Concerns about a lack of recent public consultation gave councillors pause, but weren’t enough for them to recommend a stop to the Halifax Common Master Plan.
The plan is a proposed redesign of the Halifax Common, removing some baseball diamonds and adding features like trees, seating, and a trellis. It envisions concerts on the Common, using the oval area, and includes the new pool approved last year. Stretching south, there are some landscaping and pathway changes to the block around the Wanderers Grounds, to the Camp Hill Cemetery, and Victoria Park.
At a virtual meeting of council’s Community Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee on Thursday, councillors debated the plan for the second time. In December, the committee voted to defer a vote because of concerns from the Halifax Junior Bengal Lancers, located in what the plan calls the Wanderers Block, between Summer Street and Bell Road. As the Halifax Examiner reported at the time:
Canada’s only urban not-for-profit equestrian school was established in downtown Halifax in 1936. It offers junior and adult lesson programs, and since the 1960s has also provided a therapeutic riding program.
… the Halifax Lancers said as an organization committed to accessibility and inclusion, members were “gravely concerned” about the proposed redesign of their space under the Halifax Common Master Plan.
Tamzen Black addressed the standing committee on Wednesday afternoon, speaking on behalf of the Lancers. She said the plan as presented “remains flawed” for several reasons and jeopardizes the Lancers’ operations.
Among the issues, Black said accessibility of their only entrance has been removed, impacting all programming for people with disabilities. The plan also doesn’t provide adequate space for an 18-wheeler to bring in shavings, hay, and weekly manure remove, nor does it allow space to load and unload trailers for horse transportation
The staff report accompanying the plan said “the Wanderers Block should be the subject of a more detailed plan to consider various redevelopment opportunities,” and staff said that means there will be further consultation on the details.
Angie Holt, executive director and head coach, told the committee on Thursday the Lancers still aren’t satisfied.
“It is not the lack of detail that we are concerned with. We understand further detailed planning is needed,” Holt said. “It’s the details as presented that we have a problem with because they appear to be to the detriment of our organization and they also take away any possibility for growth of Lancers as we have been discussing with city staff for the past four years.”
The committee also received 59 letters, and heard from three other speakers, Howard Epstein, Beverly Miller, and David Garrett, all members of Friends of the Halifax Common. They urged the committee to suspend the process until the public is consulted.
According to the staff report, the municipality consulted with 3,000 people through public meetings, workshops, online surveys, and focus groups. But that was in 2019.
“Here we have a document that the public hasn’t seen for about two years, and since the last time, its last iteration, it in fact has changed and the circumstances have changed quite a bit,” Epstein said. “There would be inherent value, I believe, in actually moving to a round of public consultations in which the public did get the opportunity to comment further.”
Some of the councillors on the committee, like Coun. Patty Cuttell, were sympathetic to those concerns.
“I think the engagement process leading up to this plan is good, but […] COVID has interrupted that and I think that we need to put some effort into kind of getting everybody back on track to move forward,” Cuttell said.
“In terms of best practice, has an acceptable threshold been met? I think because public hasn’t been presented with this final plan in a public venue, that that threshold hasn’t been met.”
Coun. Lindell Smith said he’d prefer to approve the plan, and then “go to the public through surveys or online meetings to get feedback because there’s still work that needs to be done to get to a final place.”
Coun. Sam Austin said the consultation conducted before the plan, along with the extra time for feedback after December’s meeting, was enough.
“There’s always an argument to go back for more consultation, and there’s nothing ever that we do that has 100% unanimous support,” Austin said.
Coun. Waye Mason said he was happy with the consultation, but expressed concern about not having a final, consolidated plan, including whatever comes from further consultation on the Wanderers Block.
After considering an alternative motion to go back for more public consultation, the committee voted in favour of an amendment to the staff recommendation.
The amendment calls for a supplementary report on further consultation, a timeline for consultation on the Wanderers Block, and directs staff to prepare a final consolidated report for council’s approval after those processes are complete.
The amended motion, which recommends regional council adopt the plan, passed with Cuttell and Coun. Trish Purdy, chair of the committee, voting no.