Paved with good intentions

How Halifax got stuck with the Cogswell Interchange

RHalifax had grand plans to revolutionize urban living.

It ended up with a failed development rooted in class discrimination and racism.

In the late 1950s, Halifax planners wanted the city to become more modern, with a focus on cars as trends saw more residents living in the suburbs and commuting to work. Central to the plan was an elevated freeway across the harbour, known as Harbour Drive. Part of this development was the Cogswell Interchange.

“In hindsight it was very much with a certain perspective of what cleaning up the city meant,” says former Halifax Regional Municipality archivist Sharon Murray. Murray digitized 4,000 photos in 2017 related to urban renewal.

The proposed development had issues from the beginning, including the demolition over 2,000 buildings, mostly homes.

At the time downtown Halifax had a large population of poor, working class neighbourhoods. According to a 1957 report, A Redevelopment Study of Halifax, Nova Scotia from planning consultant Gordon Stephenson, the median annual earning in the study area in 1951 was $1,800 (about $16,800 in 2018 dollars). This comes out to $34.62 a week. The cost of a three-to-five-room rental in 1956 could range from $15 to $130 per week.

These neighbourhoods were crime-ridden, rundown, and overcrowded. Stephenson called one (located between City Hall and Jacob Street) “deplorable.”

“Here are some of the worst tenements, and dirty cinder sidewalks merge with patches of cleared land littered with rubbish. It is suggested that the clearing of this area should have high priority.

It will provide well placed and needed sites for commercial premises,” he wrote. “In its present state of decay and stagnation it is repelling to good commercial development.”

For Stephenson, getting rid of this area was the first step to a better Halifax.

Murray believes the issue was more than getting rid of a few unsightly buildings.

“These were homes for better or worse; these people were forcibly removed from their homes,” she says. “They didn’t have any say in the decision-making process. The people that were making the decision were not people living in these neighbourhoods.”

Many people spoke out against the development, including Bauer Street resident C.H. Griffith. In a 1956 letter to the Mail-Star they wrote the city has decided to “confiscate” neighbourhoods, forcing people to move “regardless of their unanimous disproval.”

Along with being a poorer area of the city, a large majority of Halifax’s African-Nova Scotian population lived around this area. According to research from Tina Loo, history professor at the University of British Columbia, about 6,000 African-Nova Scotians were displaced during the city’s urban renewal, 400 of whom were from Africville.

The rest lived in the area around Maynard and Creighton streets. Unlike Africville, which was more segregated, this area had a mix of black and white residents, all low-income. “There was a class aspect as much as there was a race aspect,” says Loo.

Loo says African-Nova Scotians residents were concerned about more than losing their homes. “The minister at the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church … spoke out against the impact of redevelopments on his parishioners who he was worried wouldn’t find accommodations, if they could at all,” she says.

Government officials moved residents out of the area starting in 1958. Many went to public-housing areas, like Mulgrave Park. Neither Loo nor Murray know if everyone who was displaced got a home. Loo says there was one public-housing unit for every one of four families displaced. This also didn’t factor in single-person households.

The Cogswell Interchange was completed, but due to public backlash in 1970, Halifax abandoned the Harbour Drive project.

For years, there’s been talk about demolishing the Interchange and starting anew. A recent update on HRM’s website from fall 2018 says it has gathered public input on urban spaces and buildings. Many residents have raised concerns about the development, especially related to affordable housing. According to Statistics Canada, in 2016 HRM’s population was 403,131; some 58,825 residents (about 14.5%) were “low income.”

Mayor Mike Savage, who spoke of looking forward to more bicycle-and-pedestrian-friendly spaces, wants to “reconnect the city.” He says the original redevelopment didn’t “respect the neighbourhoods” and those living there.

He feels the development contributed to a social divide, separating residents based on their income brackets. “Downtown has the opportunity to to break that cycle, regardless of age, income … it’s an opportunity if done correctly,” he says.

On Feb. 27, 2019, HRM Council approved a design plan for the Cogswell site. It includes a multi-use trail, plazas, several parks and green spaces and a transit hub. Construction could begin in the fall of 2019.

The document presented at council says affordable housing was discussed at length during public-engagement sessions. Although, “the comments and recommendations regarding building design and use will be reviewed and considered through the [municipal planning strategy and land-use bylaw] amendment process initiated for the Cogswell District.”

In a January email, HRM spokesperson Erin DiCarlo addressed the subject. “Last July, regional council approved an affordable housing work plan setting out six initiatives to increase supply. To date, decisions about affordable housing in the Cogswell District area have not been determined,” she said. “Staff will be seeking Council’s direction in this regard and note that of the six initiatives in the affordable housing work plan, the use of the density bonusing program and/or the sale of municipally-owned lands would be explored.”

Murray wants something that better reflects Halifax. “This Cogswell redesign has the potential to echo that history if they aren’t more thoughtful and they don’t consult the people it impacts,” she says.
But Halifax can’t replace what is lost.

“Despite it all, there was a sense of community that has essentially been erased,” says Murray.

How we got here
  • The city razed about 5.6 hectares in the early 1960s. In the late 1960s, it took another five hectares.
  • Scotia Square was another development that came out of the demolished area.
  • One of the proposals for Harbour Drive included a four-lane divided highway, with interchanges on Devonshire Avenue, the Macdonald Bridge, and Cogswell Street.
  • Additionally, another bridge, running parallel to the Macdonald Bridge was suggested.
  • When the development was first announced, it was opposed by several residents who worried about Halifax’s historic buildings. One such building was the Pentagon Building on Buckingham Street; its design resembled New York’s triangular Flatiron Building. Workers demolished the Halifax landmark.
Halifax Magazine