[Ed Note: The following is an Op-Ed by Freelance Journalist Lisa Roberts on the St Pats Alexandra issue. As always we welcome your thoughts, comments and submissions. Contact us at email@example.com.]
“It is Africville all over again,” Reverend Rhonda Britton said at City Hall after council voted to approve the sale of St. Patrick’s-Alexandra school, in the heart of Central Halifax, to a developer.
That’s a hard thing for residents of Halifax Regional Municipality to hear, judging from letters to the editor and comments on-line at cbc.ca.
I asked Irvine Carvery, president of the Africville Geneology Society, what he thought at the first Sunday rally against the decision, December 17.
“She was absolutely correct,” he said. “With the destruction of Africville we had a group of administrators who felt they knew what was best for the community and went ahead without consulting the community.” And that, he says, is what City Hall is doing again.
I think Irvine is too generous. The decision to sell the St. Patrick’s-Alexandra site is no doubt what’s best for the city’s pocketbook, strapped as it is to fund too many capital-intensive projects at once.
But leaving that aside, there is time yet for Mayor and council to learn the error of their ways and let this community seize an opportunity.
Why is the St. Patrick’s Alexandra site so important?
I visited the school for the first time in 2003, to do a story about a grade eight project. The teacher told me then how his students’ Halifax was bounded by North St., Cogswell, Brunswick and Robie – in short, a few square blocks around Uniacke Square, where most of them lived.
This fall, I worked on a story about the North End Community Health Centre. The executive director explained how it was bursting at the seams, but its search for a new location can only extend a couple square blocks around the clinic’s current location – or its clients won’t feel comfortable.
Here is the hard reality in Central Halifax: there is a community made up of people whose lives are harder than most of imagine and who do not feel welcome as citizens of this city. The school, like in any community, was one of its pillars. Now it’s closed, in part because, no matter how attractive the North End has become to people with greater means, very few of them enrol their children in the neighborhood’s public schools.
But the buildings are still there and they represent an opportunity that should not be missed.
The North End Community Health Centre worked on its proposal for St. Pat’s-Alexandra in cooperation with the M’ikmaw Native Friendship Centre. Why does the Friendship Centre need a new space? A memorable story on-line at the Halifax Media Coop describes how childcare workers at the Centre’s daycare try to shield their charges from smoking and violence that sometimes happens right outside their window or in the backyard adjacent to the outside play area. How’s that for a reason?
Two new condo developments have already gone up one block south of the native friendship centre and the North End Community Health Centre. There will be more. If and when that finally brings a grocery store to the neighborhood, that will finally be a good spin-off for long-time residents. But in the meantime, these crucial community institutions need some space to continue and develop their good work.
The third non-profit group that submitted a proposal is the Richard Preston Centre for Excellence, spearheaded by Reverend Rhonda Britton. Coverage of her “outburst” at City Hall left the unfair impression that she is an angry woman. She is not. She is generous and fair and dedicated to serving the community she’s chosen to live in. She welcomes Mayor Peter Kelly to worship at the Cornwallis St. Baptist Church several times a years, and she meets with him about public safety. She wrote the mayor’s office to put it on the record that she was interested in the St. Patrick’s Alexandra site. Yet she found out about the request for proposals, by chance and through word of mouth, just twelve days before the deadline.
She’s at a loss to explain that. So am I. I think both the mayor and councillor Dawn Sloane let down the community and handicapped them further in a process that already, by its nature was biased towards for profit developers. 20% of the final score was based, after all, on the financial offer for the property.
Joe Metlege, the developer who was awarded the property, seems like an entirely reasonable guy. He was interested in working with a not-for-profit group from the get-go. Now, though, he says he’s in a bind. He made an offer based on market value and he can’t afford to subsidize even the non-profit daycare that currently uses part of the space in the St. Patrick’s Boy School, unless Halifax Regional Municipality cuts him a break on taxes or his offer for the property.
Mayor and council should do that, and should figure out a way to turn back the clock and reinvent this process. The non-profit groups do represent the community’s interests. The developer would like to work with them. It is a large site. (More than one thing could happen there – look at what all is now planned for the Bloomfield School site.) But 5-10 percent affordable housing units within a condo building and a similar portion of office space available at below market rent is not meaningful to the current residents who consider St. Patrick’s Alexandra part of their community.
Lisa Roberts is a freelance journalist, formerly a staffer at CBC Radio's Information Morning, who follows municipal politics in Halifax. She got her start in current affairs radio at CKDU from 1993-95. She's lived north of North Street since 2003. Follow her @lisa_robe on Twitter.