It’s rush hour on a warm day in early September. Parents all over the city scurry to collect their children, but the backyard of St. Patrick’s Alexandra on Brunswick Street remains silent and empty. Today, the keys to the school are in Halifax Regional Municipality hands, and the property – one of the largest spaces in the community – is up for sale. Council won’t decide its future for at least another month.
Tyler Morton rounds the corner on the north side of the building. He’s about to take me on a tour of his neighbourhood. Tyler’s 28 now, and has lived in Uniacke Square since he was four. When he attended St. Pat’s, his junior high teacher Mr. Johnson kept the kids on track and “told it like it was.” Tyler and his friends competed in basketball tournaments in the gym, and learned African-Canadian history all year long – not only in February like other Nova Scotian schools. Tyler holds the firm opinion that the city shouldn’t have closed the school. But it wasn’t his choice in March of 2009 when the Halifax Regional School Board voted, and it won’t be his choice when Halifax Regional Council votes this year on the fate of the property.
Historically, when the city has had the opportunity to help his community, Tyler says they have instead neglected it. “When you get in a position to change, that’s when doors start closing for you,” he said the first time we met in the backyard of the school. With that in mind, we emerge from the school’s shadow onto Maitland Street, and begin walking north toward Uniacke Square.
Currently the city is considering six proposals for the St Pat’s site: three private for-profit developments, and three proposals from community organizations; the latter three were authored by the MicMac Friendship Centre, the North End Community Health Centre and the Richard Preston Centre for Excellence. The community organizations have agreed to work together if their proposals are chosen. Twenty-three councillors and the mayor will vote on the six submissions. The city will not release the documents until council convenes.
The Friendship Centre and the Community Health Centre, however, have already begun spreading the word about their proposals. At a community barbecue on September 14, the directors of both centres distributed information about their plan, asked for feedback, and encouraged people to contact their councillors. They want all of the services in the neighbourhood – Mainline Needle Exhange, Direction 180 (a community-based methadone maintenance program), the Health Centre, the Mi’kmaq Child Development Centre, and the Friendship Centre – to unite under one roof. And they want the city to sell them the property for $1.
Donna Frizzell, director of the Mi’kmaq Child Development Centre would like nothing better than to move locations. Last week, she opened the back door of the daycare to show me their playground. On the other side of the chain-link fence that borders the tiny backyard, four people sat around a picnic table smoking and playing cards. The daycare and Stepping Stone, a support centre for sex workers, are backyard neighbours, living and working in close quarters. When the sex workers smoke weed or talk too loudly, the daycare workers bring the children inside for crafts.
On the other side of the building, drug dealers unknowingly make sales within full view of the playroom. The front windows of the daycare centre are mirrored, and people on the street can’t see in – but the children can see out. Once, two guys fought each other with wooden beams outside the window, and the workers had to move the kids into another room. Visible crime, buildings falling into disrepair, lack of space to grow – these are some of the reasons the MicMac Friendship Centre began searching for a new space seven years ago. When the school board voted in 2009, a solution presented itself: the old St. Pat’s Alexandra building.
When Tyler and I turn onto Uniacke Street, it’s busy. Whole families – teenagers, small children, parents and grandparents – gather in front of their homes. Friends and visitors join them for the last couple hours of warm fall sun. Tyler knows the people in the house across from us. I ask them what should happen to the old St. Pat’s property. “I want it to still be a school,” a girl in her teens tells me. An older woman in a green jacket says out of the six proposals, her vote goes to the MicMac Friendship Centre.
I ask them if they want any for-profit development on the site – like condos. The woman in the green jacket immediately says, “No. No condos.” Everyone in the yard agrees, except a small girl who is preoccupied drawing in the dust with a stick.
We cross the street again, this time to ask Tyler’s aunt Tracy what she thinks. “The MicMac Friendship Centre,” she says, straining over her dog’s persistent barking. “They do good work.”
George Giannoulis, who submitted Mythos Developments’ proposal for the St. Pat’s site, confirmed that he and other developers would be interested in the land where St Pat’s now sits. Giannoulis wouldn’t say much about his company’s proposal for the former school site; only that it’s a purely residential project.
The city’s request for proposals, published in August 2011, states an interest in not-for-profit organizations and community growth. The MicMac Friendship Centre put in a proposal after meeting with Donna and the other directors of the daycare, the North End Community Health Centre, Mainline, Direction 180, and the Richard Preston Centre for Excellence, believing the city would welcome them as tenants or owners.
If the city is truly interested in saving the community, Donna says it would be a positive move. The cavernous space the old school presents could house a health centre, addiction programs, a dental clinic, and the daycare – all alongside the existing library and community garden. This portion of the proposal is not for profit. However, in order to pay for renovations, the centres have another idea: they want to sell their current buildings on Gottingen.
With the money raised, they could open up the interior of St. Pat’s to make it more welcoming, and build a memorial dedicated to sex workers from the community who have been killed. The prime real estate on the corner of Cornwallis and Gottingen would then be vulnerable to private developers, who have already begun to buy and build on spaces along the once-bustling street.
Tyler crosses Gottingen Street to show me an expansive empty lot. A well-used path snakes through the tall grass on the south side. The rest of the property is occupied by compressed gravel and parked cars. Where the gravel meets the sidewalk, a large sign announces the property will be developed by 2010 and sold to homeowners by 2011. On it, a practiced hand has scrawled in black spray paint: “don’t be pushed out.” Wealthier people will move into these buildings once they are constructed, so presumably these words are aimed at the lower-income people who live in the neighbourhood. Tyler says he appreciates the sentiment, but not the vandalism.
The word “condo” has a negative connotation in this community, for the most part. The houses that will fill this lot are billed as affordable, yet a person would need to make at least $30,000 per year to buy one. New condominiums and apartment buildings – especially those that cater to the middle class and above – are becoming a regular feature in this community.
Affordable development is encouraged as part of the community development plan for the area, but not mandated. It’s something of a loophole. The HRM Municipal Planning Strategy states the following (last amended in 2009):
“In the area bounded by North, Robie, Cogswell and Barrington Streets, with exception of the portion falling outside of Peninsula North Area, housing options for all income levels will be encouraged; developments that address the needs of surrounding community and help promote neighbourhood stability shall also be encouraged.”
Next to the garden on Brunswick Street on September 14, about 30 people lined up for hot dogs. The MicMac Friendship Centre’s barbecue – an event to engage the community – was well-attended throughout the day. Tables on the lawn held printed plans that once in a while escaped in the wind. On one table, the words “what do you think?” prompted attendees to sign a petition that will be presented to council before they vote. About half-way through the event, it held nearly 100 signatures.
Aside from the residential Mythos Developments proposal, the other two private submissions belong to United Gulf Developments and Jono Development. The former has a demonstrated history of building tall towers. The latter belongs to Joe Metledge, who is currently re-developing Fenwick Tower.
A blue pamphlet distributed by organizers at the barbecue urged people to contact their councillors, because “they must listen to their voters.” A sample letter reads:
“Saving this facility for the community is vital to the health and future of not only Halifax’s North End residents, but to the prosperity and growth of the city as a whole. This is an opportunity for the HRM and its City Council to show great vision and leadership, to look beyond one-off property developments and instead support … the neighbourhood to become a thriving, healthy heart of the city for generations to come.”