Rethinking Sparks Street: 7 Necessary Changes to Bring Back the Spark

Commuters cycling home at the end of the day in Grote Markt Straat with temperatures just above 0 Celsius/32 F.
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Grote Markt Straat, The Hague: how Sparks Street could look like. Note that the buildings are not really interesting, but there is a large Department Store. The pavement for cyclists is different, but not raised or lowered compared with the side walks (source: Google Street view)

I used to walk more or less the same loop during my lunch time hour and Sparks Street was mostly included. But since the Laurier bike Lane is in place, I have changed my route and abandoned Sparks. Laurier is livelier, and with the bike lane in place, there is not only more to see in terms of cyclists, there are also some nice restaurants. The Persian Express has become a hang out for meetings for me as they offer nice food for a relatively low price (all you can eat buffet) and they have a three season terrace. Presse Café opened a few weeks ago on Laurier and is another interesting spot for a coffee.

Sparks Street Mall cleaning
"Happy Holidays from all retailers in the Sparks Street Mall"

But back to Sparks. A lot has been written about it, but little happens. A few years ago, half of the horrible metal structures, blocking the view anyway, were taken out. If it was up to me, the rest -and the concrete foundations- could go too, they “just so don’t belong” there. The NCC has incorporated Sparks as one of the areas that needs revitilising before 2067. Hopefully, I can participate in the 200th birthday of Canada in 2067, when I am 104 years old. It is possible.

Warm and welcoming: lovely street scape at the Sparks Street Mall.

Last winter, I posted a picture from Sparks, taken days before Christmas. It wasn’t a great picture, but this year the picture was even bleaker. I took a few pics earlier in the season and it appears that there doesn’t seem to be much initiative anymore. The Jazz bar is now a gym, International Clothiers, not really the crown juwel though, is gone, but at least Bridgehead saw the potential in a nice building. It appears to be successful.

It is too bad that the CBC building is so terribly uninviting: it could have been such a nice open concept, particapatory, walk in, lunch time discuss open mike, open studio concept with a grand welcoming entrance on Sparks. Instead, you have to scramble on a three feet wide side walk on Queen St. to find the entrance; the Sparks St. exit is basically the emergency exit for Radio Canada smokers, huddling together near the east side of the building. I don’t want to see smokers: I want to see Lucy van Oldenbarneveldt live! (She has very historic roots by the way, as one of her great, great, great grand fathers was likely Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, the Dutch statesman who played an important role in the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain. He was beheaded in 1619: his last words were: “Make it short, make it short”, the exact same words that I am thinking when I am watching Ian Black explaining that it is is one degree colder in Barrhaven than Rockcliffe…).

So here are a few pics for those who don’t know what I am talking about.

Tuesday, December 20th, 1:30 pm. Desolate!
CBC on the left doesn't interact with the public, hiding behind quadraple sound proof panes.
Nice buildings (top), ruined uninspiring anonymous storefronts at street level.
It is getting really bad between Bank and Kent: more and more shop windows are getting covered with milky film, to make sure no one can see what you are selling...on the right, the Bank of Canada.

This is a picture of Grote Markt Straat which I took in February 2011, when I visited The Hague: pedestrians and and cyclists are allowed, cars aren’t (see pic at the top of this post). Cyclists seem to adjust their speed as no one was racing, and pedestrians know to watch out for the cyclists. I didn’t see any angry reactions and it appeared that everyone knew their place on the road. Note the upright position, missing spandex and lack of helmets.

Another Grote Markt scene, note that you are allowed to cycle next to eachother, considered a birth right in the Netherlands, in order to chat (remember, cycling is a social thing too).
Commuters cycling home at the end of the day in Grote Markt Straat with temperatures just above 0 Celsius/32 F.
A woman cycling in the Kerkstraat in the village of "Berkel en Rodenrijs", Netherlands, a shared bike pedestrian space. When I was a kid, this was a street with cars, but it gradually turned into a ped/bike mall. Shoppers come from big city Rotterdam to enjoy small town retail shopping...
...and the kids can safely putter around in that same Kerkstraat. Can't do that at Merivale Road.....

