Wellington Mall

Plamondon: Sparks Street – Stop throwing good money after bad

Let’s allow cars back on the mall and make Wellington Street between Elgin and Lyon our new walking ground. This could become an inspiring, nation-building project.


April 15, 2019

The City of Ottawa is currently asking residents for their views on yet another renewal and redesign plan for the Sparks Street Mall. Here is my view: Admit defeat and pursue a more meaningful nation-building project.

The Sparks Street Mall was a novel idea and a worthwhile experiment when it was launched 56 years ago. But despite having been thrown many lifelines and a steady dose of animating features that have come and gone, the mall has never worked.

Sure, it’s a nice place for a lunch-time stroll for downtown office workers, but as a draw for residents and tourists, it has been a bust.

The City of Ottawa, which owns the street, is nothing if not persistent. It admits in its latest attempt at rejuvenation that the mall has failed to establish and maintain a clear identity, suffers from an inconsistent design, has been poorly maintained, and offers a mix of businesses and land uses that are “uncoordinated.” When will we take the hint that Sparks Street is simply a bad candidate for a pedestrian mall and stop spending good money after bad?

The key public attribute of Sparks Street is a collection of pubs and restaurants. Elgin Street does that much better than Sparks Street despite, in non-construction periods, cars whizzing by in both directions. There also seem to be far fewer “for lease” signs on Elgin Street. We don’t need a pedestrian mall when sidewalks will get us to our eatery of choice.

I have a better idea.

Let’s allow cars back on Sparks Street and make Wellington Street between Elgin and Lyon streets our new walking ground. What better place could there be to frame Parliament Hill for the millions of visitors who want to experience Canada’s capital?

Unlike Sparks Street, with its collection of office towers and restaurants, the Wellington Mall would become a non-commercial tourist mecca for people who want a capital city experience.

Residents and visitors flocking to the Wellington Mall could absorb our history and observe other fine national institutions such as the Supreme Court of Canada or Library and Archives Canada. It could be a gateway to the Canadian War Museum, the Holocaust Monument and dare I say, LeBreton Flats. Converting Wellington Street to a walkway would also remove the blight of trucks, cars and buses with all the attendant noise, distraction, pollution and security risks from Canada’s most important and sensitive street.

Unlike Sparks Street, with its collection of office towers and restaurants, the Wellington Mall would become a non-commercial tourist mecca for people who want a capital city experience. While we are being innovative, we could even repurpose the former Langevin Building (recently renamed the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council) to become, say, the long-talked-about portrait galley. The office of the prime minister – along with the prime minister’s residence – could be relocated to 100 Sussex Drive, the current location of the National Research Council. 

The possibilities for what we could do with a Wellington Street mall are endless. So rather than spend money on yet another futile attempt to bring Sparks Street to life, let’s bring the City of Ottawa, National Capital Commission and the federal government together on this inspiring nation-building project.

To simplify matters, the city should hand over ownership of Sussex Drive and the Wellington Mall to the NCC. To even things out, the City of Ottawa could take over Island Park Drive (just as it did the Ottawa Airport Parkway in 1997). Placing Wellington and Sussex in federal hands will ensure our primary ceremonial route is properly protected, funded and designed with consistency, distinction and the national interest in mind.

City council and the NCC expect to make decisions around a new plan for the beleaguered Sparks Street Mall this fall before launching a detailed design. Stick a fork in it. It’s done. Let’s stop this process, think big and deliver something all Canadians can enjoy.

Bob Plamondon is the author of The Shawinigan Fox: How Jean Chrétien Defied the Elites and Reshaped Canada. He was also an NCC board member (2015-18) and led the campaign that renamed the Ottawa River Parkway in honour of Sir John A. Macdonald.