Oval plans move forward

Designs for permanent building discussed.

As Haligonians emerge from their winter hibernation, they see one area where spring has not sprung: The Oval. The gravel-rimmed concrete track sits barren on the otherwise bustling public arena leaving Common crossers to wonder: With the ice gone, what use is this to me?

“We’re excited about the potential and the possibilities,” said Oval manager John Henry, addressing the attendees of the Oval Public Engagement Session Thursday night. The meeting was the final consultation stage before city planners present their proposal for phase two of The Oval’s development to city council.

Before yesterday’s meeting much had already been decided with regards to The Oval, following what was heard at an October information session, through focus groups and via an online survey conducted last month.

“In most cases, what folks wanted was open, accessible, recreational space,” said Henry. Sound familiar? That’s because in many ways, the public’s vision for The Oval closely mirrors what the Commons was originally intended for and how it looks today.

The planning team’s guiding principles for The Oval’s year-round activities restates the obvious: the Common should be welcoming, offer amenities to the many, be geared towards family and the community, and be respectful of the surrounding neighbourhood.

Perhaps most obvious is the team’s goal to “work within the character of the Common” by following the 2010 Halifax North Common Conceptual Plan. It intends for a better-lit, wider-walkway, increased-foliage, Common entrance plazas, seating nooks, a designated events area and turning that cement circle of questionable purpose into a fountain.

These changes may sound extensive but, by the looks of things, they’re fairly peripheral. What the 2010 conceptual plan doesn’t include is The Oval, which, if it wasn’t clear already, is a pretty big deal on the Common.

In concrete terms (excuse the pun), Common users can expect The Oval area to be built up---$3 million-worth of development. Aside from the general North Common improvements, The Oval area will be hardscaped (read: paved) and outfitted with plenty of greenery. The north side of The Oval will be given its own entrance area replete with warming huts. The south side entrance, in turn, will get a drop-off area for cars and school buses.

“We want it to be warm and accessible from a feeling and a temperature point of view, and we want it to be green,” said city staffer Terry Gallagher Thursday night. “The buildings we’ve had so far on site have not been inspiring,” he added with a chuckle.

Last week, the request for proposals closed for the $1.4 million pavilion building having received nine tenders. Planned for the spot where the skate rental stood this winter, it’s to house the two ice resurfacers, Henry’s programming office and staff room, the skate and helmet shop, washrooms and a lounge. The chosen contractor must create a LEED Gold green building design and---possibly more difficult still---please the public’s aesthetic eye. Those polled were split between wanting traditional styling and a modern look. Gallagher says the proposed design will have to combine the two---a feat one can only fathom.

Meanwhile, The Oval programming plans for scheduled unstructured use: a contradiction in terms that speaks to the city’s desire to appeal to the public’s enthusiasm for free (that’s both cost-wise and option-wise) recreation while also maintaining control over the space. Henry said the winter programming is likely to change little. Based on the survey, popular options for the warmer months are roller and inline skating, road hockey, biking, ultimate Frisbee and special events such as farmer’s markets and festivals.

“Right now, the wonderful part about this (space) is it’s multi-use,” said Henry.

But participants in the engagement session thought otherwise. While many acknowledged the potential for the area’s multi-use, few believe it exists in actuality: all they see is 180 days of skating.

By this time next year, The Oval will hopefully be summer-ready. Until then, Common-ers can continue to use the area as they see fit.

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