capital, in the midst of a generational transformation, is on track to become a major hub for culture and innovation.

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