Revitalized at what cost?

There is $10 million available to streetscape Spring Garden Road; can independent businesses survive the project?

When Jennifer’s of Nova Scotia opened its doors in 1978 it was one of several independent retailers on Spring Garden Road. Now it’s one of the last.

Jennifer’s sells artisanal products from across the Maritimes, most handmade in Nova Scotia. In its windows, the boutique displays range from glassware from the South Shore to Cape Breton pottery.

Kurt Bulger remembers when there were many independent stores like Jennifer’s. He worked there as a teenager in the early ‘80s as the handyman around the shop before working his way up to manager and now co-owner.

“It’s what made Spring Garden unique, and this road has outlived the trends and battles of big box retailers of North America,” says Bulger.

Spring Garden looked a lot different before the influx of chain retailers. And now with a streetscape project in the works, Bulger is concerned. “I’m actually quite worried that in the next five to eight years we will not survive the direct intervention of the city, and what it’s trying to do to Spring Garden Road in the streetscape and the improvements,” he says.

The streetscape project dates back to 2009, when municipal planners wanted to invest in Spring Garden Road and Argyle Street for a similar project, but funding fell through. The project wouldn’t come to fruition until eight years later when Halifax Regional Council committed to $17 million for renovations. When construction finished on Argyle Street in late 2017, more than $10 million remained.

In January, HRM planners held public consultations to receive feedback on how to spend that $10 million. The Spring Garden streetscape development would fall within the boundaries of South Park and Queen streets. The public saw three options including: enhancing sidewalk bump outs (extending the curb to give pedestrians shorter crossing and force drivers to slow), restricting left turns in either direction, and eliminating daytime road use by cars. The proposals also include loading and delivery zones on side streets.

“There are a lot of people who are expressing excitement around the idea of deemphasizing automobile use,” says Elora Wilkinson, Spring Garden Road project manager.

Wilkinson says more than 6,000 vehicles (including 850 Halifax Transit buses) per day use Spring Garden Road east of South Park Street.

Eliminating cars, she says, will create a better flow of pedestrians, buses, and cyclists. Wilkinson admits that option is the boldest, and it wouldn’t end there. Phase two of the project will include exploring the option of tearing up Spring Garden Road to bury power lines. This could mean around-the-clock construction.

“There’s a lot of mixed feedback from businesses. I think everyone wants something, what that means we’re not exactly all aligned on,” says Wilkinson.

Some 6,000 vehicles per day use the east end of Spring Garden Road, far more than planners anticipated decades ago. Photo: Nova Scotia Archives no. NSIS 11369

Bulger isn’t the only business owner who is concerned. Philip Holmans, who owns World Tea House on Argyle Street, was days away from bankruptcy during the now-completed Argyle streetscape project. Now he warns other businesses of the risks streetscaping projects can pose to independent owners.

“I believed in the streetscape project and I believed in the downtown revitalization project,” says Holmans.

Holmans was so confident of the return on the city projects, he opened a second shop in Bedford on the scheduled completion date of the Halifax Convention Centre. He knew he would have to make sacrifices during construction seasons, but there were consequences he didn’t anticipate.

“We saw huge losses of up to 80% of our income. I had to take equity out of my house and lay off most of my staff just to keep the lights on,” says Holmans.

Just as his business was recovering from the loss it took during the convention centre’s construction, the Argyle streetscape began. People were avoiding Argyle Street because of construction and business was slow. Holmans says he is still significantly in debt. He had to sell the Bedford location to avoid bankruptcy. If not for a cry for help on social media that led to a surge in business, he says he would have had to close his doors on Argyle Street. Some owners took advantage of the construction to rebrand, others relocated.

“We did our best at that time to give them the heads up; you don’t really know how it’s going to be until construction season starts,” says Wilkinson. She adds that businesses on Argyle Street have seen a lift in sales since the streetscape and she’s optimistic Spring Garden will have the same effect.

Despite the inconveniences construction season brings to residents and businesses, planners say the positives will outweigh the negatives. In April, a fourth option was presented and approved by HRM Council, also known as the hybrid option. This design takes aspects from the three previous options, while addressing some of the concerns raised during the consultations. Turn restrictions will be implemented, sidewalks will be extended by 57% and a designated loading zone will be maintained. The design will also leave room for piloting a temporary transit corridor and consider one-way side street conversions.

For stores like Jennifer’s, that timeline is critical.“Two construction seasons would wipe me out, one would be bad enough,” says Bulger.

Wilkinson doesn’t expect shovels to be in the ground until 2020 at the earliest. She says that will give time for businesses to prepare.
Wilkinson says that it is unlikely Spring Garden Road will be closed indefinitely, but day and night time construction isn’t out of the question. Pedestrian traffic will always be open and stores will always be accessible.

For Holmans, he admits he assumed the revitalization projects would be good for business. He saw it as an exciting investment into the community and the return of pedestrian traffic would mitigate any losses during construction seasons.

“If the city had prepared the independent business community before construction started, I wouldn’t have been in such a deep hole,” says Holmans.

Now, World Tea House is fully staffed again and business has never been better. But the rebound took time. Most of the foot traffic picks up when the street is closed to traffic during street festivals. Holman’s thinks that is where Spring Garden is really going to shine.

Bulger admits a makeover on Spring Garden Road is overdue. He sees the benefits that independent businesses will get in return, but he’s concerned at the toll of getting them. “Refresh the street, get the power lines in the ground and widen the sidewalks,” he says. “It accomplishes what they want.”

Bulger doesn’t think the concerns of merchants are fairly reflected in HRM’s decisions. Supporters say consultation is a big part of the process, with the final decision hinging on how the public majority want to see their tax dollars spent.

“People believe that there can be something transformative done to Spring Garden and we can be bold,” says Wilkinson. “It can only get better.”

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