The people working to build affordable and seniors’ housing next to the old Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children are worried the municipality is unilaterally imposing delays on the project.
But no matter the current planning dispute, those involved, and even a city councillor, believe the history of the property’s zoning reflects Halifax’s deep-rooted systemic racism toward African Nova Scotians — adding to the painful history of the site that the proponents now seek to overcome.
A report to council on the proposal in 2018 starts by acknowledging the history of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children:
The history and legacy of the NSHCC impacts the lives of many today, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. It is, therefore, important to acknowledge this history as development plans are explored and the most appropriate and transformative use of the property is determined.
The home, now referred to as the old home, opened in 1921 to educate and care for Black children who, due to the segregationist policies of the day, weren’t welcome in white orphanages. Later, the home added a school and eventually opened up to white and Indigenous children.
In the 1990s, former residents launched a lawsuit over decades of physical, mental and sexual abuse at the old home.
The lawsuit was settled, and in 2014, Premier Stephen McNeil apologized to former residents of the home:
Some of you faced horrific abuse that no child should ever experience. You deserved a better standard of care. For the trauma and neglect you endured, and their lingering effects on you and your loved ones, we are truly sorry.
In 2015, McNeil launched a public inquiry, with the final report tabled last November.
Heritage zone, seniors housing, affordable housing planned
Akoma Family Centre was created in 2011 as a home for kids under the care of the department of community services, and in 2016 its mandate shifted to care for kids between the ages of three and 13 with behavioural and developmental needs.
Established in 2014, Akoma Holdings took possession of the land owned by the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. It says it’s the largest Black landowner organization in Canada.
Akoma Holdings is proposing to transform its 320-acre property, located along Highway 7 where Westphal meets Cherry Brook.
The first stage of the project will see the old home building renovated and turned into a heritage zone to recognize the site’s history.
The second phase is a two- or three-storey seniors home on the property and the third phase includes an affordable mixed-use residential and commercial building, a new children’s centre, townhouse units and eight single-family homes.
“All in all, we want to basically change the land. There’s no point in having it just sitting there, not doing anything with it,” says Spencer Colley, a member of Akoma’s board.
Seniors originally from the area he describes as the Preston Townships — North and East Preston and Cherry Brook — are living in the city and want to return to their roots, Colley says, and others stayed around home and want to age in their community.
“There’s a lot of seniors living in areas now where they’d rather be back and be part of the community where they come from. It would really make a big difference for them,” Colley says.
“We want to help everybody, we want to make a difference.”
It’s a slight shift from the original plan submitted to the municipality in 2018, which envisioned more single-unit housing closer to Highway 7, with the seniors complex tucked behind it.
The project is designed to respond to the community’s wants and needs, Colley says.
“It’s going to come in, the way I see it, as something that’s going to fit right into the community. That’s the way we want to do it. We don’t want it to be something that’s going to be too much for the community,” he says.
“We don’t want to overbuild anything that’s not suitable for the community.”
David Harrison, the planner working on the project for Akoma, says the type of housing proposed is a direct response to a housing needs assessment that showed a need for seniors housing and affordable housing.
With the Black Cultural Centre across the street, Colley says the Black community is in favour of the project.
“With what we’re doing, we’ve touched base with all of the Black communities and Black organizations. They’re all behind that. They want to see it happen,” he said.
But it’s not just for the Black community, Colley says.
“What we’re trying to do, we’re not just trying to do it for the Black community,” he says. “We’re not turning down anybody to say, this is just a Black thing. It’s multicultural, it’s out there, and we want to work with everybody and invite everybody.”
Zoning means the project requires policy changes
A mix of zoning and service boundaries regulates what can — and what can’t — be done on Akoma’s property.
The properties that make up the stretch nearest the road are zoned C4, R1, and P2 — meaning “Highway Commercial,” “Community Facility,” and “Single Unit Dwelling.” But the vast majority of Akoma’s land is zoned UR — “Urban reserve.”
The urban reserve designation was applied to properties throughout the municipality to protect them from subdivision or multi-unit development in the near-term. Although it’s surrounded by residential subdivisions, that zoning was applied to the Akoma property back in 2006.
That means the municipal planning strategy needs to be amended to allow the project. Halifax regional council voted to initiate that process in October 2018, “to allow the appropriate adaptive re-use of the lands containing and surrounding the former Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children.”
Harrison wants the municipality to use what’s called a comprehensive development district to govern the project — a mechanism in the municipal planning strategy that would allow flexibility with timelines and types of buildings.
Each phase of the project, starting with the renovations to the old home and then the seniors home, would require its own development agreement. That could happen within the municipal planning strategy, Harrison says.
The other issue is the service boundaries for the area.
The water service boundary — the area where properties can hook into the water main — skirts the front of the property, including the areas zoned CR, R1 and P2, but not the portion zoned urban reserve.
In fact, the water service boundary appears to encircle the rest of the property.
