LRT reshaping city-wide development, audience hears at Ottawa’s Economic Outlook

Willis
Ottawa’s director of planning Stephen Willis. Photo by Mark Holleron.

The pending arrival of light rail is fuelling a wave of new development applications and changing the way builders view future projects, speakers told a business crowd Wednesday at the Shaw Centre.

Ottawa’s director of planning, Stephen Willis, said the city received 1,044 planning applications in 2017, a four per cent increase over 2016 and a 23 per cent hike over 2015. Calling the $2.1-billion light-rail project a “generational-level decision” that will have far-reaching ripple effects on the region’s economy for years to come, he showed a “heat map” of 2017 development applications that indicated many projects are highly concentrated in areas near future LRT stations.

“There is a direct correlation between the decisions that people are making in the real estate sector and our investment in the LRT system,” he said during a presentation at Ottawa’s Economic Outlook, an annual event hosted by OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade.

Willis pointed to projects such as the Zibi mixed-use development that is being built on former industrial lands on the Ottawa River and Trinity Development Group’s $750-million trio of highrises near Bayview Station as examples of a new wave of transit-fuelled densification near the downtown core.

But other presenters noted the potential impact of LRT extends far beyond the core.

Tamarack Homes director of planning and development Michelle Taggart told the audience the company is aiming to build 5,000 homes within 800 metres of the Trim Road station scheduled to be completed in 2022 as part of phase two of the LRT.

She said the builder is also looking at constructing apartments and office space in the far east end, something that likely never would have happened without light rail as a catalyst.

"The fact that the LRT is here is absolutely changing how we're buying sites."

“The fact that the LRT is here is absolutely changing how we’re buying sites,” she said. “There are so many opportunities.”

Shawn Hamilton, managing director of real estate services firm CBRE, said LRT infrastructure provides a “certainty in vision” that allows developers to plan years in advance because they know the trains will bring a steady flow of traffic to stations all along the line.

“We don’t get 5,000 homes in Orleans, we don’t get a billion dollars of downtown development, without that infrastructure,” Hamilton said, adding the east end could be a major beneficiary of light rail as shrinking office vacancy rates downtown force tenants to look for other spaces that are easily accessible to mass transit.

Aside from transit-related development, Willis also suggested the rapidly growing agritech sector could trigger additional economic growth in Ottawa. Noting that 80 per cent of the city’s 2,800-square-kilometre land mass is rural, he said that presents huge opportunities to work with the growing number of companies that are pioneering new innovations in agriculture.

“The truth is, although there’s not as many jobs in those (rural) areas, there is an enormous amount of capital investment going into farming operations,” he said, adding “global companies” are eyeing Ottawa as a potential R&D hub for emerging technology such as self-driving farm equipment.