Sparks Street (French: Rue Sparks) is a historical street in Uptown Ottawa, Ontario that was converted into an outdoor pedestrian street in 1967, making it the earliest such street or mall in Canada.
Sparks runs from Elgin Street in the east to Bronson Avenue. The Sparks Street Mall, that contains a number of outdoor restaurants and also a number of works of art and fountains, only runs from Elgin to Bank Street. The pedestrian only portion continues for another two blocks westward, with the final two blocks west of Lyon Street being a regular road and merges into Bronson Avenue going south.
The mall and most of the buildings on the south side are owned and operated by the National Capital Commission. Buildings on the north side of the mall were expropriated by the Government of Canada in 1973 and are currently operated by Public Works and Government Services Canada.
Located one block south of Wellington Street (the home of the Parliament of Canada), Sparks Street is one of Ottawa's more historic streets with a number of heritage buildings. The street is named after Nicholas Sparks, the farmer who, early in the mid-nineteenth century, cut a path through the woods on his holding that would eventually become the street.
When Ottawa was selected as Canada's capital the area became even more important as the street became home to a number of government offices and homes for parliamentarians. One of these was Thomas D'Arcy McGee who, in 1868, was assassinated outside his home at the corner of Sparks and Metcalfe. The street also became Ottawa's commercial hub in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was home to a number of the city's banks and the lumber companies of the Ottawa Valley, as well as "the best shops, hotels, dining rooms, and theatres.". It once contained the Murphy-Gamble (later Simpson's), Morgan's, C.Ross, and Bryson-Graham's department stores.
The peak of the street was in the early twentieth-century when a number of Beaux-Arts buildings that still stand were erected. At the time, the eastern end of Sparks Street continued across the Rideau Canal on Sappers Bridge. Where the War Memorial and Confederation Square stands today, was the Russell House hotel, and Ottawa's old Post Office. The square was built in the 1930s.
As the city expanded the downtown became less centralized and commerce spread to neighbouring streets. Government ministries, requiring larger offices, also went elsewhere. In 1959 the street's streetcar line was closed, further hurting business.
Starting in 1960 the street was closed to traffic in the summers in an attempt to improve commerce. This plan was modelled on Toledo, Ohio, which along with Kalamazoo were the first North American cities to close downtown streets in an attempt to recapture customers. The success of these temporary summer closings convinced the city to close the street permanently to vehicles in 1967. Although initially successful, the mall began to decline in the 1970s. Urban planning professor David Gordon, of Queen's University blames the growth of suburban shopping malls. Another major problem was the growth of high rise federal offices with internal councourses in the area. Gordan and Bray wrote that Sparks became "an isolated island of pedestrian-friendly space in a traffic-dominated district" in a 2003 report. Additionally, the Federal government became a major landlord on the street, presenting "blank face" to the street, and discouraging shops from investing in the area long-term.
Today, the pedestrian mall is open year-round and extends from Elgin to Kent Streets. While the mall is quite busy during weekdays, it is only lightly used during weekends. The National Capital Commission remains committed to operating and improving the mall. The street's landscaping has been updated. The Commission was successful in bringing the CBC Ottawa Broadcast Centre to a location on the mall, and is seeking to increase business and activity through increasing the number of residences nearby. However, the CBC development has been criticized as "just another low-cost, banal building" which was designed poorly and has not brought more life to the street. Councillor Diane Holmes called it a "the biggest disappointment," and "a whole block of deadness."
Sparks Street is home to the Sparks Street International Chicken & Rib Cook-off every year in late June.
Each year, around the August civic holiday, Sparks street plays host to the Ottawa International Buskers Festival, where buskers from around the world come to showcase their art to tourists and locals in downtown Ottawa.
The eastern section of the street sees a number of the oldest buildings, including Ottawa's post office from 1939; the Ottawa Electric Building, built in 1926 by the founders of the Ottawa Electric Railway, Ottawa's streetcar system, Ottawa's first high-rise: the Bible House/old James Hope building at 61 Sparks, built in 1910; and branches of a number of Canada's banks from the same era.
A pair of notable newer buildings are also on this section of the mall, including the CBC Ottawa Broadcast Centre and the Thomas D'Arcy McGee Building, which is located at the corner of Metcalfe and Sparks.
West of Bank Street, outside of the mall itself, the street is overshadowed by the C.D. Howe Building, the home of Industry Canada on the south and the headquarters of the Bank of Canada to the north. West of the bank is the Ottawa Marriott Hotel and Place de Ville's Podium Building and Tower C, tallest building in Ottawa and home of Transport Canada. On the north side, home of the Department of Justice in the St. Andrew's Towers and the East Memorial Building with other government departments in the West Memorial Building. West of these buildings the street becomes far less notable being home to several hotels and smaller buildings. The final block of the rather short street has the Garden of the Provinces to the north and Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa's main Anglican church, to the south.
Once of the best known addresses in all of Canada for many years was "56 Sparks Street, Ottawa" as it was the tag line used in a large number of radio and television commercials and commentaries made by Lotta Hitschmanova, the founder of the humanitarian charity USC Canada which moved to an office at 56 Sparks Street soon after it was created in 1945.
The Confederation Line subway tunnel will be operational under Queen Street one block south of Sparks. Lyon and Parliament Stations will serve the area.
See Downtown Ottawa for a map of the entire area.
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- ottawakiosk city guide, retrieved 19 August 2012
- "The Strøget Solution". The Ottawa Citizen. 22 March 2008. Retrieved 31 July 2014.
- Dan Conlin, "Lotta Hitschmanova's Uniform", Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21
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