Solving Sparks Street’s woes

Mark Brownlee
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Public Works’s short-term leases put pinch on retailers

Ian Wright doesn’t know what’s going to become of his business’s home on Sparks Street. The co-owner of The Snow Goose Ltd., a store that sells Inuit art, has no guarantee he’ll be operating out of the same space two years down the road.

Les Gagne is executive director of the Sparks Street Mall Business Improvement Area.

Public Works, the store’s landlord, is only negotiating three-year leases for businesses on the north side of the street. That’s raising the possibility of the store’s 50-year run on the street coming to an end.

“You’re worried about planning ahead – are you still going to be here or are you not?” said Mr. Wright. “If they decide that they’re going to renovate this building like they are doing (with) some of the buildings down the block, you’re left trying to find another place.

“So you just can’t produce any kind of a business plan going forward.”

The shortened lease terms are the latest chapter in an ongoing saga of frustration for the stores that rent retail space on Sparks Street.

Business owners in the area feel the federal department is standing in the way – not only of their attempts to thrive as entrepreneurs, but also in making the site an attractive place for tourists.

The street is located just south of Parliament Hill, one of the most popular destinations for visitors to the capital. Tourism officials have long lamented that the pedestrian mall isn’t more of a bustling hub of restaurants and bars that tourists can visit after taking in the city’s national landmarks.

Instead, the area is plagued by empty storefronts and a lack of activity in the evening after office workers go home for the day.

The short-term leases are meant to help with the “vitality of Sparks Street” by leaving the door open for “extensive rehabilitation” of the buildings, wrote Public Works spokesperson Mylène Dupéré in an e-mail.

“The long-term plans for other buildings along the north of Spark Street (sic) are being explored,” she wrote. “Until such plans are developed, lease terms for certain buildings have not been committed to beyond December 2014.”

She noted that the government has already renovated other buildings, such as La Promenade at 151 Sparks St., on the east side of O’Connor Street. The retail space in that building is already occupied, she said, with tenants such as Black’s Photography and Bello Uomo Fashions.

But the executive director of the area’s merchants association insists these short-term leases are preventing new businesses from moving into the vacant storefronts that dot the north side of the street.

“When anybody looks at an opportunity like Sparks Street to open a new business, their first reaction would be one of hesitation,” said Les Gagne, executive director of the Sparks Street Mall Business Improvement Area.

He noted that all of the roughly 10 or so vacant storefronts are on the north side, the side of the street for which Public Works refuses to issue longer-term leases.

Who’s responsible?

Local officials have long cited Sparks Street’s complicated ownership structure as one of the main obstacles to making the street a more attractive place for visitors.

Two different branches of the federal government – Public Works and Government Services Canada, and arm’s-length Crown corporation the National Capital Commission – control most of the buildings. Another level of government, the City of Ottawa, is responsible for the pedestrian area.

The business tenants that operate on the street often feel caught in the middle of these jurisdictional layers as they attempt to bring the street to life.

Les Gagne, the executive director of the Sparks Street Mall Business Improvement Area, said he’s tired of complaining about issues over which businesses in the area have no control.

Instead he’s going to focus on bringing more activity to the street through unusual projects and beautification initiatives.

Mr. Gagne has proposed bringing a zip line that allows riders to grab onto a pulley slanted on an incline and travel from one part of the street to another for fun.

He also helped organize a Dec. 31 party that brought hundreds of people to the pedestrian mall to ring in the New Year and has proposed a farmer’s market for the area.

The BIA is also trying to change the street’s appearance with new street lamps and benches and by peppering the area with branded “S” logos.

Who owns Sparks Street?

(based on the linear length from Elgin Street to Bank Street)

Public Works: 57.5 per cent

National Capital Commission: 16.8 per cent

Private ownership: 25.7 per cent

(Source: National Capital Commission)

Organizations: Public Works and Government Services Canada, National Capital Commission, Sparks Street Mall Business Improvement Area.He

Geographic location: Sparks Street, Parliament Hill, Spark Street O’Connor Street Ottawa Elgin Street

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