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The changing face of Vanier: What a difference a decade makes

"Prostitution, drugs, graffiti and vacant businesses. These are the problems that Suzanne Valiquet has faced during her time at Vanier’s Business Improvement Area.

Valiquet, 55, is the executive director of Quartier Vanier. She has been involved in the association for 10 years, and served as executive director for seven of those.

Her role with the association ended on Jan 1.

The Citizen sat down with Valiquet to find out how Vanier has changed throughout her years there.

Q: Why leave now?

A: Leaving was probably one of the hardest decisions in my life. I love this job, but I felt it was the right time for me to step down. I have served more than two terms as executive director. As a new term begins at city hall with new councillors, a new term will begin at the BIAs with new directors coming in. This is a good time for new leadership and for fresh ideas.

Q: How does Vanier compare now with when you first got involved?

A: When I arrived some 10 years ago, Vanier had somehow been forgotten by the city. It was only a few years after amalgamation and although the main streets in the rest of the city were in full makeover, ours were not. Our first goal was to clean the streets. In the first three years, the program got better: Our workers became better trained, police were more involved, and our residents were beginning to co-operate with police by calling in crimes. Everyone was working better together.

Since then, we have expanded the boundaries of Vanier to St. Laurent Boulevard, adding about 125 new businesses to our area. Developments are now in the books for new buildings, offices, retail, and condos to be constructed over the next three to five years, with companies such as Minto, Domicile, Bona, and Longwood already having projects completed or in construction.

Q: What were some of your initiatives toward improving the neighbourhood?

A: In terms of programming, we expanded activities in economic development, safety and security, and focused on beautifying the area. We’ve added large, red planters across the borough, which currently have Christmas trees inside them. It’s also important for a community to have good infrastructure such as benches, clean bus stops, lights and proper sidewalks, which we are still all working on. We’ve also held investors seminars and annual events such as our farmers’ market.

Q: How have you tried to clean up the streets?

A: We started a safety and security program and hired students to walk the streets during the summer. These students became our ambassadors, spending each day talking to the merchants while cleaning and landscaping the streets. We were able to use them as a new communication tool to help connect with our merchants to understand their problems. Plus, they helped with our graffiti removal program, which is the first of its kind in Ottawa BIAs. Removing graffiti quickly is important to the beautification of a community because if you remove new graffiti within 48 hours, the chances of it coming back are slim.

Q: What was a key challenge?

A: A major problem was how do we re-brand Vanier? We have, along with the residents here, worked hard to enact change while keeping its heritage. We thought of the idea of re-branding each of our main roads while trying to keep everyone happy. We ended by naming Beechwood Avenue as The Village, Montreal Road The French Quarter, and McArthur as The International Avenue due to the large number of Portuguese, Arabic, East Indian, and African businesses present there. The banners with these names will be hung on these streets starting in 2015.

Q: Has Vanier been a tough sell to businesses?

A: It was, but now they come to us. Our business recruitment strategy took a while to put together but we did our homework and produced results. There are now 25,000 people coming to work here in this commercial zone each day. The land is still affordable and is close to the core of the city. More and more young professionals are choosing to live here and young families are finding it attractive.

By having lovely parks, schools, and cycling paths, it makes the area attractive, and that’s good for business.

Q: What does the future have in store for Vanier?

A: Big changes. There is a positive wind blowing here. I can see only great things as our merchants and property owners now recognize the potential and have started doing upgrades to their businesses. As long as we keep it clean and safe, working with the community and the police, it will continue to thrive and be a great place to live and work. The stigma of Vanier as being dirty will be there for a long time but will go away when people begin to see the change. But we still must be vigilant. If you think that the problem has gone away, it has not. Managing what we have in place now is crucial for the future.

Q: What do these changes mean for real estate?

A: Undoubtedly, land value is going to increase. We’re in close proximity to the downtown core. In fact, I like to think we’re downtown east. Vanier is going to find itself more in demand soon. It will become tougher to invest in, so now is the right time. The high prices of downtown real estate will soon spill over as we have seen in areas like Westboro and West Wellington.

Q: What is it that makes Vanier unique to Ottawa?

A: Its history and geography, architecture and eclectic nature, diverse population, and the culture of the francophone community. I’ve always used the analogy “Vanier is a little city in a big city” when describing it to someone who has never been. It’s always had that little village feel while still being able to sit right in the middle of the city."

Source: Zack Bradley, Ottawa Citizen. January 1, 2015