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Bloomfield blooms 

The north end community shows us there’s a right way to develop---and it doesn’t resemble the status quo.

click to enlarge MATTHEW MORGAN

Seven years ago the Bloomfield Centre, at Agricola and Almon, seemed doomed. "The city was going to destroy it," says Susanna Fuller, co-chair of Imagine Bloomfield. The nonprofit devoted to re-purposing the centre into a neighourhood hub held a series of community consultations, facilitated by Dalhousie planning students, between 2004 and 2008. Rather than make its own plans and present the usual options A, B or C, the organization asked the community to design the hub from scratch.

In 2008 the municipality took notice, hiring professional architects to do a second consultation and turn the results into a master plan, a vision that will be implemented in the "next two to three years," according to Holly Richardson, coordinator of infrastructure and asset management for the city.

The plan calls for a mixed-use neighbourhood hub for community and cultural organizations, artists, businesses and residents. "It's not arts and culture," Fuller says. "It's arts and community."

There are many details left to iron out, but Fuller says one of the centre's three buildings---the main school building---will likely come down and be replaced with two new buildings. "Old and new can co-exist side by side," she says, "as they do in other cities."

Consultants have analyzed successful public/private partnerships in other jurisdictions and made recommendations for a new Bloomfield Development Partnership between Imagine Bloomfield and HRM. Imagine Bloomfield also hosted a workshop by Artscape Toronto---responsible for multi-use projects like Wychwood Barns and the Distillery Studios, both of which reinvigorated decrepit spaces for community use.

"Think 401 Richmond or the Centre for Social Innovation," Fuller says, citing two other successful Toronto building projects that brought together non-profits, social enterprises and creative forces. "It's development with real intention."

click to enlarge MATTHEW MORGAN

Over the next couple of weeks the latest consultants (who Fuller says have been selected but not officially hired) will conduct a detailed appraisal to determine the financial value of the site and the cost of renovating and upgrading the remaining buildings. The city will then call for "expressions of interest this spring," Richardson says.

Fuller says that Imagine Bloomfield already has 65 artists and nonprofits interested, and is working to broaden its outreach to the business community. "It helps that Bernie Smith is running around starting a north end business improvement association," she says, adding that she hopes members of the Business Alliance for Living Local Economies will get involved.

Working with a private developer, HRM will use the expressions of interest to develop a shortlist of tenants, and request detailed proposals for participation in the project. "We want to find the right patrons," Richardson says. "We don't know how many there will be but we have 40,000 square feet and could add another 20,000."

The development aims for urban density without stirring up a hornet's nest over height. Richardson says that, based on public consultations to date, people can stomach buildings as high as 10 storeys in the area. She adds that it's too early to discuss costs.

Fuller estimates that living up to Imagine Bloomfield's high expectations, and making it "one hundred percent green," would cost around $30 million. "It's more expensive at first but it saves money in the long term," she says. "Why not use creative funding models, like lease-to-own? Why invest in a downtown convention centre versus a sustainable community arts centre?

"It's a better way to build a city: dense yet walkable, bikeable, affordable and sustainable." Ideas from Imagine Bloomfield's consultations included a community garden (check), greenhouse (underway), greywater system, solar panels and green roofs.

The question becomes: who ponies up the dough? Richardson says funding will likely be a combination of HRM, developer and partner monies, but with actual construction two years away she won't get into specifics.

The fact that the city is involved at all is a complete turnaround from seven years ago, though Fuller still has her frustrations--- and fears---in working with municipal staff. Sometimes it feels to her as if the bureaucracy has trouble absorbing what the community has to offer.

"It's a shame this didn't happen sooner," she says. "It's been seven years of neglect. HRM's risk-averse culture has failed to take advantage of the assets of the city: its universities, artists and activists."

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