2023 14-2 April News Section

Tides of change are against ByWard Market

By John Chenier

The City of Ottawa has disbanded the ByWard Market Business Improvement Area (BIA)and decided to introduce a new governing structure for the Market area. The only thing that seems certain at the moment is that Marché d’Ottawa Markets (MOM) will be the responsible agency. What it will be responsible for, what area it will cover and how it will be funded remains unclear.

In her column for this edition of the Echo, Councillor Stéphanie Plante expresses enthusiasm for what is coming. 

Big changes are coming to the ByWard Market. By June of this year, the Market might look the same on the outside, but the internal governance structure will have changed. The Market’s … Business Improvement Area (BIA) will dissolve and the Municipal Services Corporation currently known as Marché d’Ottawa Markets will receive an expanded mandate for broader district operations. What does this mean, and how will it affect the ByWard Market experience?

Most people who come to the ByWard Market regularly would agree that while some names have changed, the overall experience is much the same as it was pre-COVID.  But those who have been shopping in the Market for years know that the area has been evolving, slowly but steadily, for years.

Since it was launched, the Echo has carried many stories on the changes.  A trip through the old issues shows that the changes, anticipated or real, have long been a preoccupation and concern of Lowertown residents. But not the City.  Reading the items that have appeared in the Echo over the years might leave one less optimistic that a new governing structure is the answer to the problems facing the Market.

2011: Early warnings

In a story in the Echo of May 2011, market-management team member Paolo Copeli noted: “the ByWard Market currently has more than 85 restaurants, 33 specialty food stores and 23 pubs, bars and nightclubs. All of that in addition to the more than 80 outdoor stands making ByWard, Canada’s largest outdoor market.”

All was well and good, you might think. However, others had noticed a worrisome trend. In April 2012, the headline in the Echo read: “Local Residents and Businesses call for a New Vision for the ByWard Market.” 

The LCA [Lowertown Community Association], the ByWard Market … BIA … and the ByWard Market Safety and Security Committee (SSC) all signed a letter to Mayor Watson outlining their concern that this community is threatened by the shape of development taking place. They were “concerned by the gradual reduction of small retail stores and particularly by the loss of food retail stores.” This trend is combined with an increasing number of restaurants and bars.

By October of that year, a front-page story by the LCA liaison for the ByWard Market, Sylvie Grenier, reported that in response to requests from community organizations “the City has hired the firm Project for Public Spaces (PPS) to develop a vision for the future of the ByWard Market.”

A subsequent story by Ms. Grenier in February 2013 stated that the report on the future of the Market had been submitted to  City staff and that they had “circulated this draft to various city departments for comments. However, they have so far refused to share the report with members of the steering committee.”

The February edition also published the results of a residents’ survey on the Market and an article by Nicolas Moyer on the important role played by public markets. He wrote:

What makes a successful public market? Public markets are places of commerce, but they also connect urban consumers to rural producers, encourage innovation, increase real-estate values and allow revenues to stay in the community. Public markets are low-risk business places for vendors and producers to try new things and support nearby rural economies.

Finally, after having seen the consultant’s report, Ms. Grenier summarized the conclusion in the Echo of June 2013: 

A recent report by the non-profit organization Project for Public Spaces identifies ByWard Market’s struggle to keep farmers and fresh food retailers, and concludes that despite its rich history, Ottawa’s historic public market is at risk if significant changes are not made.

There was no mention of Market matters in the Echo for over a year while the community awaited the City’s response to the PPS report.  In April 2015, the headline story of the Echo was: “Pub sprawl devours ByWard Market food.”

In this article, Ms. Grenier cited the City’s lack of effort to enforce its zoning bylaws and the absence of will to shift the Market building away from the food court it had become back to one filled with vendors of fresh-food products as recommended by the PPS study.  She noted: “The city is scheduled to table recommendations in the next few weeks to help revitalize the Market” and hoped that “these recommendations will restore the ByWard Market as the best destination for specialized food produce and unique retail stores.”

