A Newfoundland developer has cancelled its downtown Halifax hotel project following council’s concerns with a plan for an “Aboriginal” art gallery, but it says COVID-19 is to blame.
Steele Hotels was proposing a new 12-storey JAG-branded hotel on Brunswick Street at Gottingen Street — a “very high-end brand,” with “VIP suites,” and valet parking.
As the Halifax Examiner reported in June:
The proposal is about two storeys taller than allowed by the downtown land-use bylaw without the developer providing a “public benefit.” To get permission for that extra height, the developer has to come to a density bonus agreement with the city — a trade of a public benefit for extra density.
That’s worth $114,000 in this case, and the proposed agreement went to Halifax regional council last week.
The developer has proposed “a dedicated public Aboriginal Visual and Performing Arts Gallery” as its public benefit. It values the gallery at $121,000.
“With the cost of the art acquisitions, the construction, on-going use, a dedicated coordinatior[sic]/manager and public engagement events within[,] the provided salon will certainly bring added benefit to the Aboriginal Arts community,” reads an attachment to the staff report to council.
The gallery will display “selected pieces from the new, and up and coming, aboriginal artists,” the report said.
A rendering in the report shows people in a gallery hung with generic art, photos of Indigenous people performing in regalia, and a photo of Buffy Sainte-Marie apparently ripped from thecanadianencyclopedia.ca via Flickr.
Councillors deferred a vote on the density bonusing agreement because they didn’t think the developer had actually talked to any Indigenous people about the proposal.
“One of the things that was a real red flag as I read it is it’s talking about an Aboriginal art gallery, which is a word used to describe First Nations people and Indigenous people that simply has fallen out of favour the last 10 or 15 years,” Coun. Waye Mason said during the meeting.
“That led me to wonder whether or not the proponents had actually talked to anybody in the First Nations community here in Halifax or whether they have the support. And I know from talking to some folks in that community, who lead some of the leading organizations in Halifax, that they have not have any communication about it.”
Pam Glode-Desrochers, executive director of the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre in Halifax, said she wasn’t aware of any consultation, and just talking to a few Indigenous people wouldn’t have been enough anyway.
“I don’t believe that non-Indigenous organizations should be telling our story. I think that needs to come from community. It’s been generations that other people have been telling our story and it’s time for us to tell our own story. I’m not sure putting a floor or two in a hotel is productive,” Glode-Desrochers said.
“If they’re the ones telling the story, maybe it’s not the story that needs to be told.”
An information report tabled at Halifax regional council on Tuesday says “the applicant for this proposal has cancelled their application to construct the hotel.”
An email from project architect Ron Fougere attached to the report offers few details:
Please be advised that a decision has been made by the JAG owner to not proceed with the above referenced project, due to the impact the Covid Pandemic has placed on the project.
We wish to thank you and all City of Halifax personal for all your / their assistance and support in the design and permit acquisition process.
If Steele Hotels wants to revive the project, it will have to restart the permitting process, which included an approval from the city’s design review committee last year.