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Op-Ed: Now they all want to live here, and she’s supposed to go – by Lisa Roberts

“For years, no one wanted to live in this community.  Now they all want to live here.”

That’s what one older black woman had to say at the end of a community meeting held in Cornwallis Street Baptist Church on Saturday.

The unstated corollary: And so she’s supposed to go.

That is how embattled some people are feeling in the neighbourhood around St. Patrick’s Alexandra school.

And, after reading Halifax Regional Municipality’s staff report on the process that led to the St. Patrick’s Alexandra school site being awarded to Jono Developments on December 13, 2011, I don’t blame her.

That decision was rescinded – or put on “pause” as Peter Kelly reportedly put it – at the end of a marathon council meeting on January 10.

Clearly, the powers-that-be want badly to push play tomorrow night.

staff report to council finds that policy and procedures for the disposal of surplus schools, adopted in September 2000, were not followed.  Under that policy, all community groups are advised to submit a written proposal – including a business plan for the first five years – within 90 days. Then, “[a]ny submission that is deemed feasible and meets HRM’s fiscal goals for the accommodation of community programs shall be carried forward as a recommendation to Executive Management and council.”

There is no question that the coalition of North End community groups – now expanded to eight members, including three that own property and one – the Halifax Community Investment Fund – which manages a $1 million fund with a mandate to serve this same community, can put forward a feasible proposal.

And so, through convolutions worthy of a Twister game, HRM staff managed to lay out four separate options for how to proceed, not one of which entails actually keeping and following the 2000 policy.

Councillors Dawn Sloane and Jennifer Watts promised Saturday to bring forward a motion at council offering a fifth alternative: to give the community the time and space to make their pitch for the site.

The debate will be framed (falsely, as Tim Bousquet argues here) as a choice between developing a low-income, inner-city neighbourhood, or offering a handout to community groups.   In fact, letting the community groups take over the school site would allow for redevelopment in the neighbourhood.  Both the M’ikmaw Native Friendship Centre and the North End Community Health Centre (NECHC) will “dispose of their properties on Gottingen Street when the school becomes available,” the groups say in a letter to the Mayor and council.

In an interview last fall, the NECHC executive director Jane Moloney said she felt a “squeeze to get all of the service providers off the street.”   Further, she said, “We’re not against that at all.”

Moving the NECHC’s operation to the St. Patrick’s Alexandra site, where it could share space with other community agencies that cater to a low-income, high needs population would open up space for new mixed residential and commercial development where it makes sense: on high-traffic Gottingen Street.

That’s one reason why commercial interests, represented by Bernard Smith of the North End Business Improvement District, are supporting the community bid to take over the former school.  (Smith also has his heart in the right place; as Halifax City treasurer, he was instrumental in the then-North End Clinic acquiring a mortgage for its property at 2165 Gottingen St. decades ago.)

Smith spoke up at the community meeting on Saturday after Councillor Dawn Sloane floated her understanding that – assuming that the community coalition gets its chance to put forward a proposal – council would expect “fair market value” for the property.

“The school was an investment in the community,” he said.

His point, well-taken, is that it is not just to penalize the community because that investment has appreciated in value.

The HRM staff report, which outlines the costs of operating the building, suggests, says Jane Moloney, that the community groups have no resources.

“It’s insulting,” Moloney said Saturday.

The NECHC has been operating in the black for 40 years, offering an ever-expanding array of services and programs by creatively managing its resources.  As part of their own proposal for the site, they showed that they could move to St. Patrick’s Alexandra without incurring extra costs.

The community groups are not sharing their business plan, which is their prerogative.  My guess, though, is that not-for-profits are not likely to pay fair market value for a 3.85 acre site a scant kilometre from downtown Halifax.  It is appraised at $4.3 million dollars.

Jono Developments, which has to complete its Fenwick Tower redevelopment and then, hopefully, dust off plans for a 20-story tower at the corner of Brunswick and Cogswell where there’s been a parking lot since early 2009, no doubt offered somewhere in that vicinity, however – a tidy contribution to HRM’s Sale of Land reserve fund, which “is aligned with the municipal capital and services priorities.”

The priority of many on council, the Mayor in particular, is building a stadium.

An empty lot or a parking lot will get HRM closer to that goal than new development on Gottingen Street and a vibrant community centre at St. Patrick’s Alexandra school.

Disclosure: I have tossed off my “objective journalist” hat on this issue.  Councillor Jennifer Watts suggested Saturday that residents contact councillors directly at their email addresses (start looking here http://halifax.ca/districts/index.html ) to ask that council go to step 7 a) of the 2000 policy and ask community groups to submit a proposal.

Lisa Roberts is a long-time journalist in the process of becoming more of a citizen. Follow her @lisa_robe or see lisaroberts.ca

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