2015: A new direction

In June 2015, a story by then LCA president Liz Bernstein and Sylvie Grenier regarding the City’s response to the PPS recommendations was hopeful. With a headline, “ByWard Market refresh needs city investment”, they wrote:

Short term recommendations include the creation of a municipal corporation to manage the ByWard Market and to invest in it, the renovation and repurposing of the Market Building into a fresh produce market and the landscaping of the streets adjacent to the Market Building. Longer term recommendations include replacing the parking on York with outdoor stalls and replacing the garage building with a smaller commercial building, to make room for a public square facing the Market Building, with an underground garage.

The LCA had seized on the short-term recommendations while the City had only the long-term plans in mind. Critically, no funding was provided to meet either short- or long-term objectives.

In January 2018, as part of the proposed solution and amidst much fanfare, the new municipal services corporation, Marchés d’Ottawa Markets (MOM), took over management of ByWard and Parkdale markets. 

Nicolas Moyer wrote:

In Lowertown, the creation of Ottawa Markets is the culmination of over a decade of consultations and planning aimed at revitalizing the ByWard Market. By transferring market operations to an independent corporation, the City of Ottawa is banking on the potential of dedicated leadership and a clear mandate to help revitalize the ByWard Market and secure its future as a thriving traditional market in Ottawa’s downtown core.

It was a plan destined to fail.  

The only funding to support the work of the new management structure came from rent paid by local farmers for their seasonal stalls and by tenants in the main Market building, which were the very restaurants the LCA wanted to have replaced.  In addition, MOM severed the close working relationship that had existed between the ByWard Market BIA and the previous Market management.

The City was “encouraging the AGCO to implement restrictions more regularly in order to be compliant with the City’s urban planning goals. Through these measures we will continue to protect the diverse business mix in the ByWard Market.”

Councillor Fleury

In the April 2018 issue of the Echo, Councillor Fleury addressed the problems brought on by the incessant transformation of retail space into restaurants and then to bars. In his article entitled “ByWard Market struggles with business mix”  he noted the inability of City bylaws to prevent this without cooperation from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO).  He said that the City was “encouraging the AGCO to implement restrictions more regularly in order to be compliant with the City’s urban planning goals. Through these measures we will continue to protect the diverse business mix in the ByWard Market.”

The Echo of June 2018 carried a story on the budget submission put to the City by MOM.  In “Decisions on ByWard soon?”, MOM Executive Director Jeff Darwin told the Echo he had submitted a five-year strategic plan  that would “go a long way to determining the scope and pace of change that people can expect.”

While some aspects of the plan dealt with jurisdiction and powers of the new management corporation, the key element of the submission was obtaining a source of funding to permit the implementation of the changes that all in Lowertown were seeking.

William Street Plaza Summer 2019. Photo: John Chenier

In September 2018, Nicolas Moyer did a follow-up story in the Echo.  In “Byward Market: Ambitious changes need to be term-of-council priority” he wrote: “Stories about [MOM] have included Board member resignations, a public spat with buskers and tenant concerns with increased property management fees.”

On the matter of expanded jurisdiction for MOM, Moyer quoted MOM board member Greg Skotnicki on the need “to be responsible for the whole community impact of the market revitalization project, and not just to some of the stakeholders.” Meanwhile, any decisions on MOM’s request to have its jurisdiction and mandate expanded had to await the election of a new city council and the setting of term-of-council priorities.

Jurisdiction aside, the main issue was familiar:  MOM needed access to more funding if it was to carry out its plans.

A story in the November 2018 edition of the Echo by John Chenier, “The ByWard Market at 192 years” indicated that more changes were coming.  He wrote:

Huguette Lacroix has been selling produce from the family farm for 44 years. She started when she was seventeen. But her children have all chosen career paths far removed from growing and selling vegetables and flowers. She knows when she retires, it will be the end of the line. Several other vendors face the same situation.

