ByWard Market Restaurant Owner Says Enough With the Talk and Committees, do Something

ABOVE: Vladimir Ristovski, the proprietor of Bistro Ristoro in ByWard Market, is urging the City of Ottawa to take action towards enhancing the capital’s historic district. (PHOTO: OLM Staff)

It’s patio season, and the ByWard Market restaurant Bistro Ristoro near Clarence Street and Sussex should be packed. Instead, owner Vladimir Ristovski says that the restaurant closes early on Friday and Saturday nights since customers are staying away.

The change is a new problem for Ristovski, whose successful restaurant provides patrons with delicious wood-fired pizzas, fresh-made food, cocktails and a superb wine selection.

The business was able to weather the uncertainty of multiple lockdowns, but Ristovski says he sees reasons for the downturn in his business and knows that many residents and business owners in the ByWard Market would concur.

Ristovski is a family man who came to Canada to be closer to his son, who was studying at McGill University. He enjoys hosting customers and the simple things in life like Croatian wine, yet Ristovski is also a man with an incredible background whose life experiences go well beyond the pleasures of his current undertaking as a restauranteur.

As a Representative of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Ristovski worked all over Europe and facilitated the European integration of several countries. He was also a diplomat: Ambassador-Permanent Representative of the Republic of North Macedonia to the Council of Europe and Chair of the Committee of Ministers Deputies of this organization, the headquarter of which is in Strasbourg, France.

Despite this, Ristovski finds Canada’s capital to be lacking the polish, safety and pedestrian friendliness of European cities like his native Skopje, an extremely walkable capital with a downtown core that is built around a ‘grand bazaar’ that is more akin to a neighbourhood like Old Montreal on steroids.

Ristovski believes that a lack of safety in the ByWard Market due to crime is keeping people away.  He explains that without a sense of personal safety, even his friends living in the city’s boroughs no longer feel it is of any value to frequent Ottawa’s downtown.

Recently, a targeted shooting occurred in the Market where four men were injured, two with life-threatening injuries. Ristovski says this sort of crime is an emerging phenomenon, but the area has become increasingly violent and uncomfortable.

Being on the axis of three separate homeless shelters and three safe injection sites, the area is inhabited by a disproportionally high number of the city’s homeless. Ristovski doesn’t talk about this or even mention the panhandling and unease due to large amounts of unhomed people who gather on street corners and sleep on sidewalks. They need help, but they also attract criminal elements like drug pushers who know they can profit from a concentration of prospective clients.

Making the problem in the Market worse is lax law enforcement in the area. Ristovski says he cannot travel from his nearby residence to the restaurant without being aggressively accosted, which he says can happen several times daily. He is very concerned about his staff, and rightfully so; a former waiter was severely assaulted while walking home from work.

The decline in customers, coupled with the sense of danger in the Market at night, is what led him to close his restaurant at 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; a move that he says will cost him dearly, but families with children have been deterred from coming to the area, and he needs to keep his staff safe.

The city has been looking at options to keep the Market safe, including hiring private security in the area that would work in coordination with the Ottawa Police Service (OPS). However, Ristovski says that these strategies will not do enough to mitigate the unease in the area.

Ristovski welcomes the proposed OPS station in the ByWard Market that Mayor Mark Sutcliffe campaigned on and says it cannot come soon enough. He believes that the physical presence of law enforcement in the area will have a positive effect. However, even if the Market gets safer, more must be done to bring the tourists and locals back.

He believes foot traffic is down because the Market is only partially closed to cars. During the summer of 2019, Clarence Street from Cumberland to Sussex was closed to vehicles, resulting in much more pedestrian space, larger crowds, and busier patios and restaurants.

Currently, the city is in the process of implementing several different reforms and changes in how the Market is governed that will have significant impacts on business in the area. The ByWard Business Improvement Area (BIA) is set to be dissolved and replaced with the ByWard Market District Authority (BMDA).

Ristovski believes that the proposed restructuring is a step in the right direction. In his view, the new body will be more involved in the day-to-day governance of the Market from the ground up, making it, in principle, more effective at solving the ByWard Markets issues. “We simply need more area operations implemented better than before to create an enabling environment on the Market,” he says of the new body.

But to be effective, Ristovski says the new BMDA needs a clear mandate that can be pushed through Council quickly. The BMDA needs to get to work right away; the issues in the Market can’t be left unattended until after the budget is passed next year.

Since the city has already passed the 2023 budget, Ristovski suggests the BMDA redirect collected ByWard BIA fees towards running the proposed new authority. The other option that has been rumoured is that the city will levy a special tax on the ByWard Market residents and businesses.

Bistro Ristoro’s owner sees this as a step in the wrong direction. He argues that any referendum or new tax imposed on the area’s businesses will result in a backlog, preventing the new authority from working to fix the serious issues in the Market. He is doubly opposed to this option since the tax has already been paid toward the city budget for the year.

Ristovski wraps up his thoughts on the ByWard Market by asking for more robust engagement from the city in the neighbourhood. His top priority as a business owner is getting tough on crime and making the area more pedestrian friendly. He says homelessness and vagrancy are the elephant in the room and a whole other issue that requires a different plan.

Ristovski believes that the proposed ByWard Market District Authority needs to start by greening the ByWard Market and enhancing public spaces to make it more pedestrian-friendly without obstructing business needs. Coupled with an increased police presence, the area businesses and all of Ottawa will benefit.

The city has yet to determine a path forward for the ByWard Market, but it needs to stop talking and get to work immediately. The problems facing business owners and visitors to the area are not going away on their own. If the city does nothing, instead of closing early, businesses will be closing for good.