Sparks merchants don’t all buy streetcar proposal

By Mary Gordon

The possible reincarnation of streetcars in Ottawa is sparking the imagination of several merchants and city councillors, but other shop owners fear a disruptive construction period, with little long-term gain for downtown businesses.

A streetcar along Sparks Street might not only mean more business for the mall, it could also alleviate traffic congestion and pollution downtown, said Coun. Clive Doucet, vice-chair of the city’s transportation committee.

Doucet, who has been a major proponent of the O-Train pilot project, said streetcars, which run on electrical power, could not only run on Sparks Street, but could become the main mode of public transit, eventually replacing the 500 to 700 buses on Ottawa’s streets.

“Everyone realizes we’re maxing out through buses,” he says. “It’s crazy. Buses make sense on smaller suburban routes, not on high density routes.”

While an official proposal has yet to be put forward, merchant Holly Layte is encouraging other merchants to sign a petition to support the venture, which she will present to the Sparks Street Mall management.

At last count, Layte, who owns the Marvellous Mustard Shop on Sparks Street, had gathered 30 signatures and said she is confident that she will collect a lot more.

“I think the retailers are starting to get involved in how the street should look,” she said. “It used to be a beautiful street and it can be a beautiful street again.”

One of the first to sign was E.R. Fisher, a store that has been on the mall since 1905 — at a time when the streetcar ran up and down the street.

Alan Fowler, a salesman at the men’s clothing store, says the streetcar would make the mall more accessible for many older shoppers.

The nearest parking lots are often crowded and are several blocks away.

“Old people in particular would be greatly aided,” he says. “Some of our older customers have trouble trudging up from the bowels of the World Exchange,” he says.

But others say the construction process of laying rails would be too disruptive to make the venture worthwhile.

“I think it would be too costly,” said Celeste Heffler, manager of HMV on Sparks Street. “The money could be way better spent elsewhere.”

Staff at Patrick McGahern Books did not sign the petition and declined to comment, other than to dismiss the concept as foolish.

Somerset Ward Coun. Elisabeth Arnold says she too, is a strong supporter of the streetcar concept and wondered whether the route could form a ring that would link the major government buildings in both Ottawa and Gatineau.

Such a route would include drop-off points at the major downtown tourist attractions, such as the Parliament Buildings, the National Gallery and the Museum of Civilization. Including Sparks Street in the streetcar’s route fits into that heritage perspective, Arnold says.

The last major redesign of the mall was in 1988, and Arnold said the time has come to re-evaluate the street.

The NCC and the department of public works included the revitalization of Sparks Street in their report entitled “A Plan for Canada’s Capital.”

One idea is to bring the street to life by turning it into a mixed-use area, blending entertainment, residential and commercial buildings to the streetscape.

“A streetcar could fit into that really well,” Arnold said. “It’s an interesting concept for sure.”

A municipal transit study two years ago concluded that Sparks Street’s decline could be traced to the time when the streetcar lines were cut and the rails pulled up, Doucet says.

A new transit study may well include the possibility of the streetcar’s return when the committee reports to council in the fall, he says.

“Downtowns that work are the ones that work with transit, not with cars.”