Sparks Street Blues

only the tumbleweed is missing

To Ottawans, the ongoing saga of Sparks Street is somewhat of a tragicomedy. The street, which runs parallel to Wellington Street just one block south of Parliament Hill, exists mostly as a pedestrian mall, with vehicular access limited from Kent Street in the West to Elgin Street in the East. During its prime from the 1880s to the mid-twentieth century, Sparks Street was the commercial hub of the nation’s capital. Several of the nation’s top banks established central branches along the street to serve the city’s booming business class, and the street was home to local department stores who competed with others across the Canal in Lowertown. Sparks Street is endowed with over thirty buildings of historical significance – perhaps the highest concentration of such landmarks in Ottawa, and a reminder of the city’s heyday.

whither the historical plaque?

Perhaps most important factor in Sparks Street’s ascent was the arrival of the streetcar. In 1891, Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper bought out the city’s previous horsecar company and established the Ottawa Electric Railway Company, deciding to retain Sparks Street as their main east-west access point. Streetcar lines from the west converged onto Sparks Street and thence towards Lowertown, drawing people from all parts of the city. When the streetcars left in 1959, so did the street’s prosperity. The termination of car service was the nail in the coffin for several authentic local businesses that relied on patronage from the already-dwindling numbers of streetcar riders.

In 1966, during the height of ‘monolithic’ school of urban thought, the street was turned into a pedestrian mall. Perplexed with why citizens did not immediately embrace this new paved playground, the NCC and Public Works decided to sweep up ownership of the properties on the street with the hope that more top-down planning would revitalize the district. What this meant, though, was the departure of even more businesses and the stagnation of those that remained.

Not much has changed on Sparks Street since the 1970s. The NCC tries to exaggerate some slow improvements in street life by lauding the street’s festivals: while Buskerfest has been an undeniable success, the Chicken and Rib Cook-off’s contribution to urban revitalization remains in question. New buildings like the CBC studio, which fronts both Queen and Sparks Streets, and the Haddy Arcade, a recent renovation of an empty building into a mixed-use project, has injected some life into the underwhelming streetscape. Nevertheless, despite good written documents that outline their ‘vision’ for the street, the NCC and the Sparks Street Mall have initiated few positive changes in recent years.

The Post Office Building

How should we plan to fix this ailing boulevard? Firstly, scrap plans for running the new LRT right-of-ways down Albert and Slater Streets – businesses on both streets are already complaining that traffic from Transitway buses is too prohibitive. Run the new shiny trains down Sparks Street, as they used to over a century ago. The NCC recently made highly detailed plans to do just this, including cutaway models depicting a double right-of-way with ample sidewalk space to spare on either side of the street. Why was this issue not significantly raised at council? The costs of extending the line two blocks north and building a tunnel at the eastern end of the line to avoid the War Memorial would be easily mitigated by the increased productivity of the businesses along the street. Secondly, provide benefits for developers who propose residential sublets, for new residents will inject life into any stagnant district. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, emphasize the street’s historic significance instead of letting it flounder. The current disregard for labelling the street’s important buildings and describing its colourful history shows how the NCC has given up on the project. During a recent foray to the site of Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s murder (the front door of his house on Sparks Street), it took a concerted effort to find a historical plaque before I stumbled across a dimly coloured marker crammed against a phone booth in the centre median. Even the jail where McGee’s assassin was executed features a display ten times more vibrant and informative than that of the NCC.

I find humourous irony in the fact that the best signage for Thomas D’Arcy McGee is found over the door at D’Arcy McGee’s, a tavern located on Sparks Street at its intersection with Elgin.

This entry was written by Ken Gildner , posted on Sunday October 01 2006at 07:10 am , filed under Canada, Heritage and Preservation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

3 Responses to “Sparks Street Blues”

  • Eric Bowers says:

    As I understand it, these pedestrian malls from that era became notorious failures in cities all throughout North America. I can never cease to be amazed at the blunders in urban planning dogma and doctrine of the time.

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    At the same time, pedestrianization is a valuable tool. In the future I will be posting some columns I’ve written on pedestrianization along with a phototour of successful pedestrian streets.

    The problem with streets like Sparks is that pedestrianization was an attempt at revitalization. It was a superficial attempt to save a dying main street. Of course, the real reasons why the street was dying were not addressed, so it continued to fade into obsolescence despite the pedestrianization.

    I think Ken’s suggestions are good. Sparks Street could also look to Stephen Avenue in Calgary, which was a similarly failed pedestrian street until it was redesigned in the mid-90s. The city subsidized the restoration of the historic buildings along it, which attracted trendy restaurants, which were followed by new retail outlets. When I was growing up it was dead; now it’s absolutely packed during weekdays.

  • Ethan Bayne says:

    I agree with Chris that the failure is not pedestrianization per se. From an outsider’s perspective, the problem with Sparks Street is twofold. First, there is already a pedestrian-oriented zone nearby that caters to tourists/visitors (the Market), and there are not enough residents in the immediate vicinity to give Sparks much life.

    Second – and this is merely a personal reaction, no offense intended – for all its historical significance, much of Sparks is aesthetically displeasing. The median makes it seem narrower than it is and somewhat claustrophobic – a feeling exacerbated by the fact that the street seems to be cast in shadow alot of the time. Is it possible that something so simple could be to blame – not for the origin of Sparks’ stagnation, of course, but for the street’s failure to rebound in what is a time of relative prosperity?

    I agree that light rail at grade can enhance the liveliness and urban feel of a relatively bleak area (e.g. the West End District in Dallas), but my worry would be that Sparks-with-LRT might look more like Calgary’s 7th Ave than Stephen Ave, if you know what I mean.