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Visits by residents, tourists to downtown Ottawa less than half of pre-pandemic levels, study finds

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Visits to downtown Ottawa by workers and visitors are less than half of pre-pandemic levels, as a new study shows the capital lags behind a majority of North American cities in downtown economic recovery.

The study, called "Death of Downtown?", ranked Ottawa 45th out of 62 North American cities for downtown recovery, and fifth out of 10 Canadian cities, trailing Halifax, London, Ont., Quebec City and Edmonton.

The study by the University of Toronto and the University of California, Berkley measured the level of economic and social activity in a downtown core using signals from cellphone towers.

It found the level of cellphone activity measured in downtown Ottawa between March and May was only 48 per cent of the pre-pandemic levels.

The downtown bounce back was highest in Salt Lake City, Utah, which registered 155 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, while San Francisco had the lowest score of 31 per cent of activity compared to March-May 2019.

The level of cell activity measured in downtown Toronto was 46 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, compared to 43 per cent in Vancouver, 44 per cent in Montreal and 51 per cent in Edmonton.

"The research shows that downtowns throughout North America are recovering more slowly than the rest of the city, and that a distinct set of downtowns continue to struggle to return to pre-pandemic levels," says the study.

The report showing the economic recovery in downtown Ottawa lagging behind most cities in North America comes as the federal government introduces a "hybrid" working model for tens of thousands of public servants, and some companies continue to allow their employees to work from home.

In May, the Treasury Board of Canada outlined guidance for departments for hybrid options to "optimize telework and on-site work to foster a diverse, inclusive and productive workforce."

On Friday, Ottawa Centre MP Yasir Naqvi launched a new task force to explore ways to revitalize the downtown core post-pandemic. The "Downtown Ottawa Revitalization Task Force" will look to address challenges to affordable housing, reinvigorate local businesses by catalyzing the return of residents and businesses and a more sustainable environment."

"The pandemic has taken a huge hit on our downtown core," Naqvi told Newstalk 580 CFRA on Friday.

"We all remember how busy downtown Ottawa used to be with workers coming in and all those office towers being full. But all of that stopped because of the pandemic."

Naqvi says the reality is hybrid workplaces are "here to stay" and it is "important for us to start thinking proactively now as to what our downtown core looks like."

"Let's reimagine it."

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