This may seem like an odd topic to raise in the early days of August. After all, it was a story that first broke in January and doesn’t seem to have garnered much media attention in the months since. But after my recent trip to Kitchener-Waterloo and immersing myself in the environment of the Communitech Hub, it seems that some discourse should be attempted on a subject that has perhaps provoked too little attention so far from mainstream media.
I am referring to plans by the City of Ottawa and Invest Ottawa to construct at Bayview Yards west of the Canadian War Museum an “innovation complex” that would repurpose an old 150,000-square-foot city workshop (pictured). According to a city staff report from January, the complex “would help to meet the growing demands of new entrepreneurs in Ottawa” and be modelled after Communitech and the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto.
The site is nestled in a rather forlorn light industrial area characterized by weeds growing from cracks in the concrete. However, this area is the focus of the city’s Bayview Community Design Plan.
To quote a May 8 story by the Ottawa Citizen’s David Reevely, the plan “was begun in 2005 but moved in fits in starts as the city aborted and re-planned the light-rail project that’s supposed to turn Bayview into a major transit hub. In the city’s vision, that’ll mean 30-storey buildings overlooking the station itself and 20-storey buildings a little farther away, stepping down to six- and four-storey buildings next to existing residential areas in Mechanicsville, Hintonburg and Dalhousie.”
Of course, before that commercial real estate development occurs, if it ever does, the area will for several years be one massive, dusty construction zone for the transit project.
Bayview Yards is a poor location
The community design plan may be a good idea, but sticking any kind of Communitech-inspired innovation complex in the middle of it is not.
It all starts with a simple luxury most of us like to enjoy, especially sleep-deprived code junkies: A good cup of coffee, with, perhaps, a healthy dose of carbs.
There is a not a coffee shop within a 15-minute walk of the proposed site. There isn’t really much of anything that could be considered an amenity. There is no scene, no vibe, no dynamism. It would be like going to the some far-flung corner of an industrial park where you have to get in your car and drive if you want to get out of the office. Compare that to the more central parts of Ottawa, namely, The ByWard Market, where there are a number of startups and maturing technology companies.
When former OCRI chief Claude Haw scrapped the downtown “Innovation Hub” championed by his predecessor, Jeffrey Dale, he said Ottawa was better served by a more decentralized ecosystem already typified by the likes of Bruce Firestone’s Exploriem.org incubator, Ian Graham’s TheCodeFactory and the various initiatives spearheaded by Tony Bailetti at Carleton University. I disagree.
You have to go where the entrepreneurs are going
Having a centralized anchor for the startup community is vitally important. You only need to look as far as Communitech to see this is true and it is a region that does also have a separate Accelerator Centre, an active post-secondary scene, and more than 1,000 true tech companies throughout the region at various stages of development. As Communitech CEO Iain Klugman told me on my recent visit to K-W, having a local economic development agency such as Invest Ottawa in control of this centralized anchor is vital. If Communitech didn’t have control of its own real estate, he said, it would have dramatically impaired the organization’s ability to adapt, evolve and grow as needed to better serve its community.
In other words, you have to be able to knock down a wall or build a new loft space every now and then without it becoming a big bureaucratic fuss or a lease issue with a landlord.
And this brings us back to Ottawa. It doesn’t appear that the value of a “innovation complex” is provoking much debate, certainly not like OCRI’s proposed Innovation Hub did. As they say in real estate, however, there are only three things that matter: Location. Location. Location.
This is a great idea that can quickly become a disaster if it is located in the wrong place.
Consider the benefits of having this innovation complex in the ByWard Market area, where there is already a high level of startup activity, where TheCodeFactory and the HUB Ottawa co-working spaces are already near by, and where we have no shortage of amenities for leisure, relaxation and creative collisions over a coffee. It’s also cheek-to-cheek with the many professional services any venture requires – lawyers, accountants, bankers and so forth. This to me is a much more natural place to locate an innovation anchor for the entire community. It’s certainly a much more logical congregation point than an abandoned corner of town.
The problem is that the city appears to be trying to mix oil and water, believing it can effectively serve the needs of the entrepreneur as part of a community revitalization project. It’s not a natural fit, and attempting to shoehorn them will come at the expense of one if not both.
Image: Google street view image