Councillors are moving ahead with plans to rehabilitate the dilapidated Halifax Forum.
But they’ll have to figure out how to maintain the property’s heritage designation and provide sufficient parking later.
Municipal parks and recreation staff brought an update on the plan for the old rink and multi-purpose centre, constructed in 1926, to council on Tuesday. The plan hasn’t really changed since 2019, when council voted in favour of a proposal to redevelop the building while maintaining its brick façade. The municipality would also add park space to the south of the building and remove much of the onsite parking.
Since council last considered the project in 2021, municipal staff conducted surveys on the redevelopment, parking, and park space. They found that people are generally supportive of the redevelopment and added park space, but they’re split on the removal of parking.
Gareth Evans, recreation planning specialist, told council on Tuesday that the results of the public consultation didn’t change the plan.
The rough cost estimate has changed, however, from $81 million in 2021 to $110 million in 2023.
Some councillors balked at the price tag, and suggested removing the property from the municipal heritage registry to lower the figure. That could save $5 million to $10 million, Evans told council.
“I challenge the heritage status on it,” Coun. Tony Mancini said.
“I think we owe it to the citizens of HRM to have the conversation about deregistering.”
Coun. Lindell Smith, whose district includes the Forum, disagreed. He argued there’d be a reputation hit to HRM, and potentially a legal challenge. There’d also be costs associated a new design, he argued.
“It’s very, very concerning if we were to go down that de-registration route because it actually isn’t saving us money. It’s going to cost us more money in the long run, that’s my feeling,” Smith said.
Community association chair wants more parking
Paul Card, chair of the Halifax Forum Community Association, said he was “shocked” by the heritage discussion.
“I can’t believe council would deregister one of their own historic buildings, and then turn around and have a conversation with a developer that they can’t deregister a building because it’s costly,” Card told the Halifax Examiner in an interview.
Card said the municipality keeps punting the issue years ahead, noting this is the fourth council to discuss the rehabilitation of the Forum since a report recommended an enhanced building in 2008. That’s part of why the cost has ballooned so high.
“We’re at the point where it’s at the end of its life and it needs to be addressed,” he said.
Card said the proposal is almost ideal, but his big concern is parking. The association wants to see at least 270 spots on the site. There are about 500 now, and it’s sometimes over capacity, he said. With the potential for three events to happen at the Forum at the same time, Card said there should be 90 spots per event. The current proposal includes 150 spots in total.
The municipality contemplated more parking in a previous iteration, but ditched a multi-level garage on the Young Street side of the site. That’s because staff want to sell off that portion of the property to a developer to recoup some of the cost of the project.
Card suggested a portion of that property could be used to add more parking.
Councillors, especially those from suburban and rural districts, agreed the Forum would need more parking.
Parking and heritage concerns put off
Late into council’s debate on Tuesday, solutions to both the heritage and parking issues emerged, at least for now.
Aaron Murnaghan, principal heritage planner, explained to councillors that they have the decision-making power to approve substantial alterations to heritage properties. Chief solicitor John Traves agreed that means council can approve any change to a property, including demolition, and maintain its heritage status.
Deregistering the property, which Murnaghan said would be a months-long process culminating in a public hearing, was unnecessary.
On the parking issue, chief administrative officer Cathie O’Toole suggested to councillors that they vote down the third part of the motion before them. That would’ve directed staff to sell off the piece of land to the north of the building. Instead, she suggested HRM hold onto it until the project is complete and they’ve figured out the parking situation.
“We will be selling some land,” Mayor Mike Savage said in summary. “We’re just going to figure out the most economical and sensible, effective way of doing that first.”
“We will be figuring out how the facility will be sited, addressing the parking issue, and then determining what portion of land remains available for sale,” O’Toole said.
Council followed that direction. The first two parts of the motion, “to advance detailed site and facility planning and design for the Halifax Forum complex redevelopment project” and “allocate strategic initiatives capital funds,” passed with Mancini and Coun. Trish Purdy voting no. The third part failed unanimously.
Staff will return to council before the design is finalized and the project goes to tender.