Agenda, July 11
The main item on Council’s agenda last week was the future of the Halifax Forum. The Forum is in bad shape and is in need of a major project. The Forum has two ice surfaces, one of which has arena seating for 4,610, and multi-purpose community space. The Forum is well-used and letting it fall down and not replacing the space isn’t a real option. The North End needs the community space, HRM needs an intermediate sized arena, and HRM needs the ice surfaces. The risk that the Forum might close suddenly due to its deteriorating systems is growing. This is becoming a have to project.
When Council last looked at the Forum in 2018, the estimated cost to build multi-purpose space plus two ice surfaces (one with arena seating) was $81 million. With inflation and all the upward pressure on construction that has occurred since, it was no surprise that the latest estimate has grown to a substantial $110,000,000. It’s a big number, but there is also a lot of uninformed blame of the Forum’s heritage designation for inflating costs. The estimated additional cost of working with the heritage elements is $5,000,000 – $10,000,000. So levelling the Forum and starting from scratch would save some money, but it’s still at least a $100,000,000 project. We have to think about the heritage piece and what value it provides, but it’s also a bit of a red herring in the grand scheme of things. The Forum is expensive because building public buildings is expensive!
Councillor Smith pointed out during debate that the Forum’s $110,000,000 isn’t out of line of costs for similar builds elsewhere in the country. The Slush Puppie Arena in Gatineau cost $79,000,000 in 2021. Slush Puppie has four ice surfaces, but no community multipurpose space. This year, the low bid to build North Bay, Ontario’s new two ice-surface arena has come in at $70,000,000. The Forum’s estimated cost is not out of line. This is what a public building costs in a post-COVID era.
Council was pretty accepting of the reality of this being a have to project and that it’s not going to be cheap. Most of our debate focused on what efforts should be made to preserve the heritage and on parking.
The Forum is a registered heritage building and I personally think the heritage component has value. As a society, we once understood that there is value in good design. Public buildings were built to a high standard and were works that celebrated their role and place in the community. We built places that people were proud of and that were loved. Along the way to modernity, all of that was lost and we started building things as cheaply as possible. With a few exceptions, cost was all that mattered. Funnily enough, the exceptions, like our own Central Library, are the projects that the public loves. In the 40-50 year life of a building, it’s worth spending a bit more to get something of quality rather than something that’s just functional, especially when the building is going to be an important public institution.
I think doing right by the heritage piece will elevate the Forum’s redesign. The Forum has been part of the cultural and entertainment life of HRM for decades. It’s an Andrew Cobb Building. It’s in rough shape now, but the essence of the place has value that we should consider carefully.
Council was gearing up for a good debate on the pros and cons of the heritage issue, but the more questions that were asked, the messier everything seemed to get as staff’s answers diverged more and more from the written report before us. The turning point was when staff indicated that HRM has more flexibility about how we preserve the heritage than the report seemed to suggest. It’s not the stark binary choices of deregister the building and tear it all down or undertake heroic measures to save every brick. We can consider a replica, we can consider moving the building to better position it on site, there are actually more options than the preserve the facade estimate that was in the staff report. Council approved the motion to move forward with design and staff will now go away to refine and sort out what the art of the possible is around heritage.
The other controversy concerned whether to sell off the northern portion of the site that fronts on Young Street to help offset the cost of the project. The Young Street frontage has considerable development rights given Young Street’s status as a growth centre in the Centre Plan and, based on past sales, is probably worth $10s of millions.
It would be nice to offset some of the Forum’s cost, but there were, however, also concerns about parking. The new Forum will have fewer parking spaces than the current facility, which has sparked concerns from the Forum Association and the public. I suspect there is probably a win-win here as we could probably require public parking as a condition of sale in any new development on the north of the site. This would use the space more efficiently than a surface parking lot. Council turned down declaring any property surplus for now while additional work is done to narrow down options.
Council had several items on the agenda related to transit.
Council gave first reading to a new Transit Bylaw regarding safety and passenger conduct on buses and at transit terminals and stops. The bylaw is in response to an uptick in violence and disruptive behaviour, that has frequently been directed towards transit drivers. Ridership in HRM has basically recovered to pre-COVID levels, but incidents are way up compared to pre-2020. HRM isn’t unique here. Transit agencies across North America are all seeing the same trends. Since COVID, a lot of people are on a shorter fuse and the economic stress that many are feeling doesn’t help.
