A $129-million plan to rejuvenate the historic ByWard Market heads to Ottawa city council for approval next week, and business owners say it's about time the downtown area saw some civic love by way of upgrades.
As it nears its 200th anniversary, Ottawa's original commercial district is still at the top of sightseeing lists, but many people who live and work there say it's looking run down.
Even city staff referred to the market as a "district in distress" before presenting revitalization plans to Ottawa's finance committee last month.
The idea is to make better use of the city's 10 hectares of the market, mostly its streets. The city plans to "reclaim" 3.2 hectares of that space for pedestrians by widening sidewalks for patios and benches, and reconfiguring roadways so whole streets can be closed for events and festivals.
The aging municipal garage at the market's core would be replaced by a new "destination" building with much-needed public washrooms. William Street would be the only street permanently closed to traffic.
At the "gateway" to the area, the ramp over the sombre pedestrian underpass at Sussex Drive and Rideau Street could be demolished to make the area brighter and improve cycling connections.
"It's the biggest thing to happen down here since I've been around," said John Borsten, owner of the Metropolitain Brasserie, The Grand Pizzeria and for 35 years, Zak's Diner.
York Street a 'wasted' boulevard
The way Borsten sees it, if the city needs to redo sidewalks and install new lampposts anyway, it might as well do the job right and create wide, flexible public spaces that can be used for events such as Canada Day.
"I think the future of the ByWard Market depends on it happening," he said.
Borsten and partners have just bought the old building that housed the Fish Market restaurant at the prominent corner of York and William streets, a building that has borne witness to countless changes over its nearly 150 years. Someday, when the pandemic is over, the streetscape outside its doors might host a concert for 7,500 people.
York Street, with its wide roadway and strip of parking spaces down the middle, is the city's top priority for the revamp.
"It's a giant boulevard. It's just wasted. It's just surface parking," said Borsten.
Mandy Gosewich looks out on York Street from her boutique, STUNNING! Fashion + Accessories. As a girl, she would see live chickens for sale on the street when she visited her shopkeeper grandparents in the ByWard Market.
She's the fourth generation in her family to operate a business in the market and says times are changing yet again, with younger generations less dependant on cars and keener on open public spaces, especially since the pandemic.
This past summer, Gosewich watched as families spent whole days in the ByWard Market when the city closed off streets for patios.
"It was really wonderful to see the amount of people who were down here hanging out," she said. "It really brought back the vibe of the market that had gone away."
Like Borsten, she thinks it's the market's turn for some municipal attention.
"Lansdowne has been a huge focus for the city, and I think their cup has runneth over, and I think it's time to give love back to the ByWard Market," said Gosewich.
The hunt for funding
While city council is expected to approve the plan on Jan. 27, it doesn't yet have the money for a dozen projects pegged at $129 million.
Coun. Mathieu Fleury says the cost is comparable to a couple of road renewals, and believes the city can make the case for funding. The revamp creates coveted public outdoor space, and helps local businesses and farmers recover from the pandemic. Plus the National Capital Commission already has a major stake, he points out.
"It just checks so many of those boxes when you think of a federal or provincial [funding] application," said Fleury.
Others with a stake in the ByWard Market have seen enough ideas come and go that they're not counting on the full plan to happen, or at least happen quickly.
This time, however, the area's blend of retailers, restaurants, bars and homes appear more unified and supportive than they have in the past. That said, the perennial disagreement over parking versus pedestrian space continues.
Some shops maintain that losing parking will harm sales because their customer bases extend beyond the neighbourhood, and most shoppers simply won't walk far with heavy bags.
"We have been assured by the politicians that most of the parking that will be removed will be replaced, so I'm optimistic about that," said John Diener of longstanding Saslove's Meat Market.
Diener, who also lives in the ByWard Market, hopes this will be the plan to finally lift up an area that looks more "tired" as each year goes by.
"We're hoping that the great majority of these things actually do take place, because I think it would be great for the city and certainly great for the area."