Spring Garden Branch Library Proposal: It was a rather quiet Council meeting with high-level, pre-budget presentations on municipal services taking up most of the time. The major item on the main agenda was whether to proceed with developing a new HRM driven proposal for the reuse of the old Spring Garden Branch Library. The idea before Council was to retain the building’s facade and construct new office space for HRM’s planning department and Daltech programs such as the School of Planning or the School of Architecture. The chance to mix academics, students, and HRM’s staff together in the same space has a lot of potential to build relationships that strengthen both the university and the municipality. It’s an exciting idea. The question remains though whether it’s feasible to reuse the old library at all.
The old library has been a civic landmark for generations and, although it’s not a registered heritage building, it has heritage significance. It opened in 1951 as a memorial library in honour of Haligonians who perished in the two World Wars. Over the years, the city outgrew the building, finally becoming obsolete with the construction of the nearby Central Library in 2014. Reusing the old library has proven to be complicated. The building itself needs a major reinvestment to make it usable and if that wasn’t enough, the property was once a pauper’s burial ground for the nearby Spring Garden Road Poor House. There could be as many as 4,500 people buried there (likely underneath Spring Garden Road and under the green space on the southern half of the site). The Province also has an interest in the lands because it was granted to the City of Halifax on the condition that it be used as either a park or library. Other uses aren’t permitted and the Province retains the right to reacquire the land if the use ever changes. The building’s condition, complicated site conditions, and reversionary clause has made it difficult to find a new use for the space. Among others, the Province, Mi’kmaq Assembly of Chiefs, and Volta Labs have looked at it, but everyone has walked away when faced with the cost and complications.
So what’s different for HRM? Why is the municipality looking at this when others have tried and failed to find something that works? For starters, the municipality has an ongoing interest in the well-used park space on the southern half of the site. If it proves impossible to reuse the library building, the cost of demolition and reinstating the land as a park will fall to the municipality. HRM’s status quo isn’t $0 here like it is for almost everyone else, it’s several million just to put the park back. In evaluating the partnership with Dalhousie, the question for HRM is what is the cost of constructing and occupying a new building at the old Library site compared to demolishing, constructing a park, and leaving municipal staff in lease space? It may prove to be the case that over the long-term, moving into new space at the library site and cutting HRM’s leasing costs is either the most cost-effective approach or that the gap between options isn’t that significant. That analysis hasn’t been done yet, but it will form part of the report that returns to Council. We’ll have a better sense as to whether this is viable then. If the partnership with Dalhousie doesn’t work, it’s likely that the old library building will be demolished and the site returned to green space. It’s worth one last look to see if there is a viable project to save it.
Traffic Calming: Amendment’s to HRM’s Traffic Calming program were at Council yesterday. There is good reason to want lower speeds in residential areas. Speed kills. Research indicates that at 30 km/hr, 90% of pedestrians will survive a collision, but that number falls to 60% at 50 km/hr. Cities across the world including, New York City and Boston, are lowering speed limits as part of Vision Zero campaigns to try and reduce the number of pedestrians and cyclists that die each year in collisions with vehicles.
In HRM, the biggest obstacle to lowering speed limits in residential areas has been jurisdictional complications with the Province. The Provincial Motor Vehicle Act sets the default speed at 50 km/hr and requires municipalities to apply on a street-by-street basis, with supporting documentation, to post anything lower. Considering that HRM is the jurisdiction that designs residential streets, controls the surrounding land-use, and does most of the enforcement, the Province’s stance on this seems needlessly bureaucratic and paternalistic. Unfortunately, a recent attempt to amend the incoming Traffic Safety Act by Dartmouth’s MLA Claudia Chender to give municipalities more autonomy was rejected by the government. In the discussion yesterday, staff indicated that HRM might be able to submit a list of all residential streets for the Province to okay posting a lower speed. That would require HRM to post new signage on all residential streets, but it at least wouldn’t require engineering studies on a street-by-street basis. If the Province demands the later, it’s simply not feasible to change speed limits in any kind of significant way. We’ll see where that goes.
Although HRM can’t post a lower speed than 50 km/hr, except in school zones, the municipality can design streets for speeds that are lower than the legal limit (bit of an odd situation). So, Council amended the Traffic Calming Policy to reduce the speed threshold that a residential street must have to qualify for potential Traffic Calming measures such as speed humps and curb bump-outs. The 85th percentile speed (the speed that only 15% of vehicles are exceeding) will be reduced from 45 km/hr to 40 km/hr and the speed in a school zone from 35 km/hr to 30 km/hr.
While the Traffic Calming policy changes make sense, for it to mean anything, HRM will need to be back up the Policy with a more aggressive budget commitment. Right now, the list of qualifying streets under the old 45 km/hr 35 km/hr rule is too long to ever implement in a reasonable time-frame with the funding available. Council will need to dedicate more money to this and staff will need to identify more nimble and cost-effective ways of achieving results.
In the bigger picture, rather than measuring speed on a street-by-street basis, what HRM really desperately needs to do is make good on the commitment in the Integrated Mobility Plan to update its design standards. A new Red Book was committed to within two years of the IMP’s adoption. We need to start building streets that are designed to produce the speed we actually want as the default rather than going around trying to fix them with band-aids after the fact.
Access-A-Bus: Council approved some minor changes to the Access-A-Bus program. Access-A-Bus service is provided based on the comparable conventional transit in the area. Basically, Access-A-Bus duplicates the service hours of your local bus route. What it means is that in low-density areas where transit only operates during the morning and afternoon rush hour, Access-A-Bus was also only available during peak hours. HRM has decided to do away with time-of-day restrictions during the week. Service will now be available from 6:00 to midnight Monday through Friday wherever HRM provides conventional transit. The change in the Access-A-Bus program doesn’t affect District 5 since everywhere in District 5 has all-day and weekend transit access, but it will make a difference to many others who live farther out and depend on the service to get around.
Time-of-day restrictions on Access-A-Bus will still be apply on the weekend. Staff indicated that removing weekend restrictions would likely significantly increase demand and that it wouldn’t be possible to absorb that increase into the existing system. Over the next few years, as the Moving Forward Together Plan is implemented, weekend restrictions will fade because there will be fewer and fewer places in the urban and suburban areas that don’t have access to both weekday and weekend bus service. The service will need to scale up with that change accordingly.
- Appointed a new building inspector
- Continued the red tape reduction program with the Province
- Approved grants to the various Business Improvement Districts in HRM
- Awarded funding to community museums through the Interim Community Museums Grants Program
- Asked for a report to renew the Service Agreement between HRM and the Lake District Recreation Association