To those who have known it for years, Centretown is a very different place than it once was. More polished and posh, it now offers chain stores and hip cafés, more gluten-free products and soy milk, more police officers doing booze sweeps in parks and an abundance of well-dressed people with furrowed brows complaining about the need to clean things up.
As market prices have been rising in Centretown, concerned residents and community-service providers have also been warning of a growing problem of access to affordable housing in the neighbourhood, which is home to social and healthcare services for some of Ottawa’s poorest residents.
“We’ve always been concerned with gentrification in Ottawa,” says Priscillia Mosher, an organizer with Under Pressure, a local anti-poverty group. “In 2009, there was an Ottawa neighbourhood study that was published in conjunction with [the University of Ottawa’s] Institute of Population Health, and even there it stated that, within Centretown, 30 percent of folks felt that they couldn’t afford to live in their own neighbourhood. The rent was just too high.”
It’s often argued that the process of gentrification is set in motion when gays and artists move into a particular neighbourhood looking for cheap rent or property. The initial demographic shift turns the place into a hip destination and then boom, prices skyrocket.
Patrizia Gentile, the director of the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University and a queer resident of nearby Hintonburg, says safeguarding affordable housing in Centretown is a critical issue.
“Gentrification causes an incredible displacement of people that would have had access to low-income housing and their part of the city, where a lot of the services that they need are provided. There’s this idea that high-income housing is the only kind of housing that is legitimate. It means that the actual culture of Ottawa, of Centretown, will change. At the moment, there’s a lot of diversity.”
The most recent flare-up in the gentrification debate was sparked when Urban Capital, a Toronto-based development firm, pushed a proposal through Ottawa City Council to rename a stretch of Bank St. The group wants to name the area that runs from Catherine St to Gilmour St South Central Ottawa. It’s part of the company’s three-building development project and revitalization plan for Centretown.
“We’re the ones that started the current condominium boom in Ottawa,” says David Wex, a partner at Urban Capital and the project manager for the Centretown project. “This is just another area that we identified as being good for development. Something that we thought had potential and was sitting, like all the other sites, as empty parking lots that could use some development.”
“I find it really problematic when David Wex says he builds on empty lots because it’s simply not true. For example, the condo that now resides on the corner of Gladstone and Bank — that was not an empty lot. That had two buildings on it that were demolished to make it into an empty lot. The church relocated two years before the building was demolished. What I find shameful is that this building, which was really big, was left empty for two years. The city did nothing with it. That building could have been used as a community centre or a recreational facility.”
But Mosher also thinks the problem is larger than Wex and Urban Capital.
“This has been happening for years. I want to be very specific and say that we’re against unaffordable, inaccessible housing. Whether it’s a rental unit with a landlord who raises the rent unreasonably or developers from other cities coming in, taking over a neighbourhood like Urban Capital is attempting to do, rebranding it as this kind of upper-class urban hotspot for young professionals. Their condos are selling at prices that are unaffordable to the majority of people.”
Currently the gayest neighbourhood in Ottawa and the home of the nascent Village, Centretown is an important area for Ottawa’s gay community. The rebranding campaign is seen by many as a slap in the face, especially since the establishment of the Village was met with such resistance, even though there is a long history of a gay presence in the neighbourhood.
Rob Giacobbi, owner of Wilde’s, opened the gay sex shop in the neighbourhood in the mid-1990s. “Our data-base was showing that 99 percent of our customers were from this corner, around Bank and Gilmour. So we moved and opened up here,” he says. “That was 17 years ago. It was a very seedy area of town: drug deals on the corner, low rent. That’s where most gay ghettos start. Then the condos move in, like what’s happening now.
“I’m for development. I believe people who buy these condos pay taxes. I know there’s a fear that if it’s a more middle-class neighbourhood it might kick some people out. And that fear could be warranted. It could happen to Wilde’s. What bothers me, though, is that the Village had to take so much time and effort to brand from the bottom up and get businesses to put up Pride flags and stickers — they were told they had to go by the [Bank Street] BIA. They did it properly. And then all of a sudden, this developer comes in and wants to call the area South Central Ottawa. I don’t understand how the city can have one direction with the Village but has no problem with this.”
The point person for Urban Capital’s development projects at city hall is Diane Holmes, who was unavailable for comment on the rebranding efforts at press time.
Meanwhile, Wex has indicated that he’s willing to drop the rebranding campaign if people don’t like Urban Capital’s South Central Ottawa idea.
“We were attempting to give some profile to the part of Bank between Catherine and James. The area doesn’t have a lot of profile, even though it is part of Centretown. The idea of coming up with a sub-brand — something for that strip — came from us. The name, South Central, also came from us. But we’re not beholden to it.”
After sitting down with Wex, Ian Capstick, chair of the Village Committee and a member of the Bank St BIA, says he hopes the rebranding idea is dead. Capstick says he’s interested in having a very different conversation.
“We had an interesting conversation about his top-down approach on the name, and it opened the door to have a discussion about affordable housing,” he says.
“The Centretown Community Association, myself and some others have committed to providing David with a considerable amount more information than we think he has right now about how residential neighbourhoods like Centretown need to include mixed-use housing and how that can be a benefit for people who want to purchase a condominium and, of course, to the neighbourhood.
“His development isn’t the problem; it’s what his development does to the surrounding residential mix.”