The entire property falls outside Halifax Water’s wastewater boundary, meaning the sewer line doesn’t extend that far down Highway 7.
None of this is an immediate problem for Akoma. Harrison believes they’ll be able to tie into the water lines for the housing, and while it’s more difficult than tying into an existing sewer line, they’re planning a private septic system to handle wastewater.
But Harrison finds the service boundary perplexing:
I don’t understand it. I think it’s time to look at planning and servicing policy for this community in a different light and use a human rights lens on it. You’ll have to form your own opinion here on the restrictions set in place on the property and what that’s for. If it’s a general thing that happens everywhere to control sprawl, as a planner I understand that, but that’s not what’s being proposed here. I don’t think you can hold hard and fast to these lines that have been drawn, 14-15 years ago now. Things have changed. The population is older, we’re a lot more sensitive, especially these days, to questions of human rights and I think the policies need a different lens put on them.
At least one city councillor feels the same way.
At a Halifax regional council meeting in July, Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard gave a presentation on anti-Black racism, appealing to councillors to use their positions to take action.
Coun. David Hendsbee, who’s also on Akoma’s board, spoke in response:
I said it in the past in the regional plan, I said putting the urban reserve on the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children property, now Akoma Holdings, was discriminatory. I said that then and I still say it today. We need to change that plan.
Hendsbee argued the city should widen the highway in the area to allow safer access, extend the water service and extend the sewer service to allow more potential for development.
“They’re using too much of the land on on-site septic systems, which is losing the value of their property,” Hendsbee said.
“Those are three quick things that we can do in regards to helping Akoma Holdings advance that property because Main Street is the gateway to the Eastern Shore but it’s also the gateway to the greater Preston township, and also, any development along that main corridor will help everyone.”
Coun. Lorelei Nicoll, whose district includes the Akoma lands, said she heard from people in the Black community that there was a lack of engagement on zoning for the land: “I heard from some of the people in the Black community saying, where were you to engage us as far as wanting to see our land developed?”
Nicoll sees it as a confluence of issues, pointing to things like the deed issue in the Prestons.
“You can’t sort of pinpoint what the issue was, but at the end of the day, there is some inequality there as to how the decision making was made,” she said.
Akoma worried regional plan review will delay development
While Colley and Harrison would like to see the policies changed, they don’t believe that should hold up their proposal.
They’re worried that’s going to happen because the municipal planning department has added the land to a review of the regional plan. That means city planners are taking a second look at the urban reserve zoning as part of a periodic review of the regional plan. But Akoma never asked for that.
“We are frustrated with what we see that council has asked that the municipal plan or the MPS be amended, and what we perceive from the planning department is sort of an overemphasis on the regional plan,” Harrison says. “And when you look at the regional plan, and you’ve seen those maps too, I just think it’s hurting the Black community here. I don’t think it’s helping it at all.”
Harrison believes the regional plan policies around the land are “highly punitive to the Black community,” but he doesn’t believe changing that should hold up this project.
“The need is immediate,” he says.
“If staff want to recommend extending the sewer line, that’s fine and that and that alone should be the discussion under the regional plan. But as for the rest of it, it can be accommodated on the site, it’s referenced to the housing needs, and we know it can be well managed and well serviced without impacting the environment, and respecting the community’s needs and the heritage.”
“We cannot hold up this community any longer, in my view. It’s been well-documented, that the issues around Black Nova Scotia, no matter where you look, housing is a pretty important piece of the puzzle.”
Colley agrees the policies have to change, but it can’t hold up the plans.
“We’ve been neglected so much for so long. Now that we want to do something to make a difference, we have what we need to do it, we just need the plan to change to get us in the kitchen so we can get along and we can get work done,” he said.
“We can’t jeopardize the whole project just by the way it’s zoned. It has to change.”
City says regional plan review won’t delay plans
Stephanie Salloum is the Halifax Regional Municipality planner on the file, and while she acknowledges that Akoma didn’t ask for the land to be added to the regional plan review, she doesn’t believe it will delay the process.
“It was staff’s recommendation that a portion of the proposal be considered through the site specific planning application and that the longer term goals be considered through the regional plan review program,” Salloum says.
“It recognized that Akoma had longer-term or a larger proposal for the property but recommended that only be the immediate goals be considered through that site-specific application and the remainder be considered through the regional plan review program.”
The regional plan review is expected to take two years, Salloum says, and that only covers the later phases of Akoma’s proposal — things like recreation space.
As for the original rationale for the zoning, Salloum said there was nothing planned at the time.
“It’s based on these studies that were done before, and there was no immediate plans at the time for development,” she said.
Salloum said the planning department is in the final stages of reviewing the proposal, and then she’ll be meeting with community groups to decide what kind of public consultation is necessary. That will inform the rest of the timeline, she said.
Akoma is hoping to get approval for the comprehensive development district and the first two phases — the old home and the seniors home — by December. The goal is to reopen the old home in time for its 100th anniversary in June 2021.
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