Opinion: A flicker of hope for a lean promenade

Top-notch resto, hotel amenities in store for condo lovers who take up residence on Sparks Street

Finally, there’s some terrific news for Sparks Street, the downtown thoroughfare that once throbbed with life but which has been deadly-dull for decades.

As initially reported in OBJ back in July of 2008, the street – a pedestrian mall just a few steps from the Parliament Buildings – will soon be the location of Ottawa’s priciest condo apartment building as well as a world-class hotel, a high-class restaurant and a large, upscale grocery.

The $80-million-plus project should bring people and life back to a street that has been sadly lacking both for as long as many Ottawans can remember. At present, most business and life on the street is generated by federal public servants on their lunch break. Sparks Street is pretty much dead the rest of the time.

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If present plans come to fruition, a 106-room boutique hotel and a condo tower with up to 70 luxury apartments will open in late 2013, or soon after. The site is on the south side of Sparks Street, just west of Metcalfe Street. The development will extend south to Queen Street.

“This is an iconic location, and we want to make it a Canadian icon,” says David Choo, president of Ottawa builder Ashcroft Homes, which won a competition to develop the site. Ashcroft Homes will build the development and own the hotel.

The National Capital Commission has been criticized for stifling the life out of Sparks Street. But in this case, the NCC deserves some credit. It set criteria for development of the site, and decreed that any new buildings should preserve the old facade on the Sparks Street side. Part of the so-called “Canlands A” site bounded by Sparks and Queen streets, just west of Metcalfe Street, is now a parking lot. It also includes a former branch of TD Canada Trust bank, now closed. The nondescript old bank building will be demolished.

The development will have two chief components, with the smaller (six-storey) part on Sparks and the larger (17-storey) part, including condos on the upper floors, facing Queen. The restaurant and grocery store will be among retailers at or close to ground level.

Mr. Choo, who is among Ottawa’s busiest and most successful developers, sees the project as a sign of the capital’s growing maturity as a world-class city.

“In Ottawa, there is really no five-star hotel accommodation,” he says. “The Chateau Laurier is the grand lady of hotels, but I’ve heard complaints that the rooms there are small. Our hotel will be a very modern foil to the Chateau.”

He adds: “Our hotel will be one-of-a-kind, destined to become a Canadian icon.”

There is nothing to compare with this location, Mr. Choo says. It has a unique position, so close to the Parliament Buildings and in the heart of the city. Many of the condo apartments will look out on Parliament.

Ashcroft Homes has hired Toronto-based Cecconi Simone interior design consultants to work on the hotel.

Mr. Choo has chosen to name the hotel Re – as in “rediscover” and “rejuvenate,” he explains. But what’s in a name? “People are looking for more individual, more personalized experiences,” he says. The average room size will be almost twice what it is in many hotels, according to Mr. Choo.

The builder says the time is right for this project. “The condo market is growing up. More and more people want the best. Yet condos in Ottawa are still very affordable, compared with other major cities.”

The condos will be the first in Ottawa attached to a luxury hotel, though this is a well-established concept in many cities, Mr. Choo says. It will mean condo owners can get all hotel services – at a price – that are available to hotel guests. Don’t feel like cooking or going out to dinner tonight? Just call room service.

“This will not be your typical condo,” promises Mr. Choo, who says per-square-foot prices will be the highest in the city. How high is that? A 1,000-square-foot apartment is likely to cost close to $400,000, he says.

The sky’s the limit if a buyer wants a penthouse occupying the entire top floor. In that case, the price could run to $4 million, or more.

Mr. Choo is seeking a top chef to run the hotel restaurant. He hopes the eatery will be recognized as the city’s best.

And, not least for shoppers, public servants, nearby residents and tourists, there will be a 6,000-square-feet food market selling quality produce. Mr. Choo expects construction to start within two years, with completion date as early as late 2013.

This could be the start of something really big for Sparks Street. Heaven knows, it needs it after all the lean years.

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