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Can downtown Ottawa survive with hybrid workers?

The downtown Ottawa skyline on Oct. 4, 2023. (Tyler Fleming/CTV News Ottawa) The downtown Ottawa skyline on Oct. 4, 2023. (Tyler Fleming/CTV News Ottawa)

As Ottawa continues to enjoy summer-like weather, the summer season has passed, with tourism slowing, students back in class and many people returning to a more regular work routine.

With many workers, including federal public service workers, now on a hybrid schedule that sees them in downtown offices only a few days a week, the question is whether it will be enough to support downtown businesses, which rely on office workers, to rebound after years of economic instability.

The hybrid work model was a key demand in the recent strike by the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union which represents tens of thousands of government employees, and it is now the new normal for Ottawa‘s downtown workforce.

"My team tries to be at the same space at the same building every Thursday, that’s our chance to interact face to face," says Ranya Elsadawy, a senior engineer with public works. "I like it, I’ll take in-person over a phone call or a Microsoft Teams' meeting any day."

Elsadawy, like thousands of others in the capital region, must head into the office two or three days a week. In Ottawa, federal government workers are the largest group in the downtown core.

"Right now hybrid work is flexible and the mandate is not being monitored," Elsadawy says. "But there probably will be a time when that will change."

Post-pandemic, downtown streets look different. There is less foot-traffic and lunch crowds are smaller, but many area businesses are noticing a bump in business.

"It seems Wednesday to Friday; we’re definitely seeing a boost at the later end of the week," says Tyler Rotteau, manager at The Scone Witch on Elgin Street. "Seeing the regulars and having all the workers back in the neighbourhood has been great fun for sure. We’re back to, I would say, kind of full speed around here.”

But the office vacancy rate in the city’s downtown core remains high, and making matters worse, the federal government plans to slash nearly half of its buildings in the coming years. The majority of its office building inventory is in Ottawa.

So far, three office buildings, two on Laurier Avenue and one on Slater Street, have been sold, and are slated to be converted to residential units. Sueling Ching, president and CEO of the Ottawa Board of Trade, says while it’s a step in the right direction to aid in the economic recovery of downtown, the change will take years.

"What we really need to do is be working with the federal government to have open communication about the disposal of those assets (buildings) and how they can be redeployed, whether it’s for residences, for other businesses or for some other use the buildings need to be filled and it needs to be done quickly," Ching says. "We continue to be very concerned about the decline of the downtown and how it’s affecting our businesses."

The Ottawa Board of Trade continues to sound the alarm and wants all levels of government to come together and agree on a transformative action plan to revive a dwindling downtown.

"We just really want to amplify this concept that downtown Ottawa is critically important, culturally and economically to our entire city," Ching says. "The solution is going to be multifaceted; we see it as an opportunity to transform to become more resilient, more diverse. We need everybody, including every level of government, the business community, and the citizens of Ottawa to do their part. We have to replace that traffic and support those businesses that were created to support that foot traffic." Top Stories

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