The story continued:

With the season drawing to a close, the obvious question was how did they fare this year? One vendor when asked that question pointed at what was an empty sidewalk. Years ago, she noted, the sidewalk was seldom as empty as it was that morning. Worse, the absence of shoppers was not an unusual occurrence.

“The way things were in the past does not indicate the way of the future,” wrote Chenier. “Farmers are looking for, and finding, new ways and places to get their products to consumers. The results from relentless pressures for change are evident in the ByWard precinct.”

2019: The Public Realm

The June 2019, Echo carried two stories on the Market; one looked at the current situation and the other at plans for the future. The story by Luke Barry dealt with MOM’s continued search for funds to finance any changes that would bring people back to the area. He quoted Councillor Fleury, who summed up the situation nicely:

Every time we go out to consultation, well people feel it’s not welcoming, people feel it’s not beautiful, people feel the look and feel of the market in terms of street layout is outdated. So at some point, something needs to give. We either don’t do anything, leave it as is or we invest.

In September 2019 MOM Executive Director Jeff Darwin wrote that, that after some misgivings, the “Pedestrianization of William Street” had been termed a huge success by residents, tourists and local businesses. It was the last hurrah for Darwin.  In 2020, MOM had a new Executive Director, Zach Dayler.

Dayler had only been in his new job for a matter of weeks before COVID changed everything. In the April 2020 edition of the Echo he wrote:

A vital first step will be aligning our work with the forthcoming Public Realm study. To achieve this, Ottawa Markets is putting our head down and working hard to strategically develop an action plan that will refocus our offerings and reignite the passion for local produce and products.

By then MOM was operating with even less money as there was almost no revenue coming from the producers’ stalls.

In June 2020, Councillor Fleury showed his optimistic side. In his regular column he wrote: “New era begins for Market: City releases new plan for public spaces in investments in ByWard Market.” This was followed by the caveat, “City Council will review the plan this fall, and the City has also put the Public Realm Plan on its shortlist for stimulus funding requests from senior levels of government.”

In June 2020 only one producer operated a stall; Photo John Chenier

That summer the fresh-produce market re-opened on Byward Square with only one vendor.  By the next year, producer stalls had all but vanished in ByWard.

In February 2021, Norman Moyer, then president of the LCA wrote:

Ottawa City Council has just voted to spend $129 million to renew public infrastructure in the ByWard Market. This will go a long way towards reviving Lowertown, if it is accompanied by sensible plans and regulations that favour development aimed at producing a dynamic and diversified residential, commercial and institutional community.

Councillor Fleury was also enthusiastic. In the same issue of the Echo he wrote:

Council unanimously approved the ByWard Market Public Realm Plan on Jan. 27 – and I couldn’t be more pleased this day has finally come. Eight years in the making, I am happy to say over this time, the plan has taken shape. There is no need to point out all the great things about this space – we know them, love them and embrace them. And the areas which required some more attention, their time is now.

Also worth noting are his thoughts on what the plan would not address:

And although this plan may not resolve local farmers’ fresh produce, shelter concentration, housing, addictions & mental health, safety, truck route, and business diversity concerns – it does set improvements and beautifications goals for the area.

Meanwhile, MOM was looking for producers for a new Saturday market featuring small local producers.

The November 2021 edition of the Echo brought different, but all too familiar news.  Looking ahead to the new year, Councillor Fleury noted that the budget for 2022 provided “No funding for the Market Public Realm.”

In April 2022, the Echo reported on the City’s tentative appeal for a private-public partnership in the redevelopment of the parking garage at 70 Clarence Street as part of the implementation of the Public Realm plan.  It was noted that the manager of 70 Clarence, MOM, was completely left out of the process.

2023: Starting over

There was little news about further developments in the ByWard until February of 2023 when the City announced that it would dissolve the ByWard Market BIA and replace it with a new governing structure under MOM with an larger territory and expanded mandate . But, at the time of writing, it is not clear whether it will have new and sufficient funding to undertake its mission of renewal.

After almost 15 years, it remains to be seen whether this new structure is a serious effort or merely, as the saying goes, “rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.”