Downtown ecosystem changes as office workers continue to stay home

·4 min read
Ottawa's office market saw its vacancy rate climb to 9.7 per cent in the second quarter of 2022 as pandemic recovery slowed, according to a report published by real estate services firm Colliers Canada. (Alexander Behne/CBC - image credit)
Ottawa's office market saw its vacancy rate climb to 9.7 per cent in the second quarter of 2022 as pandemic recovery slowed, according to a report published by real estate services firm Colliers Canada. (Alexander Behne/CBC - image credit)

Many downtown office workers could permanently trade their commutes and cubicles for remote work and virtual meetings, which has sparked a change in the downtown Ottawa ecosystem that has relied on their business for decades.

The COVID-19 pandemic turned the downtown into a ghost town for a long while, and as people slowly return to their workplace, they will likely find a different looking scene in the core.

"The idea that everybody is going to be returning to work five days a week is gone. That is over," said Ian Lee, associate professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University. "That's going to have profound knock-on effects for the downtown."

There are efforts to change downtown spaces from the grey, beige highrise buildings that dominate them now, but this will be a long process.

Hope, despair and defeat

The end of one business became the beginning of another for Edward Khamis, who came to Canada from Lebanon with the dream of opening his own barber shop.

After he completed his barber course, the pandemic struck. He worked in a few barber shops, but hung on to the dream of a place that would bear his name.

In June, the 22-year-old took over the former Imperial Barber Shop on Slater Street. A few glass comb jars still bear the former shop's name, but everything else is emblazoned with his new logo and the name "Edward K Barber Shop."

Alexander Behne/CBC
Alexander Behne/CBC

The lack of foot traffic has not left him deterred as he said things have picked up slightly this month with more workers returning downtown, but he "would love it to get busier."

"I want it to be fully packed," he said.

Three months into owning his business, he said most days he sees fewer than a dozen customers. He runs the shop mostly by himself, though his mother helps with the paperwork.

Success will take effort and good outreach on social media, he said, but he's prepared for the steep learning curve.

Alexander Behne/CBC
Alexander Behne/CBC

A few blocks away on Sparks Street, one man's dream has ended. Jason Komendat, owner of the Retro Rides bicycle shop and co-owner of the Ottawa Bike Cafe, says he is "closing the whole space."

Komendat said he signed a lease in 2019 and invested heavily in revamping the interior. He held on through numerous closures throughout the pandemic, but the writing was on the wall for a business that depended on serving the needs of those who commuted downtown by bicycle.

Alexander Behne/CBC
Alexander Behne/CBC

"The pandemic happened and our neighbourhood literally burnt down. All these people went home," he said.

At the end of October, he will move out.

He's hoping to relocate the business, but there's no firm plan yet.

"Every single small business, every storefront that we see in this downtown core … that is shuttered is somebody's dream and somebody's passion," he said.

"When you lose a business like this … it's a loss, almost like a child."

'A different vision of the downtown'

The slow recovery for downtown cores is not surprising, Lee said, as the "anchor tenant" — the federal public service — has seen a majority of its employees remain home for most of the workweek.

Lee calls them "knowledge workers" who can just as easily work from home as in front of a computer in a highrise, but the repercussions on the economy continue to show around the downtown core, which can no longer rely on the same customer base.

"These are small, family owned businesses. A good number of them are going to fail because the demand isn't there," said Lee, adding

"They're going to have to come up with a different vision of the downtown."

Alexander Behne/CBC
Alexander Behne/CBC

Surviving the era of remote work

A recent study titled "The Death of Downtown?" identified a pattern throughout North America: pandemic recovery has been especially slow in downtowns like Ottawa's that depend on professionals and tech workers.

The joint project between the University of Toronto and the University of California, Berkeley used mobile phone data to compare activity in the downtown areas of 62 major cities in Canada and the United States.

In the spring of 2022, Ottawa saw less than half the activity it did before the pandemic. It ranked 46th on the list of 62 cities.

Alexander Behne/CBC
Alexander Behne/CBC

The study concluded that downtown areas "will need to diversify their economic activity and land uses" to "survive in the new era of remote work."

Christine Leadman, executive director of the Downtown Bank Street Business Improvement Area, said the pandemic and its lingering effects had a "devastating" impact.

Alexander Behne/CBC
Alexander Behne/CBC

She added that plans are in the works for revamping the Bank Street area with green spaces and more cultural activities.

"We just have to add some life and interest to the downtown that didn't exist before," Leadman said. "It has to be more like a village feel."

She underscored the importance of keeping the downtown alive and thriving.

"Our core is the heart of our city, and if our heart is not well, our city is not doing well," she said.

"It will come back, but just in a different form."

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Radio-Canada