Permission for fun
Ottawa has long held a reputation as a place that fun forgot. People who live here know that there is a lot to love about the city: its history, the Rideau Canal, proximity to parks and rivers, excellent museums and galleries, all of which make Ottawa a great place.
More spontaneous fun things are harder to come by. We’ve created a process that makes it hard for small businesses to thrive and where the process is more important than the outcome.
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, squashing a fun event to bring people together.
In 2017, business proposals to the NCC executive committee made a business case to open cafes at Remic Rapids, Confederation Park and Patterson Creek. In the summer of 2020, two opened; the Patterson Creek location, opposed by neighbours, has yet to see the light of day.
In all three cases, the cafes are only open for a few brief summer months, despite the fact that Ottawa celebrates itself as a winter city, we can’t, somehow, imagine how people might want to enjoy a café in the spring or fall, or during winter months while skiing along the river or skating along the Canal. Keeping public washrooms open, serving take out and, yes, using patio heaters, could make these cafes fun additions to our city for most of the year.
More recently, Jerk on Wheels, a food truck with excellent Caribbean chicken, has two locations. One on Merivale continues, but the Bank Street location in Old Ottawa South has to close, based on recent social media posts. Despite having all permissions in place, local restaurant franchises of Dairy Queen and Tim Hortons have, apparently, veto power and can force this small business to leave.
Then there is the sad plight of Banana’s Beach Grill and Rum Shack.
Located on Petrie Island, the owners have spent 10 years investing in their space, building patios, creating a reputation (that earned them a Community Builder Award) and have had to, annually, resubmit applications to operate their business. This year, based on their Facebook post, they have learned that a single person in procurement at the City of Ottawa made the decision that they did not meet some technical criteria and, therefore, they have to pack up their things and leave.
While this being referred for review, something that could take weeks, it leaves this black-owned business in the lurch. Precious weeks of good weather, not to mention a long weekend, go by, making their business less viable by the day.
We need a reset.
We have too many rules, too many controls, too much consultation and too complex a process. We’ve engineered the fun out of our city.
Yes, we should have some consultation on new cafes or food trucks. But we need some limits. Communities should not have veto rights on where and how a business operates any more than they should have veto rights on a new development. We need more Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY). More food trucks create a lively food culture, drawing people to businesses, shops and other cafes. Timmy’s should no more have a 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 goals of being “world-class” and allow the Banana Shack to reopen, and only re-apply after 10 or 15 years, like a normal business lease. We need more cafes with public washrooms at NCC and city parks.
They should be open year-round or at least 8 months of the year. Let’s let those businesses decide how to run their business in a way that they can manage. If we build the infrastructure, let them figure out how to make it work. Instead of punitive (“market rate”) rents, charge them modest rents based on their success.
Because if they succeed, drawing in people, creating a positive tourist image, support under-represented business owners, offer creative fare, and build community, shouldn’t that be something we support?
If we want the city we aspire to, we need to rethink our approach.
Reform procurement to support local businesses. Engage in meaningful consultation within limits that respect 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 aspire to be.
This article was also published in the Ottawa Citizen.
Featured image credit: Bananas Beach Grill & Rum Shack.
Toon Dreessen is president of Ottawa-based Architects DCA and past-president of the Ontario Association of Architects. For a sample of our projects, check out our portfolio here. Follow us @ArchitectsDCA on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.