Creating malls with ‘sense of place’ is main goal of business groups

By David Reevely

Some of Ottawa’s best-known shopping districts are artificial.

“Somerset Village,” for example, didn’t exist before its business owners formed an association in 1981 to beautify their neighbourhood. The two-block stretch of Somerset Street has several turn-of-the-century buildings on it, but its old-style street lamps and red brick sidewalks were first installed in 1987 — not 1907.

Somerset Village was created by a business improvement association (BIA). They’re the people who mark the city’s shopping districts such as the “Corso Italia” on Preston Street, or the “Bank Street Promenade” on Bank with special signs.

They also organize street events, and provide benches and other distinctive outdoor furniture such as ornamental planters.

“The idea was to give people on the street a sense of place, with unified themes for the street furniture and the way businesses there are presented,” explains Gerry LePage, director of the Bank Street BIA.

“It was also one of the first examples of the ‘user-pay’ philosophy, where the money for upgrades came from the people who were going to benefit.”

In 1977, the government of Ontario introduced the so-called Pride Program.

“The idea was to promote a certain kind of revenue sharing, to provide furniture, lighting, specialized embellishments for particular areas, that kind of thing… Under the terms of the program, if the merchants could raise one-third of the cost, municipalities would provide the other two-thirds.”

The business owners had to form groups to account for the money and decide exactly how to spend it. LePage says the first such association in the province was the Bloor West Village in Toronto, and the Bank Street BIA was the second.

Others sprouted quickly throughout the 1980s. The other major BIAs that operate in Centretown are the Sparks Street Mall, Somerset Village (on Somerset, east of Bank Street), Preston Street, and Somerset Heights (in Chinatown).

The exception in Centretown is the Sparks Street group. Sharon McKenna, its director, says the Sparks Street merchants formed their group when the street became a pedestrian mall in 1967.

It was later converted into a BIA to

take advantage of the program’s shared-cost benefits.

LePage says the Bank Street BIA has improved the infrastructure in its territory. In 1978, his group paid to upgrade the roadway and sidewalks.

In 1988, the Bank Street BIA contributed to a $2.1 million project to make the street friendlier by burying overhead wires and installing specialized lighting and trash cans.

On the flip side, the Downtown Rideau BIA, on Rideau Street east of the canal, is paying for a joint venture with the city to convert its street into a “bus mall”; a covered concourse for pedestrians and public transit. The multi-million-dollar fiasco didn’t improve business and was abandoned in 1993.

Other BIAs have different ways of trying to help their members.

“The history of Sparks is very important to us,” McKenna says. “We show that through the heritage tours, and we keep a history on each building on the street.”

Playing up Sparks Street’s historical importance (as the site of Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s assassination, for example) is a tactic for improving its “sense of place.”

The Somerset Heights BIA works hard to preserve the Asian character of most of its stores and restaurants. Its promotional materials urge visitors to “search through bins of herbs and discover the source of long life” to attract them to its traditional-style stores.

“BIAs can’t discriminate in their membership, unlike a private mall,” LePage says. “We have no control over who moves into our territory… Our job is to maintain a market base commensurate with our retail component.”

An area’s market base — the people who live and work there, mostly — depends on what its stores sell, and the role of a BIA is to improve business for the merchants who are already there, says LePage of the Bank Street BIA.

Market-base preservation led to last year’s move by the Sparks Street Mall to remove outdoor vendors. The move was good for business, but not universally accepted as good for the vibrancy of downtown Ottawa.

Some accused the mall of getting rid of the area’s main attraction.

“We have a vision for Sparks Street, and we’re working through the nuts and bolts of it,” says McKenna.

“We’re taking steps toward what we want the street to be. It’s a vision at this point, not as specific as a plan… We hope to have the process concluded by 2003,” he says.

LePage says the Bank Street BIA lobbies the city regularly for zoning changes that will keep its market healthy.

“Waiving development charges for residential housing, for example, was something that increased the creation of lower-price units,” he says. “That’s been important to keeping a good mix of people for Bank.”