Chronicle Herald Op-Ed – Running Circles Around Common Plan

Celebrate the Common 250 2014Published June 27th, 2014
This week marked the 251st anniversary of the signing of the 1763 land grant of 240 acres “for the use of the inhabitants of the Town of Halifax as Common forever.”

This year also marks 20 years since the City of Halifax approved the 1994 Halifax Common Plan, a document that was developed after a thorough public consultation because of concern about the increasing number of changes and demands for use and the need for additional protection for the Halifax Common.The 1994 approving resolution committed Halifax to use the plan as a basis for management, detailed planning, capital expenditures and evaluation of proposals for the Halifax Common and to incorporate it in the municipal development plan with a capital budget. Among many obligations, the City of Halifax committed to the following: the amount of public open space in the Halifax Common will not be decreased; the amount of land owned by the City of Halifax will not be decreased; and, the city will seek to increase the amount of land under city ownership through recapture of lands.

Since its inception in 2007, Friends of Halifax Common have been reminding the city about the 1994 common plan and asking it to prepare an integrated master plan for this entire area, with specific detailed designs for the North, Central and South Common.

This would include a long-term view with a vision of how these lands that extend from Cunard Street to South Street bounded on the west by Robie Street and the East by South Park, Bell Road, Ahern and North Park Streets can be cohesively treated. Think Central Park.

We have raised concerns about the loss of the QEHS lands and worked with Capital Health to commit to the Common Roots Urban Farm. We challenged the loss of the Grace Maternity lands and questioned the concerts on the Common. And in 2013, we celebrated the 250th anniversary of Canada’s oldest common with 11,000 commoners.

In 2012, when HRM determined that the temporary Oval would become permanent, we made presentations to community councils and wrote to the mayor and council with suggestions for locating the permanent Oval on the Central Common as a trigger for its redesign and landscaping.

The existing pavilion could have been renovated for use as a support building. Waste heat from the chillers (enough to heat 150 homes) could have been used for heating adjacent public buildings such as the Citadel High, Museum of Natural History and hospitals. And once again, we respectfully requested a stop to the higgledy-piggledy ad hoc treatment of the Halifax Common.

We also reminded HRM, as stated in the 1994 plan, that “historically common land has been subject to common rights including the right of free access for all commoners. Under these rights, the owner is prevented by law from erecting structures and is obliged to leave the land open” (p. 43).

When HRM sought a legal opinion in 2012, it learned that it was illegal to build on the Common. Instead of understanding why that might be and respecting the law, it lobbied the Dexter government to change the city charter so an Oval support building could be constructed.

HRM now has the final plan to build a building that, according to the request for proposals, will be an “iconic social, recreational, sport & event venue … to provide the highest quality facility on the North Common.”

Everyone can agree that anything might be better than the trailers, toilets, temporary garages and other Oval-related junk now on the North Common. And what’s one more building in the context of HRM’s latest land grab that now leaves about 25 acres of public open space remaining from the original 240?

We cautioned HRM about launching into matters that are presented as though there are only two ways of reacting — in this case, “for the Oval” and “against the Oval.” And we have remained clear that as Friends of Halifax Common we are still “for the Halifax Common.”

And so Halifax, what is the big-picture plan for the North, Central and South Common? Does the future follow the path of progress as City Hall understands it with more concrete and buildings on the Halifax Common or will it favour a return to the valuation of green space in tandem with our efforts to restore our climate to one that sustains?

Peggy Cameron is co-chair, Friends of Halifax Common