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Halifax rolls out $16.6m for streetscaping, but wheels turn slowly

A pair of popular downtown Halifax streets will be getting long-awaited facelifts. Regional council approved Tuesday $16.6 million in streetscaping projects for Argyle and Grafton streets as well as for Spring Garden Road, discussion of which goes back several years.
Esthetic improvements for Spring Garden Road, including burying power and telecommunications lines, are slated for 2020. (TED PRITCHARD / Local Xpress)

A pair of popular downtown Halifax streets will be getting long-awaited facelifts.

Regional council approved Tuesday $16.6 million in streetscaping projects for Argyle and Grafton streets as well as for Spring Garden Road, discussion of which goes back several years.

“It’s about time. We’ve been talking about this since this became an acute enough problem in 2009-10 that it was in the economic plan,” Coun. Waye Mason (Halifax South Downtown) said at the beginning of council debate.

Jacob Ritchie, urban design manager at Halifax Regional Municipality, said a tender for construction will go out in July with work beginning on a portion of Argyle sometime in the fall.

The $6.6-million project, which was designed by Ekistics Plan + Design, would incorporate Argyle between Blowers and Prince streets and Grafton between Prince and Carmichael.

Barrier curbs would be removed, and the project could include decorative lighting, street furniture, trees, public art, planters, and possibly overhead canopies, all with a view of encouraging people to congregate in the area.

The Spring Garden Road part of the project, between Queen Street and South Park Street, is estimated to cost $10.1 million, and would include placing overhead communications and power infrastructure underground, wider sidewalks, decorative streetlights, and trees.

Work on the Argyle streetscape will be timed to coincide with the conclusion of work on the Nova Centre, while Spring Garden Road is several years away.

“A little disappointed there was no discussion about moving up the timeline on the streetscaping. From what I hear we’re looking at about 2020, so that’s still a few years out yet,” Juanita Spencer, executive director with the Spring Garden Area Business Association, told reporters following the council vote.

In the interim, however, Spencer said she’d like to see minor work done this summer to move bus stops and on-street parking between the Public Gardens and the Central Library to improve traffic flow on Spring Garden Road.

“We certainly are going to continue to push for that,” she said. “We recognize that perhaps the money isn’t there quite yet for the full streetscaping. We would like to see council perhaps look at other alternatives for accessing funding before 2020.”

The final design won’t be known until the summer, but there is concern about what effect the work will have on area businesses, though regional council will likely approve new construction mitigation measures in May.

“Some of the comments and questions that have come up over that is: will the city hold themselves to the same standard as private developers will be asked to?  and I think the answer is clearly going to be yes,” Paul MacKinnon, executive director of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, told reporters. 

Ritchie told council that they will try to schedule the work when it will have the least impact for businesses.

“We’re being quite proactive in speaking with all these stakeholders to understand their schedules,” he said.

“So we are trying to be intelligent in putting the construction in the right places at the right time so as not to disrupt the fall schedule for Neptune, is certainly the biggest concern.”

Mason said similar projects should be planned for in the future, including on Ochterloney Street and King Street in Dartmouth and Agricola Street and Gottingen in Halifax.

“We should always be putting money aside to invest in the major corridors in downtown,” he said. “This isn’t a one-off thing; we need to be doing this all the time in all these major commercial areas.”

But the urban-rural divide that periodically manifests itself on council surfaced again, with some councillors wondering when money would be put aside for corridors in their districts.

But Coun. Steve Craig (Lower Sackville) said it’s important to take the long view with these projects.

“This is the type of initiative that takes us a notch above some other locations,” Craig said. “Do I get jealous? Yeah, I get jealous. Absolutely. We’ve spent a hell of a lot of money, we’re doing the Centre Plan (but) as a regional councillor, I’m an HRM councillor, I support these initiatives and I’m waiting for our time in other districts.”

Other councillors asked what can be done about aggressive panhandlers on Spring Garden Road, who they said have driven away a lot of people from the area.

Coun. Matt Whitman (Hammonds Plains-St. Margarets) called it the “elephant in the room” and he has heard many complaints about the issue.

“I think in conjunction with the streetscaping …. what can be done, if anything, to minimize the impact of the aggressive panhandlers?” Coun. Stephen Adams (Spryfield-Sambro Loop-Prospect Road) asked. “I think individuals are fine with those who are standing by as you pass them, but when they start chasing into stores, I think it’s a little much.”

Mayor Mike Savage said work is being done to help people and businesses on the street.

“I have no interest in criminalizing poverty, but I also have seen an issue that has to be dealt with, which is aggressive panhandling that goes above and beyond what I would consider to be acceptable,” he said.

Mason suggested that rather than give money to panhandlers, people donate to charities instead, and he has been working with Spencer on several initiatives.

“That is something we would like to encourage people to give elsewhere, and that’s something that the association is going to be rolling out in the next couple of months, a campaign to try and help people connect with some of the organizations that work with street-involved people,” Spencer said.

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