June 23 marked the 255th anniversary of the Halifax Common, the 1763 Crown Grant by King George III for 235 acres of land and five acres of roads given “to and for the use of the inhabitants of the Town of Halifax as Common forever.”
Clamoured for by the poor and landless, the grant is bound by North Park Street, Ahern Avenue, Bell Road, South Park, Robie and Cunard streets. But true to history, Halifax’s ruling class has steadily colonized the Common south to north so now only roughly 20 per cent is public open space.
Recently, HRM began a public consultation process for a Halifax Common master plan. Unfortunately, this offers an uncertain prospect for remedying the enclosure of our shared land.
So far, HRM has ignored its 1994 commitments to plan for the entire Common and adjacent lands as well as its promise to do this in conjunction with the overall city planning. And the 23-year delay in starting means many missed opportunities to recapture lands (i.e. -the Queen Elizabeth High School, Old Grace Hospital and CBC TV).
Even this reduced master plan consultation is overshadowed by HRM’s preferential treatment of private developers at the expense of the Common and the greater common good.
A recent one-off decision to rush approval for a Wanderers Grounds’ private-for-profit-pop-up stadium will steal field time amateur players need and pay for. Contrast the pop-up-priority with HRM’s failure to relocate the evicted Common Roots Urban Farm. It remains uprooted and without a partner organization despite its thousands of volunteers and success stories. Why hasn’t the publicly owned St. Pat’s land been declared its place to grow?
Very troubling is the Centre Plan’s unwavering intent to harm the Common by increasing height limits where ambitious developers own land.
Examples are: Southwest Spring Garden Road on the South Common, a proposed Growth Centre that would be filled with 20-plus-storey buildings; and Robie Street on the Common’s western edge, which will be converted to a Corridor-traffic sewer along a four- to six-storey strip.
Worse still are the multiple meetings for individual proposals. Readers will know that against public will or need, Halifax regional council agreed to break 10 planning regulations as well as public trust so APL can erect a 25-storey tower at Robie and Quinpool.
That project has diverted public attention away from two other proposals for four towers by Carlton Street, a designated Heritage streetscape on the South Common bounded by Robie, College and Spring Garden. If approved, the outcome will be 16- and 30-storey and 20- and 26-storey towers in a single block. In the meantime, other less-publicized proposals chew at the edge of the Common. Examples include a 15-storey tower at Robie, Shirley and Pepperell streets and, an eight-storey high-rise at Robie and Cunard.
A study by Preservation Green Lab proves that blocks of older, smaller buildings such as historic neighbourhoods on and near Halifax’s Common perform better than districts with larger, newer structures when tested against a range of economic, social and environmental outcome measures.
A second study, The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse, determines that with few exceptions, renovation and repurposing of existing buildings is the best environmental choice. And it creates twice as many jobs, with less energy and half the materials.
What if the Halifax mayor and council prioritized adding value to our best assets instead of demolishing them? Density is not synonymous with high-rises. We need to set a goal for more gentle density, as urged by Vancouver’s former city planner, Brent Toderian. He recommends using in-fill and four- to six-storey buildings to increase density and preserve communities.
And we should heed the advice of Toronto’s former chief planner, Jennifer Keesmat, to act quickly to protect our heritage before becoming a dog’s breakfast.
This summer, as you enjoy the Halifax Common, its neighbourhoods and character streetscapes, its trees and sunlight, its calm or active pleasures, remember: it is all at risk. Whether you are a common pedestrian, cyclist, skater, player, worker, Public Gardener or evicted Common Roots Urban Farmer, you need to get and stay involved. Please start by asking the mayor and council to protect the entire Common, to add more green space and to not harm what little remains.
Peggy Cameron is co-chair, Friends of Halifax Common