Sparks Street biz group no fan of feds’ offer to take over Sparks, Wellington streets

Wellington Street sign

The head of a prominent downtown business organization says the federal government’s offer to take over a stretch of Wellington Street and keep it closed to motorized vehicles should be a no-go.

In a letter to Mayor Mark Sutcliffe dated April 4, Procurement Minister Helena Jaczek says her government wants to reimagine the parliamentary precinct and keep Wellington Street closed to traffic.

Part of the street has been blocked off since early 2022, after thousands of “Freedom Convoy” protesters took over downtown streets for several weeks.

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The city is working on a long-term plan for the area, but council voted to reopen the street in the meantime. Crews began reinstalling traffic lights on the street this week, and the city says Wellington could reopen to traffic by the end of this month.

Jazcek’s letter says the federal government wants its jurisdiction to include Wellington Street and Sparks Street as a way to address security issues and to create a vibrant public space.

The letter says an interim deal would allow the federal government to pay for things such as bike lanes, seating, beautification and possibly a bistro in time for Canada Day.

But Kevin McHale, the executive director of the Sparks Street BIA, says the closure has caused major headaches for commuters and businesses, and it’s time for vehicles to start rolling on Wellington Street again.

“The reality is this road is a pretty vital connector for businesses and residents and visitors to the downtown core,” he told OBJ on Friday. “You can’t just … offer to buy a street. It’s not that simple.”

In her letter, Jazcek says the transfer would offer “a unique opportunity” to “reimagine this space as Canada’s pre-eminent civic forum,” adding that “shifting from vehicular traffic to pedestrianization can serve as a security feature, while creating vibrant public spaces that work for residents and businesses.”

But McHale isn’t convinced. He said giving the feds authority over Sparks and Wellington would create a jurisdictional tug of war between the feds and other levels of government.

“If you turn this into a federal district, who’s now responsible for policing?” he said as an example.

McHale, whose organization represents dozens of businesses on the pedestrian thoroughfare, also worries that plans to convert the area into a public space would get tied up in red tape and never be fully realized.

“I’m not saying it can’t be done, but there has to be serious commitment to that,” he said. “In the past, it’s taken the federal government literally decades to decide what to do with a building and start the construction process. 

“Downtown Ottawa can’t wait for that kind of stuff. We don’t have decades to make improvements down here. We have to do these things in the next couple of years, not the next couple of decades.”

Sutcliffe, who’s been meeting regularly with Jaczek and Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair about Wellington Street’s future, has made it clear he wants the road reopened to vehicles.

In a written response on April 6, Sutcliffe reminded Jaczek of the city council’s decision back in February to reopen the “iconic” street, and said it would be “premature” to sign such a deal before the city has finished its internal review.

“City staff are actively working on implementing the actions emanating from this motion. Wellington Street will be opened with one traffic lane and bike lane in each direction,” he wrote.

The city is working on a long-term plan for the area, and it is expected that staff will present a traffic study report to council for consideration early in 2024.

Council also voted to continue discussions about a redefined parliamentary precinct, and directed staff to ensure that transportation plans and land valuation are included in talks with federal officials.

In the meantime, Sutcliffe said staff will work with the federal government on ways to “animate” the section of Wellington Street that faces Parliament Hill for special events.

His letter did not address Sparks Street.

– With additional reporting from the Canadian Press

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