AS THE HALIFAX COMMON EVOLVES, VOLUNTEERS FIGHT FOR ITS ORIGINAL SPIRIT
If the Halifax Common could speak, it might say that it owes a lot over the past 12 years to Peggy Cameron, Beverly Miller, and the Friends of the Halifax Common.
In 2006, Miller, a long-time community activist and member of the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, realized the Common needed a voice. “There’s Friends of the Public Gardens and Friends of Point Pleasant Park,” says Miller. “The Halifax Common needed us. The Halifax Common needed more friends.” Miller, then made a call to Cameron, an activist and owner of a wind-energy company. In 2006, Cameron was also starting the Commons North Neighbourhood Association to stop the demolition of a set of historic houses on West Street. Currently, FHC’s Facebook page has just over 300 members.
A proclamation from King George III established the Halifax Common in 1763 “for the use of the inhabitants of the Town of Halifax forever.” Originally this space contained 95 hectares of open land between Cunard and South streets, bordered by Robie, North Park, and South Park streets.
Over the years, public institutions and other buildings took over Common space, including Dalhousie University’s Carlton Campus, Victoria Park, the former Halifax School for the Blind, the former Halifax Poor House, All Saints Cathedral, the Public Gardens, Citadel High, and the CBC television building.
Currently, the Common is down to about 0.8 hectares of “true” open space, all on the North Common. “It’s just this attitude, that it’s there, it’s open space and we can do what we want with it,” says Miller.
Cameron agrees. “The Common is for everyone and it’s really the place where democratic decision should be the most profound and authentically demonstrated,” she says. “It’s is something that in the past 200 years has been handed off to institutions, so we have to make sure they are caring for [it].”
According to the 1994 Halifax Common Plan, the amount of space allotted for the Common was not to decrease: the land owned by the municipality, would not decrease and the municipality would try to increase the amount of land it owned through a “recapture of lands.”
But they say that HRM hasn’t properly implemented the plan. The duo point to the former site of the Halifax School for the Blind at South Park and South Streets. After workers demolished that building, a commemoration garden opened, but in 1999 the garden was bulldozed in favour of 12 new parking spaces for the Victoria General Hospital.
“I think that goes back to why we formed, because [the Common] … hasn’t been planned for or cared for,” says Cameron. She adds that having an open space helps get residents outside, enjoying nature or partaking in a particular activity, like baseball.
In late March 2017, Tiffany Chase, then senior communications advisor with the HRM, said in an email that the municipality will prepare a new Halifax Common Plan. This new plan will “address open space and recreational uses on the Common.”
“The 1994 Common Plan will be an important consideration,” said Chase. “How the Common has developed and should be developed in the future will be the central matter under consideration.”
One more recent development that Miller and Cameron felt needed more public consultation was the skating Oval, originally built for the 2011 Canada Games. It was supposed to be temporary.
“When it was made permanent, we asked to speak to the Council about a better solution and they wouldn’t let us speak,” says Cameron. “So, I and a few others went to a few community Councillors and our proposal was to put it around the skate park or on the soccer field and use the existing Pavilion building.”
Cameron is adamant that the group isn’t against development or progress. “We don’t want to be opposed to things, but we want people to look at the possibilities,” says Cameron, adding that outside developments can also affect the Common.
These include the Armco development near the corner of Quinpool Road and Robie Street. The developer wants the structure to be 20 to 25 storeys tall. The original plan was for 29 storeys. Even though the building won’t be as tall, the height still worries Cameron. “Our biggest concern about that size of development is it’s going to create huge shadows on the Oval and create huge winds on that corner,” says Cameron.
Jacob Ritchie, urban-design program manager with HRM, says staff worked with Armco on the design. “When it gets to the tower form, we try to make it very narrow so that if it does cast a shadow, it passes very quickly,” says Ritchie. “Staff worked with the applicant to narrow down the [side] that faces the common, so when a shadow does get cast it lasts for a shorter amount of time.”
He adds that the Centre Plan should help protect the Common from shadows. Anything taller than six storeys might have to take a “layer cake” approach with a narrower top if it goes above that limit, so that shadows are minimal.
But the North Common isn’t the only space the Friends are concerned about. Last spring, Sports & Entertainment Atlantic announced plans to put a pop-up stadium on the Wanderers Grounds, on the corner of Sackville and Summers streets. It will seat some 6,000 spectators.
Derek Martin, president of Sports & Entertainment Atlantic, pitched the idea as a three-year pilot project to gauge public interest in a permanent structure. He feels that the space wasn’t being well used. “There wasn’t this investment into making it a gathering space,” says Martin. “That, to me, was a real shame: that the status quo was an underutilized public asset in the centre of the city.”
Cameron says this type of event is a problem. “The city [spent] money on fixing up the Wanderers Grounds, so our ask is that they keep it open to the public and for public use,” says Cameron. “It should be a field that is generally available for all sports people, not just a speculative, entertainment kind of property.”
Martin says this wouldn’t be the case. Those who wanted to rent the space from HRM could. He adds the site used to host events like boxing matches and baseball, with people watching from large grandstands. “All we’re doing is enhancing a public space that was designed and used for sport for 200 years,” says Martin.
In June, HRM Council approved the plan, now set to begin in 2019. The field hosts at least 14 soccer matches per year. Martin says that number isn’t final, but he wants to respect public use and find a good balance.
Cameron says amateur teams and events will lose at least 20% of their playing time. (She calculates that based on a June 2017 HRM staff report that says that in a seven-year period, the grounds were used for 325 hours per year).
As developments arise, Cameron says the Friends will continue to work for the Common. And now, with plans to implement a Common Plan and the Centre Plan, they hope changes will help preserve the space. “We are persisting because there is a pay off,” says Cameron. “With any kind of social change, it requires people to believe in something.”