The Kyber. Photo: Halifax Examiner
The Kyber. Photo: Halifax Examiner

After a long summer break, Halifax council returns tomorrow, with the following major issues on plate:

Khyber to be sold?

There’s still no staff report specifically responding to all the comments about the proposal to sell off the Khyber. The initial staff report from July simply lists the Khyber along with scores of other more mundane “surplus property” proposals, as follows:

Khyber sale

A few weeks ago I suggested the following as background reading on this issue:

• Councillor Waye Mason’s blog post about thefuture of the Khyber.

• Joel Plaskett’s take on the Khyber as an arts incubator.

• Emily Davidson on the Khyber as the intersection of the arts, music and queer communities.

But Plaskett has followed up his Coast op-ed with an email to councillors Watts and Mason, which was also cc’ed to me. It reads:

Hi Jennifer and Waye,

I am writing you both as I believe you are sympathetic to the cause of saving the Khyber from falling into private hands.
One point raised over and over at the meeting to save the Khyber is how the 4 million dollar estimated cost for repair was determined.
Here is a link to a report on the Khyber submitted to council on August 10, 2010.
It is very long but you can refer to page 85 of the 144 page PDF (page 31 of the Feasibilty assessment) .   Here it estimates the costs of repair (including an elevator, washrooms, floor work, etc)  at $586,000 (with a contingency range of 15-25%).  Even at 25% over cost this would put the upper cost of repair in 2010 at $732,500.  I know the building has become a little more run down over another four years, but to the tune of four million dollars as per the new report no one has access to?  I would also like to know what the extent of the asbestos found is.  The fact that the city hasn’t shared the details of the current report is incredibly frustrating and suspect considering it is being voted on on Tuesday.  Could the the asbestos that was found in loose plaster be due to the building that was demolished next door?  If so, would that not be someone else’s responsibility instead of the city’s?  Without access to the new report one is left to speculate.
Here are the minutes from August 10th, 2010 is where it basically says council decided to lease to the Khyber for 3 years but not do the improvements.
It is worth noting that the city never made good on the 3 year lease promised in 2010 and kept the KAS on month to month until they were evicted.
And finally, in this report from March, 2014 containing details on the current eviction.
On page two I learned two interesting points.
#1 The city purchased the Khyber for $1 in 1988.   Good deal!
#2 “In 2013, to determine the full scope of deferred maintenance and capital requirements, HRM commissioned a building condition assessment which determined that the building requires significantly more work than previously estimated.”
Key words here are “deferred maintenance” and “significantly more”.
So we need to know how we got from a $732,500 repair bill to four million in 4 years.  Trace amounts of asbestos may be an issue but not a 3 million dollar issue.  Frankly, it seems like a scare tactic and suspicious, particularly without access to the new building condition report.
Assuming the asbestos (and lead) was the main issue for eviction, then wouldn’t a basic remediation of any airborne asbestos allow the building to be occupied again?  If the city can’t immediately step up and do the right thing as far as a bigger renovation for the Khyber goes, could they not bring the building back from eviction status with a fairly small price tag in the short term?
We are not asking for much here other than saving a designated heritage building, giving artists, musicians and community groups a great place to work and giving citizens and tourists a great place to visit.  I find it absolutely ridiculous that this conversation even has to be had.  If this sale goes through then I may never walk down Barrington Street again, which means my Discovery Centre membership was waste of money and my son will resent me until he grows up to understand that his father loved a city that didn’t love him and it broke his heart.
Any help in championing our cause to city council would be greatly appreciated on Tuesday and please feel free to forward this on to anyone who might be interested.
I’ll be on Global, CTV and Radio 96.5 tomorrow morning talking this up and drumming up support.  Feel free to call me with any questions or concerns.
Joel Plaskett
In July, I felt a clear council majority would’ve voted for selling the Khyber, but now I think it’s too close to call.


