Dreessen: Ottawa needs to shed its image as a city that doesn’t like fun

We have too many rules, too many controls, too much consultation and too complex a process. We have constructed the spontaneity out of our city.

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Ottawa has long had a reputation as a place that fun forgot. People who live here know that there is much to love about the city: its history, the Rideau Canal, the proximity to parks and rivers, excellent clubs, museums and galleries make Ottawa a great place.

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More spontaneous fun things are harder to come by. We have created a process that makes it difficult for small businesses to thrive and where the process is more important than the result.

In 2016, a local artist planned to give away free T-shirts celebrating Ottawa 2017 on Sparks Street until the local Business Improvement Association (BIA) asked him to move and squash a fun event to bring people together.

In 2017, business proposals to NCC’s executive committee made a business case about opening cafes at Remic Rapids, Confederation Park and Patterson Creek. In the summer of 2020, two opened; The Patterson Creek location, unlike neighbors, has yet to see the light of day, though the NCC website indicates that it may happen in 2021.

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In each case, the cafés are only open for a few short summer months. Despite Ottawa celebrating itself as a winter town, we somehow can not imagine how people might want to enjoy a cafe in the spring or fall or in the winter months while skiing along the river or skating along the canal. Keeping public restrooms open, serving takeaway and, yes, using patio heaters, could make these cafes fun additions to our city most of the year.

Recently, Jerk on Wheels, a food cart with excellent Caribbean chicken and two locations, has run intro issues. The one on Merivale Road continues, but the Bank Street location in Old Ottawa South needs to close. According to social media posts from the owners, despite the company having all the permits in place, local restaurant franchises of Dairy Queen and Tim Hortons have objected to its presence.

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Then there is the sad situation with Banana’s Beach Grill and Rum Shack located on Petrie Island.

Its owners have spent 10 years investing in their space, building terraces, building a reputation (which earned them a Community Builder Award) and annually submitting applications to run their business. This year, according to their Facebook post, they learned that a single person shopping in the city of Ottawa decided they did not meet any technical criteria and therefore had to pack their things together and go.

While this is being referred for review, which may take weeks, it leaves this black-owned business in the lurch. Skillful good weather, not to mention a long weekend, go by, making their business less viable during the day.

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We need a reset.

We have too many rules, too many controls, too much consultation and too complex a process. We have constructed the fun out of our city.

Yes, we should have some consultation about new cafes or food trucks. But we need some boundaries. Communities should have no veto over where and how a business operates, any more than they should have veto power over a new development. We need more Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY). Several food trucks create a lively food culture and draw people to businesses, shops and other cafes. A nearby fast food place should have no more veto on a food truck than I should have on whether another architect can open their business near my office.

We need to embrace our goal of being “world class” and allow Banana Shack to reopen and only reapply after 10 or 15 years, as a normal business deal. We need more cafes with public bathrooms at NCC and city parks.

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They must be open all year round or at least eight months of the year. Let us let these companies decide how to run their affairs in a way that they can manage. If we build the infrastructure, let them figure out how to make it work. And instead of penalties (“market interest rates”), you have to charge modest rents based on their success.

Because if we succeed in attracting people, creating a positive tourist image, supporting under-represented business owners, offering creative fares and building community, shouldn’t that be something we support? If we want the city we strive for, we need to rethink our approach.

Reform procurement to support local businesses. Participate in a meaningful consultation within borders that respects the broader public interest. We need to take some risks that make our city dynamic, exciting and world-class.

Bring spontaneity and fun to our city. Be the city we strive to be.

Show Dreessen is an architect and president of Ottawa-based Architects DCA and is a former president of the Ontario Association of Architects.

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