My Candidacy for Night Mayor of Ottawa
I seek to become your post-6 pm overlord not because it is easy, but because it is hard! Here are some ideas to get us started.
The other day the City of Ottawa proposed an “Ottawa Nightlife Economy Action Plan,” or ONEAP, if you prefer. That plan includes a ‘night mayor,’ which sounds like ‘nightmare’ when you say it aloud. Technically, the position is “Nightlife Commissioner.” Which makes me think of Gotham City, which is probably not what the city is going for. The plan is making its way through the committee process at City Hall.
I don’t want to be your night mayor. I’m not sure it’s a campaign thing anyway, but I even if it is, I don’t want it. In fact, I don’t trust anyone who does want it. Put me down for a Lyndon Johnson special: “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party as your night mayor.” But I do want to say a bit about the undertaking because it’s a useful exercise in focusing the mind on why so much of Ottawa sucks so hard—and not just Ottawa, but many cities in Canada and beyond our borders.
Other cities have undertaken similar night mayor strategies, including Prague, Amsterdam, and London (the one in the U.K.), where it has…gone poorly. Elsewhere, proponents say it has worked. There’s no reason, in theory, that it could not work in Ottawa. I think the whole thing is a long shot and we’ll end up with another mutlinational consulting firm making a fortune from this moonshot, a few corporate branding efforts marked by stupid names reminiscent of a South Park bit, and another bunch of chain restaurants and lounges full of obnoxious bozos who make us want to drink at home while bingeing Netflix instead of paying $18 for a Coors and $46 for a shitty salad. But I could be wrong.
Now that I’m off the hook for running for night mayor, I can speak candidly about some general principles and areas of interest that might help Ottawa make the most of its forthcoming after-dark efforts. This is not my platform. This is just some thoughts, the raving pleas of an Ottawa resident with nothing left to lose.
So, how might Ottawa’s nightlife (and daylife, for the matter) improve?
If you don’t have safe, affordable, frequent, extensive, late-night transit, then your nightlife plan isn’t going to work. Ottawa currently has none of those things and whenever we try to do better, the doors on the train don’t open or else they do open but then the train falls off the track. Or the train doesn’t run when it’s hot. Or cold. Ottawa is a city that is famously either very hot or very cold. Not ideal. Fix transit. That is job one.
I don’t have much to add to his point beyond noting that much of that housing must be affordable. That means density, purpose-built rental, and public housing (which we can do and can do well if we want to). So, let’s also do all of that.
Affordable Rents for Business
If bars, restaurants, etc., etc. can’t afford to operate, then they can’t operate. Call me an economist. Nailed it! High rents make operating unaffordable and leave space only for a handful of chains to run and those chains, as a rule, are probably going to blow. They aren’t going to make your city a world-class night city or anything remotely near it. Affordable housing and afforable small business rents are essential. But workers must also be paid well. If you can’t afford to pay your workers well, then you can’t afford to operate.
No More Cookie-Cutter Corporate Shitholes
Related to the last point: The heart of a good nightlife is cool independent local spots. Some of them will be quirky. Or divey. Some of them will be bougie. They’ll all be different and will serve different crowds and sorts and foods and drinks. We don’t need another corporate after-work overdone overpriced brushed aluminum bar. We also don’t need another Irish pub run by a restaurant group. And we probably don’t need another weed shop, either.
There’s a push at the City of Ottawa to make 2 a.m. patio closures permanent. I don’t know it’s current status but will update this piece when I find out. As CTV notes, “Prior to the pandemic, patio hours had varied across the city. About 40 per cent closed at 11 p.m. and another five per cent closed at either midnight or 1 a.m.” That is not late enough for a late-night city. Pandemic measures pushed times later. They should probably go a bit later still, even! Ditto indoors. And transit should be open late enough to accommodate closing times. When I lived in South Korea, bars were open until…my god, I don’t remember if they ever closed. Talk about night life.
Not only should patio spaces be open late, there should also be more of them. Big ones, small ones, fancy ones, dodgy ones. Lots of them. That means less room for cars, which is fine, since you fixed transit, right? Right?
Public Pedestrian Spaces
Big, open, safe, walkable pedestrian spaces that are better than Sparks Street are magnets for people. We didn’t get that with the Market (although when we do get it, at special times during the summer, the space is packed). We didn’t really get that with Lansdowne, either. But we could have such spaces. They’d be packed, especially if people lived around them in dense sections, if they were served by good transit, and they weren’t full of soulless corporate hellholes. Also, make sure they are accessible and public. People desreve plenty of space where they aren’t expected to spend money.
It’s a Holistic Plan, You See
There you have it. A short, sweet vision for a city that is great during the night and the day. Notice how the plan is holistic? How it hangs together? Housing and transit and public spaces and cool independent spots? And lots of public space because a city ifa living, breathing, public thing. But this plan requires that we do things differently. We can’t just slap some corporate branding on an area of town and do things the same way we’ve always done them. If Ottawa can be courageous, or even a bit creative (by copying other places that do all of this already), then the night mayor strategy might work. If not, the whole effort will simply become a recurring nightmare.