So here are seven points to think about:

Anchors: A good mall has anchors (stores that attract large numbers of people) on both ends, and that is what is missing;

Heritage: Ruined store fronts are terribly uninviting, set some restoration grants aside for improvements;

Eyes on the street: Forbid the horrible film on windows, you can’t look inside nor outside;

Cozier: Design a street that is visually narrower: design creative pavement in several colours with a strip for cyclists in the middle: no they won’t race; the street in Berkel was actually made narrower by allowing stores to build out into the street for a few extra meters;

Views: Unblock the view through the street by removing the metal structures;

Declutter: Remove the concrete foundations, or paint them purple with yellow dots, or zebra stripes, or giants slugs;

Unfence: Get rid of those crazy fences around terraces. Why bother with them? It prevents what exactly? Change the law.

A Christmas wreath on a street light is not going to change the street. As the Dutch expression goes: “Wimpy doctors, stinky wounds”. Bold changes are necessary. With all the condos in the westend of downtown, there is no reason that Sparks St. isn’t livelier. If the store rents are too high, I ‘d say lower them, but the store properties aren’t owned by the NCC. O, and would the Post Office on Sparks and Elgin not be a gorgeous Grand Café? Something like this:

Gerbeaud Café, with its fine stucco work, marble, glistening chandeliers, exotic wood panelling and furniture, is one of the largest of Europe's traditional cafés / © Hungarian Tourist Board

But let’s start with a bike lane a pilot for a year or two. Just paint two lines. It might also attract Bixi bike tourists into Sparks, desparately searching for “I love the NCC” T-shirts.

All pictures by Urban Commuter, except the Google Screenshot and the Gerbeaud Café.

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  1. Purple + yellow “zebra stripes”.

    More colour in pavement, on buildings on signs. Take a cue from Carnaby Street in London painted streets or coloured pavers.

    What about a Merry-go-round? This would be a great ‘tie-in’ with the Tourist info centre and draw people to Sparks away from Parliament Hill and the Byward Market, which has really become a victim of its own $ucce$$

    More cafes for a <>. Byward can not maintain its monopoly on eating establishments in Ottawa.

    Some world class sculpture that is bright and colourful!!

    Everything you say about the CBC buildings is accurate. How about a “Speaker’s Corner like at the the former City TV building in Toronto.

    Housing above stores. Maybe, TO-style “Artscape” housing? Student residence space above stores.

    Think outside the box. What about a mosque or other place of worship as an “anchor”, especially at the far west, where Sparks St. peters into next to nothing. This is how real cities evolved over millenia.

  2. I totally agree about a bike lane downt the middle. I find it rather ironic that you can’t actually ride your bike on this deserted street when the street is crying out for liveliness. But what I think is really needed is to get people living on Sparks Street. The first condos will be built soon as part of a hotel/condo building near Queen Street. This will help. Personally, if I was mayor, I would do my utmost to get the federal government out of Sparks Street buildings and into the various office towers downtown. Converting some of those into residences and building new apartments in place of some of the ugly office buildings. It’s a shame that this street has some of the loveliest facades in Ottawa but they seen by so few on this desolate street. As well, stores that close at 6:00 don’t help. Even the new Bridgehead closes at 6:30pm while its sister cafe at Elgin/McLaren thrives hours later.

  3. Anchors are completely important. There needs to be reasons to go to the street. Major stores you can’t find elsewhere.

    I agree on views and decluter. I think the fences are an alcohol licensing issue so we are probably stuck with them. The key is what you make them look like.

    Not sure about cyclists no racing. I wish it were true but in Ottawa I would say it is probably not true. At least that has been my experience in areas like the William Street mall and around U of O. Cyclists in Ottawa for some reason unknown to me seem unwilling, or incapable of varying speeds to the situation. Speeding up, slowing down, starting, stopping, mounting dismounting as a situation warrants seems to not happen. Worth a try anyway. It is a level lane so there is really nothing to lose.

    Heritage I agree but I don’t that is key in bring back the street. A bigger one I think is that there needs to more happening at different hours of the day. It can’t be a street of office buildings and lunch bars. We need more than two hours a day out the place.

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