Milena Khazanavicius is exhausted.

After years of fighting for safer sidewalks for blind and partially-sighted people, Khazanavicius has seen a significant setback in progress during the pandemic. And just a few days after making a presentation to the city’s Transportation Standing Committee on the myriad issues with Halifax’s intersection accessibility, she ran “smack dab” into the problem.

Khazanavicius, who is blind, went for a walk in her west end neighbourhood on Sunday morning with her guide dog Louis. Walking on the west side of Oxford Street heading south, she and Louis came to the corner of Oxford and North streets.

Milena Khazanavicius and her guide dog, Louis. Photo: Contributed

“And at the corner of North Street, I turned left,” Khazanavicius said in an interview.

Khazanavicius waited until traffic was moving parallel, and then gave Louis the command to cross the street.

“We go forward, we cross Oxford, smack dab into the fence,” Khazanavicius said. “That fence is taking up the entire sidewalk, including the curb.”

Louis wanted to turn around, but Khazanavicius kept moving forward, feeling the fence along North Street hoping there’d be somewhere for them to get up onto the sidewalk.

Khazanavicius was left with no place to go, stranded in a busy intersection — not “freaking out,” but “highly concerned.”

Fencing around 6399 North St. blocked the entire sidewalk at the corner of North and Oxford streets on Sunday morning. — Photo: James Ross Credit: James Ross

A man stopped his vehicle, told Khazanavicius there was nowhere to get onto that curb, and told her when it was clear to cross North Street to the south side.

This is an issue Khazanavicius has specifically addressed with city staff in the past, and she said she worked with the municipality to come to an agreement that there needs to be a safety landing pad — a space between the fencing and the edge of the curb. And there has to be a barricade on the other side of the street so that someone who can’t see will be stopped before they cross the street.

After the incident on Sunday morning, Khazanavicius came back with a friend to make sure she didn’t make a mistake, and a sighted friend confirmed what she thought and took the photo above. She sent that photo and a description of what happened to the 311 email address and some municipal engineers she regularly talks to about these issues.

Khazanavicius wrote, in part:

I would like to know why this has been permitted first of all, and second of all I would like to make the city aware that this morning they placed mine and my guide dogs life in danger when I crossed from the North West corner of oxford and north heading East and hit a fence on both oxford and North with traffic moving close by.
There is absolutely no safe landing curb and a car had to stop mid traffic to direct us out of the line of danger!!!
I’m very angry!

One of the city engineers replied:

The site the sidewalks at the corner of Oxford and North were closed due to an emergency situation resulting from the demolition work taking place on site Friday afternoon. NS Department of Labour and HRM Building Standards were also involved in the order to have the area secured immediately. The [Construction Mitigation Plan] for site was being working on over the weekend and HRM will ensure the set-up is adjusted accordingly. This  closure is temporary and is expected to be reopened before Friday.

It’s unclear what the emergency was.

In an emailed statement to the Examiner on Monday, municipal spokesperson Maggie-Jane Spray didn’t mention it, but said Halifax “is aware of the street and sidewalk closures in the area and we are working with the developers to ensure a safe demolition site.

“The closures are in compliance with the municipality’s Development Engineering regulations,” Spray wrote.

This is the same site where the municipality pulled a demolition permit and issued a stop work order because the developer started to tear the building down before a tenant had moved out (though the developer has denied this to the Examiner in the past).

The partially-demolished building at the corner of North and Oxford streets, as seen from Seaforth Street in January, with a rendering of the new proposal attached to a tree stump. — Photo: Zane Woodford

Spray said the the city reissued the demolition permit and lifted the stop work order on March 19.

“On Monday, March 8 the municipality was informed that a decision had been made by the Director of Residential Tenancies, regarding 6399 North Street,” Spray wrote. “The decision indicated that the individual who was previously considered a tenant of the building is no longer considered as such. As a result of this outcome, the municipality’s stop work order has been lifted and the demolition permit has been reinstated.”

Crossing problems aren’t limited to one dodgy development

But Khazanavicius’s concerns aren’t just about this one incident; it’s just the latest thing to make her justifiably angry.

“I’m tired. It’s not our responsibility,” she said, referring to herself and other activists.

“We’re cleaning up HRM’s mess. We’re constantly cleaning up HRM’s mess. We don’t get paid. We pay with our mental health. And sooner or later … I’m going to end up paying with my life.”

