City embarks on fresh effort to revitalize Ottawa’s Sparks Street

Sparks Street
Sparks Street (Photo by Tony Webster / Flickr)
Editor's Note

A previous version of this story stated that Ribfest began under former Sparks Street BIA executive director Les Gagne. In fact, Ribfest started before Mr. Gagne's tenure. The story has been corrected. 

In its never-ending quest to breathe life into Sparks Street, the city is asking residents, business owners, community associations and government agencies what they want the oft-maligned pedestrian mall to be.

The City of Ottawa recently posted a short questionnaire on its website as part of its long-term plan to revitalize the 50-year-old mall, which has a reputation for being a ghost town on evenings and weekends. It is asking respondents to describe “the most important things for the City to consider to ensure the future success of Sparks Street” in 250 words or fewer.

The city said a more detailed survey aimed at gathering feedback on specific themes, programming and public amenities at the mall will be released before the end of the year, with the results being announced in early 2018.

The website said the city and its partners, the National Capital Commission and the federal government, “are committed to engaging the public about the future of the iconic public space known as the Sparks Street Pedestrian Mall – how should it be used, what should it look like, and how should it be programmed.”

The year-long consultation process will consist of a variety of online surveys, design workshops and other information sessions, the city said. A report on the results is slated to be presented to the city’s finance and economic development committee in 2019. City staff will then recommend a “cohesive plan for the future,” it said.

Sparks Street BIA acting executive director Kevin McHale praised the initiative, noting the mall hasn’t had a major redesign since the late 1980s and is badly in need of a facelift.

“Over time, things come out of fashion, things change,” he said. “What I’m hoping for is a clear vision of what we want to do with the street for the next 30 years.”

Mr. McHale said it’s a positive sign that the city, NCC and federal government are working together on the new consultation plan. Although the city owns the street, the NCC has a say in its long-term vision and the federal Public Services department is the mall’s biggest landlord.

“That’s what I think is kind of amazing about this project is all these people are around the table and all have a collective (will) to make it work,” he said. “I find that very exciting.”

The city touts the pedestrian thoroughfare as “a famous place for residents and visitors alike to gather and celebrate in the heart of Ottawa’s downtown,” pointing to a spate of new residential and commercial development in the area as well as the recently unveiled Stanley Cup monument at the corner of Sparks and Elgin streets, light rail and the planned indigenous cultural centre at 100 Wellington St.

However, critics view the street differently.

Reliance on government

Ian Lee, an assistant professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, told OBJ in 2015 the mall relies too heavily on nearby government workers for traffic and will never truly become a bustling hub of activity until more people live within close walking distance.

“They’ve never been able to solve the problem of after 6 o’clock,” he said. “I don’t think that they can address that problem. That’s a structural problem – nobody lives on Sparks Street. Its liveliness is going to be a function of the stores that are there operating in the daytime appealing to the downtown workers who work there Monday to Friday. Unless you literally build condos on the Sparks Street Mall … the only thing you can do is encourage some businesses to locate there to cater to the daytime workers.”

Retail analyst Barry Nabatian said Ashcroft Homes’ re Residences project that is slated for completion next year is a positive sign in the effort to entice more people to the neighbourhood. Located between Sparks and Queen streets, just west of Metcalfe Street, the development features two buildings with a total of about 200 condo and luxury rental units. Mr. Nabatian said the project will attract well-heeled buyers and tenants who will eat, drink and shop at nearby bars and restaurants.

“The people who move there are affluent, single and two-person households,” Mr. Nabatian told OBJ two years ago. “A lot of those people, afterwards they go to the Bier Markt and other places. They’re walking on Sparks Street, and if the right type of stores are there, they’ll shop as well.”

However, while establishments such as Bier Markt and Riviera restaurant have opened on Sparks in the past few years, several other businesses – including Holt Renfrew and Yesterday’s – have closed their doors.

Sparks Street
(Photo courtesy Sparks Street BIA)

Over the years, the BIA introduced food festivals such as Poutinefest and Ribfest in a bid to boost the mall’s profile, but other much-ballyhooed initiatives to draw tourists – including a proposed zipline – never materialized.

With a number of governing bodies – including the NCC, Public Works, the city, the BIA and the Sparks Street Mall Authority – all having a say in how the shopping district is run, Mr. Nabatian said it’s hard to get everyone on the same page when it comes to planning and marketing.

“I just don’t know how well they communicate with each other,” he said. “Sparks Street has got to be run more or less like a shopping centre. In other words, everybody has to agree on what they want it to be.”

Mr. McHale, who has worked for the organization for four years, acknowledged there have been hits and misses in efforts to revitalize the street in the past. But he said he’s hopeful that this time, things will be different.

“This is about getting people engaged,” he said. “I think at the core of it, everyone knows it’s not working anymore, but everyone also wants it to work.”