NCC Blunders

Sparks Street

You have used the phrase 'reclaiming an historic downtown street for public and private use.' It has always had public and private uses, and it is not yours to reclaim.

Heritage Ottawa in a submission to the NCC

Sparks Street 1909: Sparks Street c.1909

Sparks Street is one of Ottawa's oldest streets, a bustling commercial area since the latter part of the 19th century. Featuring many of Ottawa's finest historical buildings, it's just one block south of Wellington Street, a stone's throw from Parliament. Since the 50's, however, removal of the streetcar network, elimination of residential uses and suburbanization sent Sparks Street into a gradual decline. In an attempt to revitalize the street, it was turned into a pedestrian mall in 1966.

A Concise History
Sparks Street Mall
Citizen: Don't Change the Mall [26 Jan 2000]

Ottawa Streetcar network 1948

All roads lead to Sparks - at least they used to. Not long after this map was prepared, Greber submitted his plan to remove rail from Ottawa

Concerned about development in the area, in 1973 Public Works expropriated all buildings not already owned by the government on the north side of the street, while the NCC gradually began acquiring properties on the south side. Since then, the street has changed little, receiving an occasional facelift, but unable to halt its slow decay as a place of commerce. Today, it gets by on the lunch and tourist trade. At lunch on workdays, the street is quite busy, but in the evenings, the street is dead.

Liquidation: Sparks Street now
Sparks Street image: The usually deserted Sparks Street Mall

Having essentially done nothing with the buildings it owns on Sparks Street for 30 years, a period during which buildings were demolished and replaced with parking lots, the NCC suddenly became preoccupied with the area's revitalization -- in 1999, they were discovered to be paying $9.2 million for a building on the south side of the street ($6 million or so more than its assessed value). The NCC subsequently had to fess up the fact that they had received $40 million to implement a huge development on the south side, between O'Connor and Metcalfe. The plan, a remnant of the Metcalfe Grand Boulevard fiasco, involved demolishing and moving heritage buildings on the north and south sides of the street at Metcalfe to create a square (including moving the old U.S. embassy and converting it into a national portrait gallery), putting a parking lot under the square, and replacing an entire block on the south side with a massive new development.

Sparks Street image: The usually deserted Sparks Street Mall

Citizen: NCC Floats New Proposal [10 Aug 1999]
Centretown News: Home is where the Mall Is [1 Oct 1999]
Citizen: Downtown renewal? No need to hurry [6 Dec 1999]
Citizen: NCC Gets 40 Million [17 Jan 2000]
OBJ: NCC Gets 40 Million [17 Jan 2000]
Citizen: Reform the NCC right now [31 Jan 2000]
Citizen: NCC to Raze, Rebuild Block [19 Jan 2000]
Citizen: Portrait hall plans began 5 months ago [3 Feb 2000]
Citizen: NCC Plans Sparks St Square [24 Feb 2000]
Citizen: NCC one building closer to square [17 May 2001]

10 Reasons why the NCC's Plans for Sparks Street Suck

Panoramic view of the area to be demolished (Metcalfe at Sparks) [Quicktime required]

NCC parking plans

Having learned nothing from the Metcalfe fiasco, the NCC worked on the elaborate plan in secret. The city, Sparks St merchants, everyone in fact, except for a group of Liberal MPs, learned about the plan from the papers. Not surprisingly, stiff opposition to the plan formed, asking the obvious questions, such as:

  • why was the NCC spending what money it had buying buildings at inflated prices when the federal government already owned all the buildings on the north side?
  • where were the plans to develop all those buildings they already own?
  • why was the NCC buying more land when the LeBreton Flats and the Daly site remained undeveloped?
  • why not buy and develop the vacant lots facing Sparks Street instead of gutting existing buildings?
  • why did they idly stand by for 30 years while buildings on the south side were being torn down?
  • why did the NCC make these plans without any input from stakeholders? Does the NCC even know what stakeholders are?

Citizen: Coalition to Rein in NCC [18 Jan 2000]
Citizen: Sell Don't Buy [19 Jan 2000]
Citizen: Auditor to Investigate Purchase [21 Jan 2000]
Centretown News: NCC under fire over Sparks St. [28 Jan 2000]
Citizen: Reform the NCC right now [31 Jan 2000]
Centretown News: Citizens want NCC abolished [11 Feb 2000]
CBC: What's Killing Sparks Street? [15 Mar 2000]
Centretown News: NCC plan nonsense, says Watson [17 Mar 2000]
Centretown News: NCC faces public and gets an earful [14 April 2000]
Globe and Mail: Ottawa: Stuck in the 70s [19 April 2000]

In May 2001, the NCC announced it had acquired another building, but its plans were stymied somewhat when the Bank of Nova Scotia, in the middle of the block, "demanded too much for its property." As a result, in September 2001, the NCC announced a scaled down development for the stretch between O'Connor and the Bank of Nova Scotia, in partnership with Truscan Property Corp. The $60 million development would incorporate an office tower facing Queen Street, and residences and retail facing Sparks Street. The buildings facing Sparks are to be demolished, but the facades preserved.

Finally, in 2003, they announced details of an agreement with developers to build the development, to consist of 90,000 square feet of office space, 6,000 square feet of retail space, 36 apartments and 200 parking spaces. The NCC chose not to put the multi-million dollar development up for tender, and the deal involves some curious financing whereby the NCC has guaranteed to lease the development from the developer at higher than market rates for 20 years. Public Works will lease the space back from the NCC.

And then, out of the blue, at their annual meeting in November 2003, Chairman Beaudry announced the NCC would not proceed with the plaza/parking garage part of their plan after all, in effect leaving the mall with a reasonably desirable development without demolishing the north side of the street. The story of how the NCC arrived at this obvious result after innumerable studies and millions of dollars spent could no doubt fill more than a few filing cabinets. Great work guys, we salute you!

CBC: Discussing the future of Sparks Street Mall [16 Jul 2001]
Centretown News: Sparks Street businesses must move [29 Mar 2002]
Centretown News: Parking garage divides Sparks St. merchants [25 Oct 2002]
XPress: Ghosts of Sparks [27 Nov 2002]
OBJ: Third office tower to go up in core [10 Sep 2003]
Centretown News: Building will mix shops, homes and offices [24 Oct 2003]
Centretown News: Sparks stores applaud scrapping of plaza [6 Nov 2003]
Centretown News: Ottawa's pedestrian mall in need of a different kind of facelift [12 Mar 2003]

Sparks Street image: The NCC preserves some history
The NCC preserves a bit of history on Queen St. (photo Joe Elliott)