Khazanavicius’s presentation to the Transportation Standing Committee last week, with Bernard Bessette, focused largely on the pedestrian push buttons at intersections. To sum it up, though you can watch and listen here, they’re different at every intersection. They look different, they’re placed in different positions, and a lot of the time they just don’t work.

These buttons are changing after a recent vote by the committee to require just a one second push, but currently, blind or partially-sighted pedestrians have to press those buttons for three seconds to get an audible signal. Khazanavicius and Bessette called for more inspections.

The day after Khazanavicius’s presentation, Transportation and Public Works director Brad Anguish responded to the criticisms during a meeting of council’s budget committee. Anguish called the presentation “great.” He said staff are working on some of the issues raised and have ramped up inspections, but he said that sometimes the push buttons aren’t actually broken.

“Everybody’s perception of three seconds is not the same,” Anguish said with a laugh. “And sometimes what occurs is, they think they’ve held it for three seconds, but three seconds is not 1-2-3.”

Khazanavicius listened to the meeting on Saturday, and that comment practically made her blood boil.

“Apparently because we’re blind and partially sighted we don’t know how to count in increments of seconds,” she said.

But tired as she may be, Khazanavicius is not giving up the fight. She wants Halifax to start enforcing its rules around construction mitigation and sidewalks, and she’ll keep calling, emailing and making presentations.

“I really hope this is the last time I have to contact them. I’ve got my fingers and toes crossed, but probably it won’t be,” she said.

“The battle doesn’t end. That’s fine. I am an Eastern European. We don’t quit.”

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. Just the day after I read this article I came upon a sidewalk blocked by a Jersey Barrier on Queen Street, on the west side across from the Library. If there had been a sign at the little cross-street to the south, I could’ve used the marked cross-walk that’s there. It would’ve prevented me from having to backtrack by about 100 metres or from having to cross midstreet. I’m not visually impaired, but I still found it nerve-wracking to cross not quite at a corner, where drivers wouldn’t be expecting me to be. I called it in to 311.

  2. I had a radio interview for CBC asking me about Access By Design 2030, where the province is supposed to be fully accessible to people with all kinds of disabilities by 2030. I said the biggest change needed is a shift in attitude. I think Ms. Khazanavicius’ story demonstrates this.

  3. The project on Chebucto between Beech and Elm has held our neighborhood hostage for two years now and it’s going to drag on even longer. There was absolutely no good reason to have that sidewalk completely closed… it could easily have been set up to allow safe pedestrian passage. The detour is ridiculous. If cars were forced into that level of inconvenience drivers would be howling in protest and accommodation would be made. I fear this project at North and Oxford is going to be just as bad. There has to be a better way!

  4. Couldn’t they have created a temporary sidewalk on the inside lane of traffic with pylons like I’ve seen them do many times? Not that difficult.

  5. Also there is a total sidewalk blockage on South st
    For construction of the Fenwick Tower complex.

    When we had a roof repair the city made us have a traffic control company create a passage for pedestrians in front of our building which cost around 2000 dollars. They said it was illegal to block pedestrians. But big contractors dont seem to have to do this. Why???

  6. Five years ago in downtown Halifax, I observed a visually restricted person with his guide dig cross ata corner right into a construction zone. His guide dog lead him through an opening in the fence, and was heading right towards a very deep and open excavation. I was able to get across myself and warn the gentleman in time, and assisted him and his guide dog get to safety and proceed along an unobstructed sidewalk. I immediately called 311 to report what I considered to be a serious safety violation. Two days later I received a call back and was told “we have addressed this matter with the site developer and they have replied that they feel there is more than sufficient signage to warn people not to cross the intersection at that point”. The depth of the callousness and frankly abject stupidity of that response still drops my jaw. It seems based on this report that things have not changed at all with the “developers first” mentality of city regulators. Neither Ms. Khazanavicius nor the gentleman I assisted should have to rely on the intervention of helpful strangers to keep them safe.

    1. Yes, I have called numerous times about concrete barriers making streets impassable to two-way traffic, and about hoardings blocking sightlines through intersections, and the response is always the same; stating that the developers have complied with the regulations. If following the letter of the law results in creating dangerous situations, then there is something there that needs to be changed. As it stands the developers are clearly the priority in the eyes of the city.

  7. What safe walking provision has been made for the kids going to Oxford Street School? Dangerous intersection for pedestrians at the best if times, but with no sidewalk and no other marked crossing, that corner will be a problem for the duration of demolition and construction.