Supreme court

Developers are pitching plenty of ideas for a central downtown property, including a sizable new courthouse. Michael Fleury testifies.

photo Darryl James

In a small auditorium in the Dalhousie architecture building, roughly 250 people came to debate the future of the area near Spring Garden Road and Queen Street. By the time the meeting got underway at 7:00 pm, there were no more seats. When Mark Reid of Urban Strategies Inc. formally began his presentation, audience members were lining the walls and sitting on the floor.

In short, there just wasn’t enough space to accommodate everyone.

The Queen/Spring Garden development strategy faces the same dilemma. The land in question —an oddly shaped collection of properties that connect Clyde Street, Spring Garden Road and the downtown core—offers a limited amount of space for a growing list of potential developers.

The meeting, held last Thursday, January 24, was the final opportunity for members of the public to comment on the preliminary stage of the development strategy. Toronto-based Urban Strategies Inc. and Halifax-based Environmental Design and Management Ltd. will spend the next two months shaping the suggestions into a more refined plan for the area.

“What happens here is so very, very important to so many people,” said urban planner Mark Reid, speaking at the meeting. “Bernie would tell you he wants it to be a commercial district. The Library Board will tell you that their library should go there. The courts will tell you that the court should go there. Developers will tell you that a residential tower should go there.”

Public opinion is clearly divided about how to best use the space—the mere mention of a residential tower drew an audible reaction from the assembled crowd, both positive and negative.

The biggest block of available land is the former site of the Halifax infirmary on the corner of Spring Garden and Queen. It may also prove to be the most controversial, regardless of who builds on the space.

There are a number of organizations eyeing the infirmary site, including the Halifax Public Libraries Board, the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation and the YWCA, but the largest preliminary pitch came from the provincial Department of Justice. They have proposed a new 300,000 square foot court facility to replace four other local courthouses: The law courts on Water Street, the Provincial Courts on Spring Garden Road and Pleasant Street in Dartmouth, and the Family Court on Devonshire Avenue.

An email from the Department of Justice communications office revealed some details about the proposal: “The Department of Justice has looked at many sites in the Halifax Regional Municipality. The Department has determined that if a new Court Facility was to be built, it should be located in the downtown area,” it reads.

“Two sites owned by the province were considered. These are the lands at the southeast corner of Queen Street and Spring Garden Road and land at the southeast corner of Sackville and Hollis.” The Sackville and Hollis location would place a new courthouse near the Maritime Museum.

The physical size of the proposed court facility already has some residents concerned. As Mark Reid illustrated in the January meeting, a 300,000 sq. ft. building would mean either a three- or four-storey building spanning most of the infirmary site from Spring Garden Road to Morris Street, or a seven-storey building about half as long. In either scenario, the court would become the dominant structure on the site.

One citizen in attendance, Frank Palermo, spoke about the need for local residents to establish some clear objectives to protect the public’s interests—including, he said, to not allow surface parking or a sprawling court facility in the area.

“It seems to me that we shouldn’t compromise,” he said. “It seems to me that when we get too detailed about this, you lose that primary sense of those few things that we—and by we I mean the neighbours, the people that walk by that have to live with this, et cetera—we lose a sense of what’s really important.”

There will be another opportunity for public feedback once a more specific plan is drafted and presented to municipal council.

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