Council will likely approve all of the following tender:

ABM Integrated Solutions—$680,243.43 for “ICT Backup System Modernization.” Alarmingly, the staff report notes that the city “currently utilizes a 6 year old tape-based backup solution that fails on a regular basis….When the current system was implemented, 15 tapes per week were required. Today, ICT’s backup processes require 80 tapes per week.” For you youngsters, “tapes” refer to an ancient method of recording sound and computer data, invented soon after the Sumerians abandoned the use of cuneiforms.

Halifax Water governance

This issue comes forward thanks to councillor Steve Craig.

Halifax Water is entirely owned by the city, but council has no direct authority over the agency. Instead is is quasi-independent, with rates and other issues regulated by the provincial Utility and Review Board. This hands-off arrangement is by design—councillors didn’t want to pay a political price for increasing rates. When council finally got around to creating a sewage treatment system for the older parts of the urban area, there was a certainty that residents would see huge increases in waste water rates, and so in 2007 council also shifted the sewage system to Halifax Water’s control. In fact, sewage rates will likely soar in coming years as new federal environmental regulation require billions of dollars for upgrading of the entire system.

But this distancing of Halifax Water from council creates many odd paradoxes. As the staff report points out, council appoints four of the seven board members of Halifax Water (three councillors and the mayor), but once those board members are appointed, their fiduciary duty lies with Halifax Water, not with council. I can’t think of many situations where the owner of a company has no control over what that company does (there are some blind trusts for politicians, but that’s a different matter).

Making the situation even weirder, while the UARB determines rates and policies, council determines the service districts. While council has no control over Halifax Water finances, the city’s auditor general, who is a council employee, has the subpoena power to examine Halifax Water’s books.

There’s a lot of bureaucratic stuff I won’t bore you with in the staff report, but I found this part interesting:

The transfer agreement for wastewater and storm water contemplated a Service Level Agreement be created to document the interactions between the two organizations. Work on this was proceeding up until 2010 when changes in personnel caused it to be put on hold. 

I have no idea what “changes in personnel” happened in 2010, unless we’re talking about former CAO’s Dan English’s retirement. But Carl Yates has been head of Halifax Water forever, so why should English’s retirement derail the process? The  really fun “changes in personnel” came in 2011, when their respective roles in the concert scandal forced Interim CAO Wayne Anstey to retire, and city finance director Cathie O’Toole to move over to the less-politicized (she thought!) Halifax Water.

Anyway, there’s nothing hugely wrong with where this is going, but I do find the repeated suggestion that public boards be “competence-based” disconcerting. The entire point of having civilians and politicians on public boards is that the professional managerial class can, and does, go off the rails, and having outsiders looking in serves an important public function.

I’ll use this discussion to bang another drum of mine: public meetings. Halifax Water is a public agency, and yet its board meetings are closed to the public. I’ve repeatedly asked councillor Craig why reporters are banned from Halifax Water meetings (and Trade Centre Limited meetings as well—Craig sits on both bodies). To his credit, he takes the question seriously, but neither he nor I has gotten a satisfactory response.

I’m getting to the point where I’m going to force that question somehow. Stay tuned.

Active Transportation

The city plugs along on the active transportation front, with the Active Transportation Committee trying to push things a little further. Among other things, the committee is recommending that the city adopt a five-year target of creating 24 kilometres of bicycle lanes in the city core, including three both/south connectors and two east/west connectors.

The Active Transportation staff report, incidentally, is not accessible on the city’s web site. It’s merely a scanned pdf file, not readable by software used by people with visual disabilities. My own site isn’t up to par on this front yet (although it’s on my short list of duties), but it’s beyond excusable that an organization as large as the city doesn’t make council agenda items accessible.

Other items

There are a number of council motions coming forward tomorrow, but they’re just at the introductory stage, so I’ll get into them with my council recap.

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. To answer a couple of Joel’s questions re: asbestos

    “Could the the asbestos that was found in loose plaster be due to the building that was demolished next door? If so, would that not be someone else’s responsibility instead of the city’s?”

