Old Hull on the Brink
The city has been trying to revive Old Hull for many years. Yet the population on the island of Hull has in fact fallen over the last decade. Many condos are being built, but residents moving into these buildings are not enough to compensate for residents moving out elsewhere. And many of the units in these new condo projects are being bought by investors who use them for short term rentals such as Airbnb.
The causes of Old Hull’s woes are many years in the making. It’s a food desert, not having had a grocery store in over 20 years. Until recently residents could at least get the basics at the Giant Tiger, but even that has closed. So the only choice in the vicinity is convenience stores. This hardly lends itself to a healthy diet.
Another problem is the state of many houses. There are over a dozen that are completely abandoned, and many others that are in dire condition. Investments in a neighbourhood become much less when neighbouring properties are eyesores. The result is a vicious cycle.
Lastly, and perhaps most seriously, Old Hull has lost one of its major appeals - proximity to the office for many civil servants. In an age of telework, something that is likely here for the long term, this is no longer a selling point.
What can be done?
In terms of a grocery store, a number of measures have been attempted over the years by the city council. A recent vote approved the construction of a grocery store located near what’s now the Robert Guertin arena. Yet the problem is far from solved. Next steps need to be ensuring that this supermarket opens as soon as possible, fast tracking all paperwork and administrative requirements. And the city needs to plan all aspects well to ensure that this grocery store stays open for the long term.
As for empty houses, much of the neglect comes from speculators hoping to cash in over the coming years, those who plan to eventually replace the decrepit houses on their properties with condos when the price is right. Perhaps the most effective way to combat this selfish attitude is an empty house tax - any properties that are not lived in pay penalties each year. As well, making safety standards more stringent would be a major step forward. Several buildings in Old Hull have been ravaged by flames in recent years. Current standards have not been enough to protect tenants from fire.
The hardest problem of all is the loss of incentive to live close to downtown due to the expansion of telework. Long term planning is the only way to build a dynamic neighbourhood to attract residents looking for culture and activities. Looking to medium sized cities in Europe that have managed to retain dynamic downtown cores can offer Gatineau inspiration for ways forward.
The alternative to revitalizing Old Hull is that it becomes a shell of its full potential, and a drag on Gatineau generally.