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Driven to madness 

Editorial by Kyle Shaw

On the last Tuesday in February, city council set Grand Parade free. Downtown’s main public space shall be a parking lot no longer—sometime between now and September 1 cars will be banished, with councillor parking relegated to the Truscan lot, a short stone’s throw away. The decision seems the most natural thing in the world. While a Grand Parkade is a nice convenience for Metro’s elite group of 24 councillors, the other 99.9937 percent of us1 want our our square back. But the debate over the change shows how out of step some councillors are with the city they represent2.

At that Tuesday meeting, an afternoon gathering of council before the evening’s regular televised session, parking was on the agenda as part of a plan to invigorate a high-profile strip of downtown from the harbour, through Grand Parade and up to Citadel Hill. Big as the “Heritage Hill” proposal is, its parking element was the afternoon’s main event. A relatively large audience was on hand in council chambers to witness the proceedings, and the agenda was shuffled to get other business out of the way first.

When it was time to deal with Heritage Hill3, a consultant who worked on the proposal spoke to introduce it to council. He went through it piece by piece, touching on Province House4 and the idea of making a “green oasis downtown,” before getting to suggestions for improving the area around City Hall. The instant the consultant mentioned “options for how we might move parking off Grand Parade,” in walked councillor Steve Streatch. “Just in time,” he muttered as he strode to his chair.

Although Streatch has become leader of council’s parking troglodytes through years of steadfastly arguing for his space5, and his entrance electrified the room, when it was his turn to speak he made a concession speech. “The writing’s on the wall,” he said. “I’m not going to fight it.” Then he and the dwindling parking hold-outs kept fighting it5, successfully pushing the no-parking deadline from April to September. (Later, at that night’s council meeting, they unsuccessfully tried to extend the deadline even further before ratifying the afternoon’s decision.)

The five-month extension is small and petty, reflecting the nature of the Grand Parkade struggle. It has taken almost 20 years for council to give up its privilege. (A failed 1989 proposal for City Hall invigoration said “A consensus of opinion indicates that all parking in the Grand Parade should be eliminated.”)6 Over that time, the debate has been about how much convenience is needed for business, as if councillors have different ideas about how strictly City Hall ought to emulate a Home Depot in terms of parking7. These custodians of Metro Transit don’t tend to question whether councillors need cars or should be using the bus—which helps explain the state of the public transit system.

Meanwhile, citizens are starting to face the bigger parking questions. Monday, March 5, at Dartmouth High School was the first public meeting to talk about the Regional Parking Strategy being prepared by city staff. (Another meeting is 6pm tonight, March 8 at Sackville High.)8 Meeting attendance was low—despite the ample parking at Dartmouth High—but the people who came were passionate and willing to challenge the parking status quo.

There was talk of boosting law enforcement to fight meter feeding, and giving preferential parking spots to car poolers, and making parking lots more pedestrian-friendly. But a recurring theme of the evening was the need to provide alternatives to cars, so parking isn’t even an issue. A commuter brought up last year’s Rolling Stones show, when extras buses and ferries kept the cars of 50,000 concert-goers from descending on downtown. “Why couldn’t we do that every workday?” she asked.

“Public transit needs to be king,” a man responded. Later one of the city’s people9 said “we’re not anti-car,” and the same man was quick to pipe up. “You should be,” he said. “You should be.”

Read the footnotes below and send me your annotations at: editor@thecoast.ca

Yes, that’s the real number. According to StatsCan (http://www40.statcan.ca/l01/cst01/demo05a.htm) the latest estimate of Halifax’s population is 382,200. The municipality’s mayor and 23 councillors make up .00627 percent of the population.