    It is physically possible but highly unlikely. Plaster samples are analyzed from the inside out, not just the surface. The plaster is put under a microscope and a technician counts out the asbestos fibers and then makes a calculation to determine the percentage of plaster per volume of material sampled. Asbestos is not homogenous in plaster so many samples will be taken and an average will determined for the building or the extent of plaster found. Asbestos content in plaster is typically less then 5% but plaster is highly friable (easily crumbled/crushed by hand pressure) and therefore easily inhaled.

    Plaster containing asbestos can be managed so it is safe to live and work around but it takes a management plan and vigilance. There are many, many public buildings containing it in the city right now. I would bet the Kyber has a number of locations containing damaged or deteriorating plaster.

    There are a number of abatement companies here in HRM that can complete this work. To gut a building of that size down to studs and sub-floor would take a crew of 8-12 people around 6-10 weeks. I would budget 250k-350k. That would leave you with the exterior shell and a building empty of finishes (no interior walls, floors or ceilings)

    The city has an obligation to protect the people that use it’s buildings. One of the biggest issues with asbestos plaster is that walls take a lot of abuse. Any damage has to be treated as a release of asbestos fibers. Areas of high occupancy or high traffic will see more abuse. Old building are full of narrow hallways and small rooms with lots of ornate trim and wall hangings so there are lots of opportunity for damage and contamination. The city has a reasonable liability issue with renting it out.

    Sell it for a dollar and let the fundraising begin (there would be some awesome concerts)!. Joel has a valid point, if the building is structurally sound and the exterior envelope is in reasonable repair, it will not require 4 million dollars to make the building safe.

    1. I forgot to add,

      The pricing I gave is based on the square footage given in the report and a rough square-foot price from some similar jobs competed in 2014 by a commercial abatement company based out of HRM. Square-foot pricing does not work in the same way that flooring or siding would as there are so many variables between jobs so I left a lot a wiggle room. I wanted to show that Joel had a point on the 4 million dollar figure

    2. Dear Nicholas,

      Well said but TOTALLY WRONG! The entire Asbestos Scare is a crock used to hasten the convenient demise of perfectly fine buildings. Walls, and Ceilings (floors are usually not plastered!) can be SEALED very effectively and unless the spaces are being used as a firing range, the occasional tiny ding is not going to release clouds of «deadly asbestos». Further, unlike «green» and otherwise «declared safe» (sic) buildings, the Khyber has REAL WINDOWS which OPEN allowing free and plentiful AIR EXCHANGE — many times healthier than «managed air» which has, time and time again, proved toxic and disease-engendering. So let’s apply a little common sense here. The Khyber does not need to be gutted, and like the Sydney Courthouse I wrote about earlier is the victim of a bureacratic SCAM to make the «right» people richer while justifying some ridiculously fat salaries.

  2. No mention in the Staff report that this is a Municipally listed HISTORIC building and is so listed to provide special protection and that will continue under any new owner.

    The Heritage Trust of NS leased a ground-floor office for 20 years and was given a couple of month’s notice to get out. No compensation for the move either although Khyber did receive some from the Mayor.

    If HRM wants to dispose of this building then please offer it for a dollar to any interested group to run as a cultural / historical resource centre. Then we can find out the true state of the structure in a survey by heritage architects and see what damage may have been down from next-door by Starfish’s construction.

  3. Please DO force the secret-meeting question, preferably as publicly as possible, or alternatively, via council in an open arena, so folks can see dissembling in real time. And keep raising it until those responsible to answer realize and accept you/we – and the question – are not going away. Suspect closed meetings have been traditionally accepted, as have other dubious aspects of accountability, and for the still-in-control old guard, it’s anathema for “upstarts” to even question the practice. Go, Tim! We ‘peasants’ are behind you and sick to death of the antiquated ‘Your betters know best; stay in your place’ ethic that infects and pervades our governance.

  4. Section the first
    Thank you Mr. Plaskett
    Section the second
    Please bang that drum Mr. Bousquet
    Section the third
    An excellent goal for active transit. If we can get at least one north south and one east west protected, with its own traffic signals, that would be something to be proud of!