Sparks in need of a residential development

By Camille Greer

Critics say the National Capital Commission may have missed its chance on the hot housing market after its latest proposal to revitalize Sparks Street fell through.

The NCC was in negotiations with Morguard Corp. to build a mixed-use residential complex on the downtown street, but the company withdrew its proposal for undisclosed business reasons.

Rhys Phillips, an architecture critic, says Morguard likely pulled out because of the softening condo market. He says that most standard development corporations are more interested in business spaces because of the lack of demand for condo space.

“There is going to be a major decline if not collapse in the housing marketplace,” he says.

But the NCC says bringing residents to Sparks Street is essential to its revival because it would create a steady stream of people who would shop and eat at the local stores.

Peter McCourt, NCC director of property development and planning, says the NCC is sticking to its guns. “This is the last piece of Sparks Street property we have, and we want to demonstrate the validity of mixed-use buildings with a residential component,” he says.

The site for the project is located near Metcalfe Street at 106-116 Sparks, just 150 metres from Parliament Hill and is home to two large vacant buildings owned by the NCC.

According to the NCC stipulations, a developer must build at least 75 residential units. These can take the form of rental apartments, a boutique hotel or a leasehold condominium.

The developer is also required to preserve and restore a nineteenth century heritage building that used to be the much-revered Centre Theatre.

McCourt says the NCC has invited interested developers to submit proposals. He says they hope to announce the successful company by this fall.

“We have sufficient faith that this is the right thing to do and that there will be a capable entrepreneur who will have the right building and the right design,” he says.

Despite all the optimism, Phillips says if plans are not already well on their way, it is unlikely the NCC will find a corporation willing to put up condos. “Just look at the trends,” he says. “Ottawa has seen multiple condo cancellations this year, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Ovation, an environmentally friendly condo planned for Holland Avenue, was cancelled this month. In January, Canderel cancelled its six-storey condo planned for 495 Richmond Rd., and in Kanata another pair of towers were cancelled.

According to the Corporate Research Group, the condo market now accounts for only 18 per cent of new home sales. This is a 30 per cent decline since 2005.

In March, one of Sparks Street’s oldest tenants, E.R. Fisher, announced it would close its stores this spring, citing lack of business. The clothing store had been on Sparks Street for almost a century.

And despite critics’ warnings, some Sparks Street business owners say the only cure is a residential unit that will secure customers.

Hollander Layte, owner of L’Ange and the Marvelous Mustard Shop, says that if Morguard pulled out because it did not want to include a residential component in the building, then it is a good thing it withdrew.

“I think it is absolutely crucial that the NCC stands firm that there is a residential component in any building that goes up on Sparks Street,” she says.

She admits to profit losses but is convinced that Sparks Street will only prosper with a residential building.

“The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we do things for the short term, or are we really willing to have a vision for Sparks Street?”