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Why do Mayor and Council hold the Halifax Common in contempt?

Photo Facebook / Friends of the Halifax Common

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) On June 23 the Halifax Common, Canada’s oldest and largest, turned 257.

There is good news. The 1994 Halifax Common Masterplan goals committed to by the city continue to be front and fore in citizens’ present day desires. This is reflected in findings of the public consultation for the new masterplan begun in 2017— plan for the entire Halifax Common; keep it open with green, natural landscapes and water features; minimize development; limit imposing structures; create a sense of connection; include walking and cycling paths; re-balance uses-recreation, arts, events, growing food; ensure access, diversity, inclusion, safety, youth, family.

But the rest is bad.

Unfortunately the draft Halifax Masterplan, last seen in June 2019 does not plan for the entire Common, but only the city-owned property. This continues governments’ well-established pattern of diminishing, degrading or selling off the public’s land. Immediately before the consultation the city was silent on the sale of the CBC-TV lands and was secretive on its privatization of the Wanderers’ Grounds. 

Presently the COVID pandemic has us re-organizing society and economy with new forms for work, school and leisure that are still evolving. That public open space is vital to mental and physical health is increasingly evident as people seek to escape small apartments, to exercise or to enjoy a connection to nature. And the need for space for safe social distancing to walk or bike has cities around the world investing millions to create permanent bike lanes and new parks. 

But although HRM’s Centre Plan intends to add 15-30,000 new citizens to the Centre Plan area it has not designated any new urban parks and it includes no green networks. This is intentional, not an oversight.

One positive outcome from COVID worldwide is less traffic and parking demand and lower greenhouse gas emissions-nearly half because of transportation, primarily trucks and cars. The Halifax Common’s 240 acres is ~ 20-25% parking lots. There is an obvious opportunity to re-naturalize, re-wild or landscape them to create new park space and a cheap, efficient way to deal with major impacts from climate change (ie storm-water, flood-management, heat-waves, carbon sink) and pollution. New habitat, revitalization of dead zones and increased citizens’ care for and interest in nature are important side benefits.

But Mayor Savage and Council have no plans to change this usage. In fact they recently approved plans for a new 8-storey parking garage by the NS Museum of Natural History. That’s despite ~3,000 citizens petitioning against the garage and for protection of the Halifax Common. 

Along with a second parking garage on the former CBC-TV site a total of at least 1500 cars will now congest one of the city’s most walked, biked, played-on areas at the confluence of the Citadel High, NS Museum, Bengal Lancers, Wanderers’ Grounds, skate park, soccer field, Oval, children’s playground and a proposed new aquatic centre. These will now face a wall of parking garages, enjoy a soundscape of traffic and emergency vehicles and endure the health harms of toxic emissions.

But what of citizens’ desire to minimize development, limit imposing structures and keep the Common open? Well a minimum of 10 new high-rises between 8 and 30- storeys are in the works on or around the Common through Development Agreements. And in exchange for the hundreds of millions of dollars in development rights (ie profit) handed to developers, affordable housing unit numbers are going backwards. 

Shawn Cleary’s motion for 25-storeys at the Willow Tree in exchange 10 units for 15 years has now been cashed out for $1.8 million; Lindell’s Smiths motion for 23-storeys next door will net $180,000 and Waye Masons’ support for 16, 22, 26 and 30-storey towers will destroy ~100 affordable housing and small scale commercial units that won’t be replaced. 

Passing the Centre Plan formally increases height limits in Designated Growth Areas and Corridors. This further incentivizes the demolition of thousands of unique small-scale Halifax buildings and character streetscapes such as those by the Halifax Common on Robie or along South Street.

Planning for demolition rather than deep energy retro-fits or in-fill also harms the collective common. 39% of ghg emissions come from building and construction, adding to climate change. And citizens living, walking or cycling by traffic corridors are well understood to suffer detrimental health impacts (asthma, lung function, strokes, heart attacks, cancers) from associated air pollution and noise such that experts suggest residences and parks be set back 150m (a block) from traffic corridors.  

HRM recently reversed its decision to purchase diesel buses and now will go with an entirely electric fleet. It also recently reversed an earlier decision to purchase an armoured vehicle. It is presently looking into changing the zoning of 136 acres for sale to protect the Williams Lake Backlands area. And HRM just adopted its HalifACT 2050 climate change plan. Why does it continue to be so difficult for the Mayor and Council to protect the Halifax Common?

The Common is physically at the heart of the Peninsula and thus of HRM. How can Councillors continue to fail to listen to the public’s voice?

Peggy Cameron is Co-chair of the Friends of Halifax Common  www.halifaxcommon.ca. twitter- @FriendsHalifax    facebook- halifaxcommon