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Nova Centre takes over Grafton Street 

City council endorses convention centre mission creep after fiery public hearing.

click to enlarge Image that shows Grafton Street looking like a tunnel running through the proposed convention centre.
  • Architect's drawing of Nova Centre's Grafton Street takeover.

Already notorious, Tuesday night at council the Nova Centre development project assumed even greater infamy.

City council voted—unanimously except for Jennifer Watts—to amend current land-use bylaws governing the zone where the convention centre will be erected (currently an iconic hole in the ground across from Durty Nelly’s and The Seahorse). That could mean losing a portion of Grafton Street, which developers would like to incorporate into the building design, selling and privatizing the street in the process.

This came after an excruciating public hearing that lasted over four hours. The majority of speakers were against the amendment.

After the third hour councillor David Hendsbee kept shouting that, in his opinion, he was done hearing what the public had to say and that council should just vote on the damn thing. To mayor Mike Savage’s great credit, he was able to calmly and repeatedly explain that proper procedure had to be followed.

The public in attendance did not behave much better. There were wild accusations of corruption, storming-off in a stream of swearing, crowd hissing—all in addition to rampant deviation from the topic of discussion. At one point the valiant commissionaire was incited to yell, “No clapping! You’re not in a theatre!”

In my limited experience there are three types of people who come to public hearings: the unconditionally positive, pragmatic skeptics and the unconditionally opposed. Last night was no exception.

Starry-eyed advocates for the Nova Centre intimated that it would herald a rebirth of epic proportions for our city’s downtown. This was tempered by skeptics who pointed to previous failed attempts at a downtown renaissance, like Scotia Square and Granville Mall. On the other end of the spectrum were the chronic opposition, who seemed to care neither where nor what the development was, believing that change is bad by default.

Selling a portion of a public city street to consolidate two blocks into giant glass towers is a drastic step. But it could potentially have a great outcome. The developers suggested it could become a sort of pedestrian public space, with bucolic greenery and benches, perfect for hosting concerts, markets and other genteel public events. After all, we wouldn’t be losing anything. That section of Grafton Street (between Sackville and Prince) is presently barren.

Another public concern addressed in this redesign was the inclusion of locals, because in consultations it was clear people worried the centre would be purely for the benefit of visitors. Creating an open cultural space for Haligonians was a way to dilute those feelings.

On the other hand, they also talked about turning the stretch into a driveway for parking-lot access, which would mean giving up one of our streets for no public gain.

In the absence of concrete details about how the street would be used, it’s not surprising that people got upset.

It should be mentioned that incorporating Grafton Street into the Nova Centre is part of a redesign of the development that happened after public consultation. The original plan featured subterranean spaces passing below the street.

For now, we wait. The next report presented to council will include specific options for what do do with Granville Street.

One thing is certain: The Nova Centre is happening. The only question is how.

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