Pinning blame for a matter of such chronic public frustration as the fate of poor old Grand Parade is a moving target. There are often differences between the will of council and individual councillors — when majority rules, lots of people can still get the shaft. Plus council’s make-up changes over time. A councillor’s mind can change over time, too. On December 14, 2004 council dealt with a report from staff that encouraged council to: “1. Explore the long term program for the Grand Parade... 2. In the interim, direct the relocation of dedicated councillor/staff parking from the Grand Parade to an alternate municipal property on the former Birk's site to be effective April 1, 2005." The vote was 11 to 10 against making it happen, with three councillors absent. On January 18, 2005 the matter came up again, thanks to a motion to reconsider (a sort of sober-second-thought mechanism), but was defeated 13 to 10 (Jim Smith was absent). Most councillors who favoured parking in December opposed reconsideration in January, although Sue Uteck and Gary Meade changed their minds — she from favouring parking to supporting reconsideration, he the opposite. In terms of veteran councillors, Sheila Fougere and Dawn Sloane have consistently pushed to move the cars. On May 20, 2003 they brought a motion forward to looking into alternative council parking so Grand Parade could be returned to public use. Most of their colleagues voted against them.

Thankfully this name was roundly decried by councillors. It can be considered a working title. If you have a better suggestion — it wouldn’t be hard — please email me and I’ll pass it along.

Greg Lusk, the province’s executive director of Public Works, says Province House’s current parking lot is slated for return to the public. “The longterm plan is definitely to convert that back to a park,” he tells me. The timeline depends on developing a new building/parking lot on the current Truscan lot site, at the Barrington and George corner, so it’s not going to happen overnight. Think 18 months or two years, easily. But it apparently won’t be delayed by obstructionist politicians who can’t bear to park across the street. “The elected body is quite supportive,” says Lusk. “Everyone sees returning that to grounds.” Another improvement in the Heritage Hill plan — nice lighting on Province House to make it attractive at night — is coming this summer. And when they’re putting in that wiring, Lusk says they’ll add the wires which the planned park will need for its lighting: “You don’t dig everything up twice.”

Like a bizarro version of Fougere and Sloane, Streatch is the prime example of a veteran councillor who has showed leadership in hanging on to his Grand Parade parking spot. At the December 14, 2004 meeting that would have moved parking as of April 1, 2005, it was Streatch who put forward the motion that council should simply put off making the decision to later. Later in this case turning out to be February 27, 2007. To Streatch’s credit, as councillor for District 1 (that’s Eastern Shore-Musquodoboit Valley, on the far eastern fringe of the municipality) and father of five boys, he must spend an awful lot of time in his automobile, and you can understand someone getting defensive about their home away from home.

On top of simply arguing for parking, they argued against the freed Grand Parade. What is the plan for landscaping the area to make it people friendly? Where is the money coming from? Will the new square have a memorial to police officers killed in the line of duty, as was talked about in the past? The police memorial is likely to happen, and if it was to be unveiled today it would honour: Charles Fulton, age 28, shot July 14, 1924; John McNutt, age 40, shot November 29, 1962; Roy Jennex, age 50, shot November 29, 1963; Eric Spicer, age 28, shot December 23, 1975; and Siguard “Ziggy” Holtan, age 46, who apprehended a couple suspects in the woods and died of a heart attack while bringing them out.

September 30, 2004, just 16 days before the last municipal election, The Coast ran a story called “Park aid” about the waste of having cars on the Grand Parkade. Soon afterward, a brown paper envelope arrived at the office with a copy of the 1989 Open Space Design Study. The anonymous letter attached noted that the study “includes recommendations, plans and sketches for improvements to waterfront, George Street, Province House and Grand Parade. Reason for sending it to you is that is is interesting to see that these ideas have been around a really long time. In fact there are plans dating back to 1916 to located a Comfort Station in the space under the Grand Parade accessed from Barrington. However, it is going to take some real public support and protest to have anything actually happen.

The rationalizations are legion for why it’s important to let councillors park on City Hall’s doorstep instead of across the street. The one that most highlights the difference between council’s city mice and its country mice is that any place of business is supposed to have room for its customers’ cars. Streatch implies a City Hall without parking is more a “shrine” than an office, which I suppose means the Scotiabank on Hollis Street and the Royal Bank on Quinpool Road are shrines to money.

More info is at: www.halifax.ca/tdm/parkingstrategy

By “people” here, of course I mean “consultant” on this project. His name is Brian Hollingworth, and if you’d like to tell him what you think the city should do about parking, he’d almost certainly be glad to hear from you. Phone him at 416-596-1930 ext 414, or drop an email to: bhollingworth@ibigroup.com

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