Sparks Street looks pretty bedraggled these days. Mind you, some of that is just the way winter works on our city. The snow piles up, then it melts and when it melts all of yesterday’s litter and dirt is revealed.
But of course litter is not all that’s bothering Sparks Street, a place that has never lived up to the high expectations placed on it when it opened as a pedestrian mall in 1966.
Not that it isn’t a pleasant place at times. In the warm weather, at lunch hour, hundreds of people enjoy the sun and the stroll and visiting with their friends. Tourists, down from Parliament Hill, grab a coffee or a souvenir.
But, as many observers have noted over the years, the place is silent as a tomb after six o’clock and more or less deserted on weekends.
What happened? Well, the federal government happened. The government owns much of the real estate along Sparks and has not been helpful to merchants and would-be developers. At any given time, a number of merchants will have been displaced while Public Works renovates something or other.
Even the most ardent advocate of planning must be wondering if Sparks Street might have been better off with just unbridled development.
The other thing that happened was the Rideau Centre’s opening in 1983. Not that Sparks Street was exactly thriving before that, but it thrived even less afterwards. Important merchants decamped for the new shopping centre and shoppers were attracted away from Sparks Street.
After that grew the idea that Sparks Street needed fixing. Various plans were implemented, most of them seeming to involve moving planters around. None of them worked. And the attempt to lure tourists to Sparks Street has had an unintended consequence. Now the complaint is that you can’t find anything on the street that isn’t aimed at tourists.
The latest proposal, one not put forward as a solution but as something worth trying, is to put a zip line, a kind of glorified rope slide, somewhere on the mall to attract thrill-seekers. Well, it might do that. But if it succeeds it will just bring zip line enthusiasts to the mall. They’ll zip and they’ll go home, unless there is something else to attract their attention.
The same goes for another perennial dream — a Sparks Street casino. People will come to the casino, stay in it and go home, if they can still afford the bus fare. There’s nothing for Sparks Street in that.
The idea is not just to attract thrill-seekers and tourists to Sparks Street, but to attract people who live here, people who could decide to come downtown to shop instead of going to their nearest mall, who might decide to eat on Sparks rather than in the ByWard Market, who might want to hang out on a street where there is no traffic.
It’s hard to believe this is impossible to achieve, yet it has been impossible to achieve for 46 years.
The only thing that will save Sparks Street is a permanent constituency —in other words, more people living downtown. And should there be apartments where there were once dark offices, those who live there would flock to Sparks Street, if it was open at night and if there were stores and clubs and restaurants of quality. These in turn might attract people who live away from the core.
That might one day happen. In the meantime, new options will be presented for your consideration. Markets and zip lines and new logos and more planters.
Whatever option is chosen, one of them should not be reopening Sparks Street to traffic. Great cities all over the world have created pedestrian-friendly areas and many of them work really well. Cities that don’t have such areas wish they did. We would too.
If the Sparks Street Mall didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent it.