KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Legend has it that Prince Grigory Potemkin, a minister in the government of Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (and reportedly her lover) in the late 1700s, erected a series of building frontages to impress Catherine and her entourage as they toured otherwise empty parts of the countryside.
To this day, the term “Potemkin Village” connotes, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary “an impressive facade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition.”
A Potemkin Village is precisely what Halifax is in the process of creating in the block bounded by Spring Garden Road, Carlton Street, College Street and Robie Street.
What is the “undesirable fact or condition” that is being hidden there? Believe it or not, what the developers and city officials are trying to “hide” in plain sight is a massive development, on a single city block, of four towers of 30, 26, 20 and 16 storeys.
The block is presently zoned for 35, 40 and 50 feet to protect its heritage character. To accommodate the towers, the two developers involved (Louie Lawen and the Rouvalis family) are proposing to demolish thirteen older buildings, including one of Halifax’s oldest small apartment buildings, the Edwardian-era Coburg, The height and massing of this project will well nigh extinguish a fine and beautiful historic neighbourhood, including the former home of Margaret Marshall Saunders, one of Canada’s top-selling authors ever.
The development will also help set the framing discourse for future despoilations of historic Halifax.
And what is the “impressive façade or show” that will hide this monstrosity? The developers are offering to do some renovations on several already-heritage-designated houses on Carlton Street, presumably to show civic-mindedness but really to make their bolder plans more palatable. Only to put the largest single massing of buildings in Halifax right into the backyard of these houses.
Of course, the Potemkin front could never hide the eyesore in the backyard. But City staff have been demanding – wait for it – that we actually pretend the towers will not exist.
At their December 12 meeting, members of the Heritage Advisory Committee were instructed to perform the mental gymnastics. Chief HRM Heritage Planner Aaron Murnaghan is reported by allnovascotia.com to have urged the committee members to consider only the Potemkin Village and ignore the four towers. According to this report, he actually said “Imagine nothing is happening next to the properties.”
May I repeat, in case you read that too quickly, “Imagine nothing is happening next to the properties.”
The idea is to have the committee ponder only the houses and not the rest of the block. Only a master satirist could dream up such a preposterous scenario.
Unfortunately, the citizens of Halifax will not be able to perform this feat of magical thinking, especially if and after the towers are built.
Using a bit of heritage as the fig leaf for rampant and unheeding development is becoming the latest shell game in Halifax. I live in Schmidtville, the largest contiguous enclave of historic buildings in the city, but now, at 5.6 hectares, a mere third of its original size.
A few months ago, after nine years of struggle by our neighbourhood association, Schmidtville received Heritage Conservation District designation. That will offer protection from further wanton destruction in what’s left. But it comes at the cost of tall buildings all around. Only the Holy Cross and Fort Massey cemeteries on the south provide some space between us and the 33-storey Fenwick Tower and prevent our enclosure like a canyon. (Though I’m sure developers are salivating at the fantasy.)
On some days when the fog rolls in really heavy, we too can pretend that those tall buildings around us don’t exist.
On our east, west and north, there is no gentle transition away. Indeed, even in the near-decade that the Heritage designation proceeded through Council, Schmidtville lost a further eighth of its houses, all historically and architecturally significant. At the July 2018 Council meeting that voted to designate the Heritage Conservation District, representatives of Dalhousie University insisted that they had the right to build to their height limit and with a sheer street wall, if they wished, on Queen St. directly opposite Schmidtville. Our tears of sadness, frustration and rage mingled and overflowed.
Indeed, last year, Friends of Schmidtville staged a service of mourning, as for a dear friend or family member, as several houses on Brenton Street fell to the wreckers.
Message to our city mothers and fathers and the bureaucrats who work for them: If you value heritage other than as lip service, then you have to let it breathe. You have to celebrate it. You have to value its economic, social, cultural and environmental values. You can’t treat it as an afterthought, or as an exception, or as an excuse, or as something to hide away. Or as disposable and replaceable.
Otherwise, let’s rename our city Potemkinville, as it deserves.
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