UPDATE: Communications advisor Toby Koffman (with the department of Business) claims The Coast extrapolated inaccurate information from his fellow spokesperson Brian Taylor’s emailed statement. We’ve published his response below the amended article.
It was always supposed to be either a park or a library. But now that it’s not a library, it could wind up a shopping mall.
The old Spring Garden Road Memorial Library could wind up sold to private developers—unless HRM takes back control of the site from the provincial government.
The Grafton Park property that houses the old Spring Garden library was originally given to Halifax by Nova Scotia under the condition it only ever be used as a park or a public library. That’s all the property ever was until 2014, when the new Central Library opened across the street.
The redundant building has sat vacant ever since. In October 2014, council subdivided the property—keeping the 17,000 square foot “triangle” strip of grass out front as a municipally controlled public park, while allowing the back lot and building to be returned to the province.
According to Halifax South Downtown councillor Waye Mason, that was specifically done because the province wanted to turn the building into a start-up incubator with Volta Labs.
“At the time the provincial government was on a tear to announce something in a couple of months,” writes Mason in an email. “So council moved quickly to approve it as an extraordinary sale.”
Two years later, the start-up plans are
dead-in-the-water still being negotiated (though Volta has already moved into the Maritime Centre), and the department of Transportation Infrastructure Renewal is sitting on the vacant property while the transfer of title remains in limbo.
What will be done to the site after the province officially take control is still up in the air according to spokesperson Brian Taylor, but selling it off to private interests is certainly on the table.
“The province is considering many possible options, including private use,” Taylor writes over email, while cautioning it would be “premature to discuss any potential plans for the site before it is in the province’s possession.”
The news isn’t welcomed by the area councillor.
“That land should not be developed privately under any circumstances,” Mason says. “The rules the province originally put on the land are entirely correct. I don’t think there is any public appetite to see commercial development there.”
Someone who is hungry to see the property redeveloped is Dominick Desjardins, one of Mason’s opponents in October’s municipal election.
“As far as the building itself, it makes sense to have a commercial spot in there,” says Desjardins. “Specifically on a road that’s developing like Spring Garden.”
The challenger recently unleashed a critical tweetstorm against HRM’s lack of results in repurposing the old library. Desjardins says he’d like to see the municipality consult with business leaders and community members to transform the property into a commercial use “that we can definitely drive revenue from.”
That would be a swift change of direction for council, having previously voted three years ago to demolish the old building and keep the land as a park if a suitable public use for it couldn’t be found.
“Of course, the front of it is sacred ground, that’s understandable,” says Desjardins about the former burial grounds. “But we do have some room at the back.”
Still, all the community consultation in the world wouldn’t alter the original agreement’s terms that only allow the municipality to operate a library or a park. Any other use will have to either directly come from the provincial government, or require its pre-approval.
Desjardins says that’s no excuse, though, and council should pressure the province to sell the land to commercial interests.
“The province isn’t going to do anything with that land, at all, or they would have already,” he says.
Mason, meanwhile, still has some hope Nova Scotia can transform the property into an “exciting public space.” If those plans aren’t finalized by the end of summer, he says city council should cancel the sale and get on with turning the land into a park.
“From my point of view we are waiting for the province to go ahead with its plan or just walk away and let HRM get on with renovating the park,” says Mason.
In the meantime, Halifax is still on the hook for the maintenance and upkeep of the old library, at a cost of close to $140,000 a year.
Regional council had also previously offered the building as a legislative space for the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs, who passed due to the $13 million the property needs in renovations.
UPDATE: Earlier this afternoon, Toby Koffman phoned me requesting a copy of Brian Taylor’s response to my original questions, which I then provided.
In a subsequent email, Koffman stressed that the province still doesn’t own the Spring Garden Road library property, and claims the government didn’t suggest the site could be sold to “developers,” or that it could “wind up as a shopping mall.” He also says that the provincial government remains in discussions with Volta Labs about leasing the library to them, which could in fact constitute “private” not-for-profit use. He also provided a public statement on the future of the old library, printed below, which the province has been apparently using in media requests since March.
“The Old Halifax Memorial Library is a critical piece of real estate that has the potential to encourage business growth, foster innovation and create job opportunities that will help keep young people in Nova Scotia. One of the top priorities of government is to create the conditions for this kind of economic growth in the private sector. Government has the right to reacquire the Halifax Memorial Library from Halifax, and the city has approved a motion to return the property to the province. No decisions have been made about the site. We are in discussions with Volta about leasing the library to them.”
That statement wasn’t provided to The Coast when I first asked last week about future possible uses for the property.
Regardless, the start-up plans for the site apparently aren’t “dead-in-the-water” as I originally wrote, and the article has been updated to correct that. We apologize for the error.
Aside from that, I have several follow-up questions to Koffman’s statements that need clarification before The Coast is comfortable issuing any form of “immediate correction,” as the province requested.
Koffman is currently refusing to discuss the matter over the phone, writing in another email: “I’m sorry, I’ve provided all the information I can.” We’re still hoping to schedule an interview with him, and will write a follow-up piece should that happen.
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