What to do with Sparks Street? City looks for input at town hall on pedestrian space

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by Kathryn Hunt

In a recent issue of The Centretown BUZZ, Robert Smythe described the opening of the Sparks Street Pedestrian Mall in 1960:

“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 to Canada’s first pedestrian mall officially opening on May 20, 1960, it had taken less than a year to amend the provincial legislation (City of Ottawa and Municipal Acts), rewrite by-laws, authorize financing, design and execute the landscape features, and orchestrate the complicated logistics that birthed the temporary Sparks Street Mall.”

The idea that would eventually become the Sparks Street Mall began as Jacques Gréber’s vision of a pedestrian space stretching between Elgin and Bay. Initially, resistance to the idea came from the City, whose engineers argued that the street would cause circulation problems for traffic and emergency vehicles.

Nevertheless, the pilot project in 1960 was a success. The street was originally closed to cars only in the summer, but by 1967 it had officially been converted into a year-round pedestrian area, making it the first of its kind in Canada. (See our October issue for some vintage photos of the street as it looked back then.)

Over the years, pedestrian traffic to the street has fallen off, and a number of suggestions have been made to rekindle interest in Sparks Street as a community and tourist destination. Now, the City is looking for ways to transform and revitalize the street, most recently at a town hall held January 13 to ask the public for their opinions.

Changes coming to the street include two LRT stations just around the corner from the street, which are expected to bring more foot traffic to the area, the newly installed Stanley Cup monument, a new STO stop, and a new Indigenous Cultural Centre recently announced for 100 Wellington.

There are many factors that complicate any future plans for the street. While it is technically a pedestrian area, businesses along the street require that some vehicles be able to access it for deliveries. This has led to a system of VIP access to the street for certain vehicles, leading at times to confusion for visitors to Ottawa, who may unknowingly drive onto the street without permission.

Adding to the complication is the fact that, while the mall itself and the buildings on the south side of the street are owned by the National Capital Commission, the buildings on the north side of the street have belonged to the Government of Canada since 1973 and are currently managed by Public Works and Government Services Canada.

Not everyone is convinced that Sparks Street can be made to work, although many suggestions have been made over the years, from covering part of the street in the winter months, to a farmers’ market, to a zip line. In 2016, Ottawa Citizen writer David Reevely went so far as to suggest “killing” Sparks Street Mall, and converting the space back into a regular street—though possibly with widened sidewalks, patios and cycling lanes.

The public engagement stage will conclude early in 2019 with a report to Finance and Economic Development Committee and Council. During the public engagement period, the City will gather feedback using online questionnaires, design workshops, information sessions and email.

There will be two more public events, in March and September of this year, and members of the public are encouraged to sign up for email updates at the City website and to get involved in the decision-making process.