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'We'd like to see it move faster': The push to increase activity in downtown Ottawa

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The federal government's 2024 budget outlines additional details on how it plans to move away from underused office space, much of which is in Ottawa's downtown core.

Public Service and Procurement Canada (PSPC) is being directed to reduce its office portfolio by 50 per cent, enabling federal office buildings to potentially be turned into homes in the capital and across the country.

The feds are looking to spend $1.1 billion over 10 years, starting in 2024-25, for PSPC to convert the identified buildings into homes, with a focus on student and non-market housing.

The government says the move will translate into $3.9 billion in gross savings, or $2.8 billion in net savings over the next ten years, once you factor in the $1.1 billion price tag.

Talk of transitioning federal buildings into housing has been in the works for a couple of years and it's a move that business leaders in Ottawa say can't come soon enough.

"Conversions can take a while to redeploy those assets and that's not time that we have," said Ottawa Board of Trade President and CEO Sueling Ching.

"We have to be very focused on making sure that we are attracting entrepreneurs today and people to live in the core. That will require some targeted funds and targeted efforts."

Ching says the Ottawa Board of Trade has been working with key stakeholders, including the federal government, to identify what an overall action plan for the city's downtown core could look like.

She adds all three levels of government need to come to the table to help revitalize Ottawa's core.

Putting underused federal government office space to good use is an important step to increase foot traffic and in-turn economic activity for small businesses.

"Often it takes years in order to do that, so we would like to see them accelerate that significantly," said Ching.

"There are some best case scenarios in other cities where the transitions have been done really quickly, in a matter of a year or so, so we hope that is the case and also that there are opportunities for us to support the businesses that can create a more diverse downtown."

The federal government has already identified a handful of properties in the national capital region in various stages of being transferred or sold. Those buildings span from Gatineau down to Mooney's Bay.

Federal government buildings in Ottawa-Gatineau slated to be sold.

One of those properties, the Jackson Building at 122 Bank St., is located just steps from Paradise Poké. Owner Ryan Moleiro says he's in a fortuitous position with a loyal customer base, but he has noticed a real decline in foot traffic downtown.

"Prior to 2020, Monday to Friday, it was crammed in here every single day at lunch for almost two hours straight," he said.

"Post-COVID, now that people have come back to this sort of hybrid model, I would say the new work week is Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, as far as downtown goes. We see a big impact on those other days where there is a lot less people coming in for sure."

Moleiro says putting vacant office space to use, whether it's filled with workers or residents, will go a long way in breathing new life into the core.

"There's a whole block just one block up from us that is completely vacant and nobody seems to want to rent," he said.

"That's a little disheartening. We're lucky, we're in a very good position. I don't think everyone is that fortunate."

Some of the plans laid out in budget 2024 have also sparked the interest of Mayor Mark Sutcliffe, who called the impact on Ottawa's downtown core "Probably the biggest change to downtown Ottawa we will ever experience and have ever experienced."

He's floated the possibility of using some unwanted government-owned land to pave the way for a new downtown arena for the Ottawa Senators.

"We need to look at all those potential options. We have some great spaces downtown already, like the National Arts Centre, but we need more," said Sutcliffe.

"If there's an opportunity to take a piece of land that the federal government doesn't want anymore and have that be the site for an attraction, and an attraction can be a lot of different things, maybe that's an arena, maybe it's not, but we need to look at that. We need a plan for the future of downtown Ottawa."

Meanwhile, the Senators and the National Capital Commission continue to negotiate the possibility of building a new home for the team at LeBreton Flats, though no concrete deals have yet been announced.

--With files from CTV News Ottawa's Josh Pringle

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