A five-block stretch of Sparks Street in downtown Ottawa, Canada, which is closed to traffic except night-time deliveries. Intended to be a world-class promenade, it's been the subject of innumerable attempts at "revitalization" since roughly the 1960s.

Sparks Street runs east-west one block south of Canadas Parliament buildings. By and large, it's lined with street-level shops in larger office buildings. The mall is paved with interlocking stone tiles, and there are several dark-green pavilions down the middle that house little restaurants with patios.

On weekdays when the weather's nice (in Ottawa, that's most days between May and October), the open-air mall is packed with office workers between about 8:30 a.m. and about 6 p.m.; at all other hours, and on weekends, it's virtually abandoned.

There are a number of reasons for this, which are interrelated:

Nobody lives there

There are no residential units on Sparks and it's not the most efficient route between any two high-traffic points in the city. That means anybody who's on Sparks Street has gone there deliberately, for work or to go to one of the shops: there's no "accidental" foot traffic there.

The back-door problem

Most of what's along the north side is the backs of buildings that front onto Parliament Hill on the other side. They don't present loading docks to Sparks or anything, but they're still clearly back doors.

Indifferent ownership

Not only that, but all those buildings are owned by Canada's Department of Public Works, so that the government knows who's occupying the buildings that close to Parliament and can control them -- so nobody hangs up a gaudy sign that anyone visiting Parliament has to look at, for instance. Or, in an area of more recent concern, tries to blow one of them up. Public Works, as a landlord, has dramatically different priorities from a commercial landowner. There are plenty of non-government tenants in those buildings, but Public Works isn't actively seeking out sexy ones that'll be big draws.

Hostile ownership

Most of the buildings along the south side are owned by the National Capital Commission, a government agency charged with beautifying Ottawa, which periodically threatens to demolish some of the buildings in pursuit of some scheme to make Ottawa more majestic. That's not how you get long-term tenants who are going to make big investments in the place.

Bad local administration

The Sparks Street merchants have gotten together and formed a Business Improvement Association. This is a mixed blessing: they want to make business better, yes, but they want to make it better for the businesses that are already there. Because of Sparks's proximity to the offices of government workers and affiliated industries (consultants, lobbyists, lawyers, and so on), a lot of the current Sparks Street Mall businesses are there to serve daytime office workers. There are easily a dozen men's suit stores within three blocks, for instance. Lots of barbers and hairdressers. Some crummy joints where you can get off-brand Canadian-themed souvenirs (maple syrup, sweatshirts with maple leaves on them, etc.), to take advantage of the tourists who pass by. All these places shut down after about six o'clock at night, because the office traffic is gone. Any effort to revitalize Sparks by getting decent restaurants and night spots (there are a couple of second-rate restaurants now, plus two reasonably hip bars, which are several blocks apart) will be made over these store-owners' cold, dead bodies.

In 2000, for instance, the store-owners managed to kill one of the most worthwhile revitalization moves yet tried -- having street vendors operate stalls to create a more enthusiastic bazaar-style atmosphere on the mall. The official reason was that it made the street seem "undignified" (as if dignity is a sensible goal for a vibrant city street); the unofficial one is that the tailors were losing business because their customers didn't consider wading through the crowds worth the effort.

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