NCC reconsiders Sparks St. makeover

By Greg Wigmore

Members of the local heritage movement remain at odds with the National Capital Commission over its plans to renovate the part of Ottawa where town meets Crown.

Proposed redevelopment projects along Sparks and Metcalfe streets have raised the question of whether the area belongs more to Ottawa the city or Ottawa the national capital.

“Our position is that the core area, which includes Sparks Street, is the cultural, political and commercial heart of the capital,” says NCC spokesperson Laurie Peters.

She says the city and NCC share common interests in trying to renew the urban core and attract residents to the area.

Opponents of the NCC’s revitalization plans, many of whom belong to local citizens’ organizations, argue redevelopment is unnecessary and will destroy local heritage.

One of the many concerned residents who spoke at the NCC’s annual general meeting two weeks ago, urged the NCC to “Get on with the LeBreton Flats project. But leave us our historic Sparks and Metcalfe streets. They are part of our soul.”

Another critic, Gordon Cullingham of the Historical Society of Ottawa, draws a distinction between local streets, like Sparks, and streets that are national in scope, like Wellington.

“Sparks is the old civic, commercial street,” he says. “It’s Ottawa’s street, not Canada’s street, and (the NCC) stealing it.”

The federal government gave the NCC $40 million to purchase properties on the block bounded by Sparks, Metcalfe, Queen and O’Connor streets. It recently earmarked another $2.56 million for planning of the proposed mixed development there, which will include office, retail and residential units.

The NCC has acquired all the real estate on the block except for Yesterday’s Restaurant and Hoops Sports Bar at Sparks and O’Connor streets, and the Bank of Nova Scotia, which runs north-south from Sparks to Queen.

Despite its inability to reach agreements with the owners of the remaining properties, the NCC and its partner, Truscan Property Corp., are proceeding with development of the NCC’s property west of the Bank of Nova Scotia.

Peters says some buildings on NCC property on the eastern half of the block could be demolished to become part of the proposed plaza that would stretch along a widened portion of Metcalfe Street from Wellington to Queen, offering a view of Parliament Hill. An underground parking facility beneath the plaza, accommodating tour buses and perhaps 1,300 vehicles, is another component of the project.

Echoing the views of many in the heritage community, Cullingham says the plaza, with its vista leading up to Parliament Hill, ignores the Gothic architecture and character Ottawa shares with London and instead “tries to ape the great classical capitals of the world, like Washington and Paris.”

Cullingham says he believes the plan is being pushed aggressively by a prime minister who wants to leave behind a legacy to the capital.

“He wants (the NCC) to get rid of a lot of buildings so people can see his big castle on the Hill.”

Cullingham says the plaza would split the Sparks Street Mall into two parts, obstructing sauntering shoppers and killing commerce.

NCC board member Marc Denhez says NCC planners are specifically trying to avoid interrupting the flow of pedestrian traffic along Sparks. As well, they are striving to preserve the traditional east-west view along the street by maintaining the front exteriors of the buildings it incorporates in its development.

The latter issue has provoked angry responses from heritage organizations, who say maintaining only the facades of buildings while destroying what’s behind them, would leave only hollow shells of historic structures.

In July, the Ontario Municipal Board began mediation between the City of Ottawa and local property owners (including the NCC) over the former city’s designation of the Sparks-Metcalfe area as a heritage district.

Denhez says the NCC is confident talks will end with a compromise acceptable to both the city and property owners, perhaps by the year’s end.

Eric Charman, an NCC board member from Victoria, says he believes any plans which pose a risk to historic sites would still be subject to the city’s approval.

“I’ve been assured that (developers) have to meet the requirements and concerns of the local interests, including zoning and heritage concerns…There’s no indisputable right of anyone to ride over the rights of the community.”

Both Charman and Denhez say they’re sympathetic to concerns about the threat to local heritage.