HRM has already hired additional supervisors whose role is to focus on public safety issues at our major terminals. In looking at the issue though, HRM identified a serious gap in banning problematic individuals due to the narrow scope of the Protection of Property Act (aka PPA): a PPA order applies to physical places, not vehicles. HRM could ban someone from a Terminal through a PPA order, but not from an actual bus. The Transit Bylaw now fills that gap by giving HRM the ability to ban someone and setting out how someone who is banned can appeal if they feel it wasn’t warranted. It’s unfortunate that a bylaw is necessary, but transit needs to be a safe experience for everyone, passenger and driver, and we can’t allow the bad behaviour of a small number of people ruin it.
Still with safety, Council approved an increase in the budget for shields to protect transit drivers. These new safety barriers will be more robust than the existing barriers that were put in place as a defence against COVID. The existing barriers weren’t designed to keep a violent passenger away from the driver. The new barriers will have a fixed two piece door and will be firmly affixed to the bus. HRM is going to retrofit every bus to install shields. Delivery of prototype units should take place in the fall. HRM is hoping that all buses will be equipped by March, 2024.
Some minor amendments to the User Fee Bylaw around fares was before Council too. Mostly minor housekeeping such as updating the name of the Low Income Transit Pass Program to the Affordable Access Program, making it clear when the differential fare price between a regular fare and an express fare is waived, allowing parking compliance officers to ride for free during the patrols, etc. The one piece in the bylaw that generated some discussions was how transit applies to HRM’s Housing and Homelessness efforts.
Staff have been providing transit passes and tickets to people who are struggling on an ad hoc basis. Anyone on income assistance already qualifies for a free pass, but not everyone out there in need is receiving assistance from the Province. The housekeeping bylaw changes included provisions to codify this ad hoc program with a set a limit of passes that can be handed out in a single month. The number chosen by staff was 70.
I asked staff why set a limit at all? The answer wasn’t all that satisfying and basically it comes down to needing to account for the passes and to give Council some idea as to the scope of the program and budget implications. I think HRM has enough oversight between our Housing and Homeless and Transit staff to manage this properly and I don’t think an arbitrary number is really necessary. There is also next to no cost to HRM really since a lot of homeless people receiving free transit would have been spending next to nothing on transit anyway. It felt like a bureaucratic rather than a practical limit.
So I sought to remove the limit, but the legal ruling was that removing the limit would be a substantial amendment, which you can’t do at second reading. Rather than delaying the whole thing by sending the bylaw back, I was able to amend the bylaw to raise the limit to 140. That is approximately four times the maximum number of passes that HRM has ever given out. It should, practically speaking, produce the same result: HRM will give out free passes to anyone whose circumstances require it.
- Initiated the Suburban Plan process (a Centre Plan for the suburbs)
- First reading for changes to the taxi bylaw around training
- Registered 1206 Robie Street as heritage property
- Amended the planning bylaw in Enfield to allow an expansion of Ledwidge Lumber
- Adopted new planning rules for Beechville.
- Approved a fly-past for Touchdown Atlantic
- Received a presentation on Halifax’s Economic Strategy from the Greater Halifax Partnership
- Approved the new micromobility bylaw (e-scooters) which will hopefully enable a more regulated rental service next year
- Dissolved the Design Advisory Committee (Centre Plan dynamics made the Committee ineffective and its membership was continually frustrated by their inability to make any meaningful changes to projects)
- Awarded the operating contract for household special waste to GFL Environmental
- First reading on the new marketing levy bylaw
- Amended the tax exemption process to make it easier for residents who have lost their homes due to fire to quickly get an exemption
- Accepted Grants Committee recommendation not to provide a grant to the Porters Lake Community Association this year because the Association hasn’t caught up in their submissions related to past grants
- Entered into a cost-sharing agreement with the Province related to paving of rural roads (J class streets)
- First reading for amendments to the temporary sign bylaw
- Approved upgrades to the firefighting paging system for volunteers
- Approved a budget increase to the Common Pool project (playground)
- Directed staff to implement a pilot program for sign language interpreter services for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Established an area rate to pay for a rural sidewalk in East Preston (sidewalks aren’t included in the rural tax rate so rural areas that want them pay an area rate to make up the difference)
- Requested staff reports on potential future capital upgrades to Cole Harbour Place, summer transit service to Rainbow Haven Beach, and on HRM joining the Montreal Pledge on Biodiversity