The Skyline: The Sparks Street experiment

MallPic1by Robert Smythe

Sparks Street’s first pedestrian mall was the boldest example of tactical urbanism the city is ever likely to see.

Between the final streetcar run rumbling down Sparks Street on May 31, 1959, and Canada’s first pedestrian mall’s official opening on May 20, 1960, it had taken less than a year to amend the provincial legislation (City of Ottawa and Municipal Acts), rewrite bylaws, authorize financing, design and execute the landscape features, and orchestrate the complicated logistics that birthed the temporary Sparks Street Mall.

With merchants leading the charge, the trial had to overcome continuous objections from a skeptical city administration. The city engineers predicted traffic congestion and parking chaos. The Fire Department wouldn’t be able to get down the closed street, and the Ottawa Transportation Commission bus system would grind to a halt. Some things never change.

MallPic2

This is the sketch by architect Watson Balharrie that first stirred the public’s imagination when it was published by several newspapers in May 1959. The concept had sprung from Jacques Gréber’s earlier reports to the National Capital Commission. He envisioned an Elgin-to-Bay pedestrian promenade called the ‘Mall of Four Seasons’ to bring a commercial renaissance to Sparks Street. It would be lined by a continuous arcade of shop fronts and underlaid with steam pipes to melt the winter snow. Seizing on the idea the street’s store owners mounted a campaign to convince the City of Ottawa to adopt a four month test for the Sparks Street Mall, and chartered a plane to take a delegation of business people and municipal officials to Toledo, Ohio to assess that city’s recently opened pedestrian mall.

MallPic3

Although the City of Ottawa earmarked funding up to $100,000, the final costs totalled $30,000, which was split with the Sparks Street businesses. Refusing to expedite the removal of the old streetcar tracks the City would only do a strip paving over the abandoned line and patch the street with a skin coat of asphalt. This would be the canvas for the mall’s most expensive item, decorative road painting in each of the three blocks.

MallPic4

Architect Balharrie turned to some of Ottawa’s leading young architects to form a very modern creative team. The special events stage was designed by Jim Strutt, displaying his trademark hyper-paraboloid roofline. NCC Chief Architect John Leaning offered a pavilion to display a model of the future national capital, Paul Schoeler and Brian Barkham an information booth, Brian Pye the children’s play area, and Peter Douglass a reflecting pool. There were also murals and sculptures by artists Michael Pine, David Partridge, and Louis Archambault. Stig Harvor was the project’s coordinating architect.

MallPic5

The first-year trial was supposed to end on Labour Day 1960, but the large crowds convinced the City to extend Sparks Street’s closure by a month. Most stores reported an increase in sales and a downtown retail consultant from New York was hired for an analysis. He concluded that it was the best mall he’d ever seen.

To gauge public support the merchants’ association surveyed 2,000 visitors and claimed that 91% found it to be an enjoyable experience and 83% said that they might like to see a permanent mall on Sparks Street. As the tree tubs and benches were being carted away, the Sparks Street Development Association was already planning for the 1961 season. By 1962, a concept design for a year-round mall was produced. This would prove a much more difficult process and is the subject of another story.