Across the great divide

Planners hope the Cogswell redevelopment will restore Halifax's historic connections. Illustration: WSP

With the Cogswell interchange redevelopment, Halifax has the opportunity to literally and figuratively transform the city

It does not help Waye Mason sleep at night knowing that Halifax’s biggest public works project in recent times — involving some of the most exquisitely complicated engineering and public consultation the capital has ever witnessed — could be delayed by someone’s ill-timed trip to the toilet. 

“Those damned blue ceramic pipes,” says the councillor for Halifax South Downtown, one of HRM Council’s advocates of the $123-million Cogswell interchange redevelopment. “They’re, like, 175-year-old sewers you have to get a robot to crawl up and down to make sure nobody’s still discharging into them before you start tearing them out. It’s such a pain in the ass.” 

Not that he or any number of city councillors, planners, and community leaders are getting much sleep since the four-year project to remove the pedestrian-frustrating, brutalist blob (and replace it with parks, housing, bike lanes, and trails) officially broke ground in November. The long-awaited, much-discussed, intensively debated endeavour now loftily and literally promises to reinvent the way people think about the downtown and each other. 

Or, perhaps more precisely, restore the better angels of their civic characters. “It’s going to be transformational,” says Mason. 

The project aims to reunify the connections Halifax had before the interchange opened in 1972. “My mom used to shop on Gottingen Street, where there were great dress shops, and you could easily walk from there to Barrington Street,” says project manager Donna Davis. “We’re going to put that brick street system back in place; you’re going to be able to do that again.” 

Donna Davis

More than that, she says, the project is setting the stage for citizen involvement, especially from traditionally marginalized Black and First Nations communities. 

“This is the first municipal initiative of its kind where we are (directly) incorporating social benefits,” Davis says. “There are requirements in the contract with Dexter, for example, to develop workforce and supplier diversity plans aimed at ensuring that we have inclusion … of African Nova Scotian and the Mi’kmaw communities. There are others, such as women in construction, newcomers, people with intellectual disabilities, and LGBTQ+. We are working with representatives of all of these communities … You know, we haven’t done this before.” 

Some Black and Mi’kmaw leaders see the opportunity. 

“We’ve been here for over 400 years, and we want to be the voice of our own story for a change,” says Marcus James, co-founder of 902 Man Up, a non-profit group addressing community violence. “That’s the purpose of our involvement now as one of the seat holders at the table on this: making sure this happens, and that this sort of (engagement) becomes a part of the process in the long run, and not just a one-off.” 

Alex Paul, executive director of the Mi’kmaw Economic Benefits Office, concurs. 

“I think about all those (Mi’kmaw) communities that have existed in and around HRM that have contributed to its development, and have gone essentially unacknowledged, unrecognized,” he says. “Not everything is going to be solved by the time this project is over. But my hope is we will find ways to constantly improve our representation.” 

The Cogswell redevelopment is a poignantly resonant start. In his 2010 update of Thomas Raddall’s Warden of the North (1948), Halifax author Stephen Kimber aptly described the monstrosity as “a strangely orphaned massive concrete from-nowhere-to-nowhere downtown interchange to posterity.” It was built in 1969 as an on-ramp to an urban turnpike (think Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, but stupider) that was never built. 

Since then, the only purpose it has served has been to bifurcate the south and north ends as separate precincts, blocking commercial opportunities and exacerbating long-standing social and economic inequalities along racial and ethnic lines. 

The Cogswell interchange has become a barrier between the North End and downtown. Photo: Bruce Murray

“I was thinking about the idea of changing that whole district when I was running for office in 2012,” says HRM Mayor Mike Savage, who notes that public consultations began in 2018. 

He notes that development is changing the face of Halifax. “Look at the number of new people who are coming from around the world,” he adds. “I would also point out our recognition of First Nations … and the fact that the city has not been kind to the African Nova Scotian population, that we have had systemic racism. I think all of these are realizations that make you see things differently and say, ‘Maybe it’s time to change some of these things.’” 

They’ll change in three phases between now and 2025, according to the city’s official planning document: “The Cogswell District project will convert 16 acres (6.5 hectares) of road infrastructure into a mixed-use neighbourhood, extending the entrance of the downtown northwards and reuniting communities separated by the interchange lands.” 

The plan notes, among other improvements, reinstating the “urban street grid” to “create development blocks capable of supporting new residential and commercial environments for 2,500 people” as “high-quality, dedicated cycling lanes, multi-use trails, new parks and open spaces, a reimagined transit hub, and a significant central urban square … transform this traffic-centric area into a livable pedestrian-friendly area for people to live, work, and play.” 

