City launches campaign to revitalize Sparks Street

The City of Ottawa is launching a robust campaign to bring more people to Sparks Street, saying the time is right for the 50-year-old downtown pedestrian mall to once again realize its potential.

Saturday town hall gathers ideas on how historic pedestrian mall can draw more people

An illustration of Sparks Street is laid out on a table at Ottawa City Hall on Jan. 13, 2018, during a town hall meeting on its future. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

The City of Ottawa is launching a robust campaign to bring more people to Sparks Street, saying the time is right for the 50-year-old downtown pedestrian mall to once again realize its potential.

The historic street just south of Parliament Hill became pedestrian-focused in 1967, but its last major refresh was in 1989, according to Kevin McHale, the executive director of its business improvement area.

McHale was one of dozens of residents, planners and politicians who attended a public forum at Ottawa City Hall Saturday morning. It served as the public launch of an initiative that's been gathering steam over the last few months and will continue to be worked on through much of 2018.

McHale said it's time to not only replace the interlocking stones that make up the physical street — but also to reverse the overall decline of Sparks as a destination.

"I'm excited that, for the first time in many years, there's an actual interest and effort … about seeing what the street can look like in the 21st century," said McHale, who also leads the mall authority — basically the superintendent of the street.

He said there were 165 businesses on Sparks Street in 1994, compared to 65 now.

Kevin McHale is the executive director of the Sparks Street BIA and mall authority. He says the downtown is not the shopping destination it was in 1967, before the city's population shifted to the suburbs. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Good times — and not-so-good times

"It's gone through some good times and some bad times," said Mayor Jim Watson, who likened Sparks to "a linear town square" that's five blocks long.

"I think it's now the time to put all hands on deck to see what we can do to help attract more people to come to the site, to get more businesses to open on Sparks Street, and help revitalize this important part of our history."

While the state of Sparks was "not great" about five years ago, Watson said such recent additions as upscale restaurant Riviera, Canadian pub chain Bier Markt and the Winners department store have helped.

So will the city's upcoming light rail line opening a block away, he added.

Still, the fact the federal government is the landlord for so much of the north side of the street is a challenge, Watson said.

That's because the government tends to favour short-term leases, he said, which offers it flexibility to use those spaces itself.

Pedestrians walk past a sign advertising the City of Ottawa's plan to come up with a new strategy for the future of Sparks Street on Jan. 13, 2018. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

More greenery, arts spaces

Dozens of people, most of whom identified themselves as Ottawa residents, heard from planners and the Montreal-based consultants about the project Saturday morning.

They then shared what they'd like to see, either at the microphone or on comment cards.

Everybody wants the same thing. They want an exciting street, they want people on it, they want businesses to thrive.- Coun. Catherine McKenney

Some of the more common themes expressed Saturday included a desire to green what's seen as a drab concrete landscape, more space — both inside and outside — for the arts, and enough events to draw people there outside of work hours and major summer festivals.

There was also a respectful discussion about how to balance Sparks Street's appeal to locals, tourists and businesses, along with a debate over what kind of access should be given to cyclists and other vehicles.

"In the end … everybody wants the same thing. They want an exciting street, they want people on it, they want businesses to thrive," said Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, whose ward includes Sparks Street.

One hour of Saturday morning's town hall was devoted to presentations, while another hour allowed those in attendance to weigh in on what they want for Sparks Street. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

3 options later this year

Watson said he would like Sparks Street to be completely vehicle-free, with deliveries done via rolling dollies from trucks parked elsewhere.

McHale said while that would be the ideal case, it's not realistic right now because of how much construction has been happening on Sparks Street, along with the challenges presented by heritage buildings that weren't built with now-helpful features such as loading docks.

"We need to find a spot for [vehicles] to go and be clever about it," he said.

The campaign plans to put together three options next month that will be presented to the public for more consultations in the summer or early fall.

After that, the full Sparks Street plan would go to the city's finance and economic development committee and then to council in early 2019.

Two people examine an illustration of Sparks Street at a public forum on the street's future held Jan. 13, 2018, at Ottawa City Hall. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

The plans will focus on the street itself, as well as the area between buildings that the city manages — not what's done in the buildings themselves.

Watson said that among the ideas that have already been floated, there's "low-hanging fruit" that can be implemented relatively quickly, such as getting more greenery onto Sparks.

McHale also said the street will host more Winterlude events next month than it has in the past, along with a higher number of pop-up public movie nights in the warmer months.

The stone-carving and living statue festivals will be back, he added, and there will be at least two weekends where local musicians will be showcased on Sparks Street in a partnership with the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition.