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The death of Barrington Street?

[My regularly scheduled blog post has been preempted for a special guest. There’s been a good deal of discussion on Twitter lately about the lack of development on the once thriving Barrington Street here in downtown Halifax. I had the opportunity to work two co-op terms in communications for the Downtown Halifax Business Commission (DHBC) and asked the executive director (aka @downtownpaul) for his thoughts on the matter.]

Photo credit: Matthew Stones

By Paul MacKinnon

Barrington Street. The traditional main street of the city of Halifax; the finest collection of commercial heritage buildings in English Canada; Spring Garden Road’s less-travelled sister, sits in disarray and uncertainty. Since its heyday in the 1950s and ‘60s, there has been collective and specific efforts to bring back Barrington.

Barrington Street became HRM’s first heritage conservation district, this past October. The district, first presented to Council with much fanfare in January 2006, became wrapped up as the heritage centerpiece of HRM by Design. It was approved by Council in the spring of 2009, and then by the province in the fall. Banners proclaiming the district appeared on the lamp poles, and several landlords made applications to take advantage of the grant and tax incentive offerings by the City.

But on the street, things seemed gloomy. The primary purpose of the district designation was to actually revitalize the street as a retail destination, using its best asset—the historic buildings—as a starting point. But the long delay in the district actually made landlords not want to reinvest in the facades—after all, why pay for it now, when one could wait and get 50 per cent cost-sharing? News of the closings of franchise juggernaut Tim Hortons and independent darling Peepshow Girly Boutique blared across the media before Christmas. This past week, the owners of Carsand Mosher and CD Plus have put their buildings on the market. Even in the most booming economy, retailers come and go, but the measure of an area’s vitality is how fast replacements come in. The increasing number of papered-over windows certainly seems like an indication of a depressed area.

However, is Barrington in decline, or is it, actually in the midst of a glorious turnaround? The media and the common observer would say the former. However, those in the business of commercial real estate and planning see the street on an upswing, as evidenced by market activity. In the past five years, at least eight buildings have been purchased, for good prices.

Yes, investors actually want to put their money into Barrington Street. The first of these makeovers was The Colwell Building. It is now fully occupied—home to longtime restaurants Certainly Cinnamon and Momoya on the ground floor, the innovative The Hub and the high-end Jay Wells Salon on the upper floors. A similar fate awaits the opulent Freemasons building, which is putting their finishing touches on their restoration.

The iconic Sam The Recordman and Ginger’s Tavern buildings had their plans revealed in December to great acclaim. The Roy Building and Discovery Centre, grandfathered under the old development rules, have rather more ambitious and controversial redevelopment plans. But it shows their owners’ faith in the street as well.

All indications are that the sales of CD Plus and Carsand Mosher are the result of landlords wanting to maximize the return on their long-term assets. These two properties, as well as the Green Lantern building and NFB façade were four of the key properties noted for redevelopment potential under the Historic District plan. The latter are applying for tax incentives and will see residential conversion, bringing more 24-hour life to the street.

Meanwhile, one block from Barrington Street, the new convention centre may begin construction as soon as this summer. This will have a transformative impact on Barrington. Change is coming to Barrington—of this we can be sure.

These questions remain:

  • Will Barrington truly become downtown’s secondary retail district, linked to Spring Garden with contiguous retail?
  • Will these new investors make redevelopment of their Barrington properties a priority?
  • Will HRM Council show their commitment with public realm improvements for the street, and enhance its pedestrian-priority status?
  • Will the over $1 Billion in approved surrounding development actually happen, bringing thousands of new office workers and residents to Barrington’s doorstep?

The reports of Barrington’s death may have been greatly exaggerated.

Paul MacKinnon has been the Executive Director at the DHBC since August 2002. Having earned an MBA from Dalhousie University, he now works as an advocate for urban revitalization speaking to and acting upon issues that affect citizens of the Downtown.

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