It’s pricey, but not extravagant by public works standards (the 2011 Harbour Solutions sewage treatment project cost $333 million). What’s more, says the document, “the project has the potential to be primarily self-funded in the long term once construction is over and the redevelopment of the area is completed. The sale of land, utility cost sharing, and the subsequent property taxes will help off-set the front-end investment and generate long-term recurring revenue for the municipality.” 

A district energy system will deploy ambient heat recovered from the Halifax Wastewater Treatment Plant. Meanwhile, accessibility will meet the gold level standard under the Rick Hansen Foundation‘s certification program. That’s something Halifax accessibility advocate Gerry Post, who consulted directly with city planners, is happy about. 

“I used to sit on the city’s accessibility advisory committee,” he says. “I approached them about the certification, and they accepted. It’s the first project (here) that will be designated a Rick Hansen gold zone before it’s developed. And when you do that, the cost is minimal.” 

Robust planning, inclusion, diversity, livability, cost effectiveness: What could go wrong? Not even those who are intimately tied to the redevelopment ask that question with a straight face. But those on the outside looking in are happy to oblige with a few choice answers just the same. 

In 2011, Jenn Powely (an urban planner and former HRM coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre) wrote a blog post observing how the interchange isolated Gottingen Street. “Haligonians recognize the importance of getting this development right,” she wrote. 

Today, we’re still not getting it right, she says in an email to Unravel Halifax: “I think the redevelopment of Cogswell does have the opportunity to transform Halifax, but I do not think the current plan will do that. I think the current plan is really divisive. I do not think it pays attention to the working class. It wants to build grand homes and apartments but if you look at the average income of Nova Scotians (that) is very out of touch with reality. We have a housing/homelessness crisis. We should be building affordable, subsidized units not expensive homes.” 

The project needs to do more to address Halifax’s historic ills, she adds. “It should look at Indigenous claims and the damage done to the African Nova Scotian community. These ought to be the priorities of the redevelopment.” 

Access to affordable housing, especially for Black Nova Scotians and the Mi’kmaq, may be the real “blue ceramic pipe” that threatens to steal sleep from the project’s well-intentioned politicians, planners, and other advocates. If it is, it wouldn’t be the first time in Halifax’s uncomfortably recent experience. 

In a 2021 piece for the Kroeger Policy Review from Carleton University, public policy student Annabelle Linders cited a chorus of local sources (including Waye Mason’s housing update blog and the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia’s HRM Homelessness Statistics study) when she reported: “In the last year alone, the average home in Halifax increased by over $114,000. This has pushed many families who would have previously bought homes to rent, and supply shortages have led to increased rent rates.” 

Planners aim for the Cogswell project to meet the gold level standard under the Rick Hansen Certification program. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

She cites estimates that Halifax would need to build 20,000 to 25,000 new rental units in the next five years to decrease rents. 

What’s more, her sources told her: “Chronic homelessness has also increased in recent years. In April 2019, there were 106 recorded residents of Halifax experiencing chronic homelessness. That number has risen to 309 as of October 12, 2021, and peaked at 401 in August 2020.” And that number is likely to increase as the housing crisis continues. 

Kortney Dunsby, Ecology Action Centre’s sustainable cities coordinator, is concerned that the Cogswell redevelopment doesn’t expressly dedicate space to help fill this need. “I do think there is a missing commitment to affordable housing,” she says. “Elements of a complete community would be a mix of housing options. That’s something that we’ll have to see shakeout in the long run: whether or not that includes affordable housing.” 

Still, she adds, “Not everyone is going to be happy. I do think that the design is a huge improvement on what is currently exists. ‘Opportunity’ is the best way to describe this project.” 

On that, everyone agrees. 

“Of course, there are barriers,” James says. “But those barriers have been in place for years. You look at the North End in Halifax, and we look at the lack of space, at the lack of job opportunities for the African Nova Scotian community. The Cogswell project is going to take place whether we are in agreement with it or not. That’s why it’s important for us to make sure we are at the table in a community partnership with HRM having those conversations, and raising those key points.” 

What could go wrong? Mason chortles. Apart from finding some Victorian sewer pipes that drive the project sideways the way they did to the Alexander apartment complex on Bishop Street as it was going up in 2017, only just about everything. Then again, it could all go very right. 

“This is where we live,” he says. “We live in a place where when you dig down you never know what you’re going to find.” 

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