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Repurposing an Icon

Friends of the Khyber Consult with Plans

by Laura Shepherd

Friends of the Khyber members (l-r) Catherine Abreu, Emily Davidson, Rebecca Rose and Susan Wolf at a public meeting February 17 on redevelopment plans for the iconic Barrington Street Heritage Property. [Photo: L. Shepherd]
Friends of the Khyber members (l-r) Catherine Abreu, Emily Davidson, Rebecca Rose and Susan Wolf at a public meeting February 17 on redevelopment plans for the iconic Barrington Street Heritage Property. [Photo: L. Shepherd]

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) - The dream of a repurposed Khyber building continues to take shape.

At a public meeting in the Central Library on Tuesday, February 17, members of the Friends of the Khyber (FOK) provided updates and sought input on plans to redevelop the city-owned Barrington Street property. The ad hoc group, currently completing incorporation as a volunteer not-for-profit society, provided updates to fifteen people gathered at the public session.

Originally built as the Church of England Institute, the turreted brick building shared a central Barrington Street block with the adjacent City Club, a former businessman’s club. Site of The Turret¸ the now-fabled gay and lesbian bar and dance space that occupied the iconic third-floor architectural feature in the 1970s, the building acquired its current moniker when businessman Amin Nasr opened The Khyber CafĂ© on the main floor in 1984. Tenants then included the Atlantic Filmmakers’ Co-op and Wormwood’s Dog & Monkey Cinema, a repertory movie house that projected films with vintage carbon-arc projectors, the first devices to project “moving pictures”.

Friends of the Khyber representative, Catherine Abreu, opened the session by encouraging public input, saying, “We don’t feel we have the mandate to make decisions without community consultation.”

FOK, along with the artist-run Khyber Arts Centre, Neptune Theatre, and volunteer architectural and heritage consultants are developing operational, financing and management plans to enable not-for-profit organizations to sustainably occupy the historic building.

The concept, FOK member Emily Davidson explained, calls for the city to enter into a long-term lease with a voluntary management group to operate the alternative arts and community space. A multi-pronged strategy to raise required renovation funds, currently estimated by city planners at $4 million, is critical to the venture. The managing board will include occupants and user groups and will hire a designated building manager. Ongoing operational costs are expected to be recovered from anchor tenant rentals and featured events.

Rebecca Rose, speaking for absent FOK member Robin Metcalfe, outlined efforts to enlist anchor tenants, which currently include the Khyber Arts Centre and Neptune Theatre (which envisions an 80-seat performance space). Friends of Khyber also hope to enlist a queer community tenant, continuing a community presence that dates to The Turret¸ Nova Scotia’s first gay bar.

Finding funding for renovations is the most daunting obstacle facing the plan. While the group is willing to be flexible in approaching the private sector for “realistic partnership options”, they have already decided against peddling corporate naming rights to raise funds. The group is researching municipal, provincial and federal funding programs.

Details for renovations are as yet uncertain, however installation of an elevator and other adaptations to achieve barrier-freedom for people with disabilities is a minimum standard the group hopes to exceed by adding gender-neutral washrooms, scent-freedom practices and other features. A particular challenge is locating and installing the elevator while preserving the architectural character of the century-old Heritage Property.

Friends of the Khyber concluded the gathering by inviting those in attendance into open discussions of management, fundraising, and operational considerations. The group promises continued public consultation as it works toward a self-imposed May deadline for the development of a “solid” proposal to the city for long-term stewardship of the building.

Other members of Friends of the Khyber include Susan Wolf, musician Joel Plaskett, and art curator and long-time social activist Robin Metcalfe.

Formal efforts to develop a central arts and culture centre for the space emerged with a 2010 proposal to the HRM. One outcome of that proposal was the estimate, by city planners, of the $4 million figure in question for renovations to permit long-term occupancy of the building. Friends of the Khyber, in association with others, is currently reviewing that figure, looking for ways the needed renovations can be accomplished for less capital expense.

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