Nothing is ever perfect, or done quite how we'd envisioned---especially when government is involved---but after nine years pushing the city to restore the Bloomfield Centre's former glory, the mountain has moved.
On December 11, council approved a Bloomfield redevelopment plan by the highest bidder, Nova Scotia Housing Development Corporation, the provincial government's affordable housing agency. "It's been a nine-year process and we have a development with everything we asked for," says Susanna Fuller, co-chair of Imagine Bloomfield. "This is a game-changer for how we develop public space, where community concerns are part of the plan, and that reduces community opposition to development."
It's hard to list many times when strong community support was given a development with 40 percent low-income units. Usually that would inspire NIMBYs to scream criminal trespassing.
To be fair, some concerns have been raised. As The Coast reported last week, six councillors voted against the proposal, in part because such a concentrated rate of affordable housing risks ghettoizing the neighbourhood, psychologically if not in actual fact. Also of concern is that all the units are one and two-bedroom, with no family housing available. But the local resistance we've seen with other social developments has been absent.
Fuller notes that this is the province's first foray into direct community development of this nature. "They want to stop giving money to private developers for low-income housing," she says. "So Bloomfield is the guinea pig."
It's an awkward position for Imagine Bloomfield to land in, after grabbing the steering wheel from a snoozing city that had neglected the asset for decades, allowing it to decay. But Fuller isn't complaining.
"The staff report recommended a multipurpose mixed housing and commercial space with LEED gold certification and heritage preservation," she says. "The province has a vested interest in ensuring a proper transition for nonprofit residents, and also in green buildings." That's because, unlike in the scenario proposed by one Toronto developer, the province will own and operate the site, meaning its energy conservation investments will pay off over the life of the buildings.
Fuller says that while the site went to the highest bidder---NSHDC overshot Dexel Development by 50 percent---and scored low in "understanding the vision for the site," she is not upset by the process. "It was a really good process---the shortlist was made public," she says. "And I don't think it was a terrible scoring system."
She feels that any of the developers could have delivered on the community's vision, noting that "Urban Capital did a great proposal and they got a 42 out of 50 on the qualitative stuff, but scored low on finances."
But unlike some proponents, the province didn't engage Imagine Bloomfield during the RFP process, which was perhaps why it failed to understand the vision. As a result, Imagine Bloomfield requested that the vote on the proposal be delayed until NSHDC met with the community groups to "fully explain all uncertainties."
The vote went ahead. "Some councillors who voted against it were concerned about out vision," Fuller says. "We needed to put their attention on the shortcomings, which is why we asked for a delay."
The province, like the city, has been historically weak when it comes to listening to communities and acting on that input. But Imagine Bloomfield has had remarkable success nursing the city's tin ear, and hopes to do the same with the province. Through dogged determination it has become inseparable from the project. Consider, for example, that without drafting a press release the group has received more than a dozen media calls on the proposal.
"We need to meet the province soon and get better clarity on our role," Fuller says, adding that ongoing involvement of a broad network of community groups is essential. "We have 125 organizations and businesses interested---obviously they can't all be on the site, but we're looking at partnering with St. Pat's."
For now, she hopes the province will do some "site animation" with signage hyping what is to come.
Chris Benjamin is the author of Drive-by Saviours and Eco-Innovators: Sustainability in Atlantic Canada.
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