Much attention has been paid to the near disappearance of the Halifax Common. As the Friends of the Halifax Common web page explains:
The 235 acres of common land that King George III granted in 1763 “for the use of the inhabitants of the Town of Halifax forever,” includes all the land bordered by Robie and North/South Park Streets between Cunard and South Streets. Originally the predominant uses were as a military ground, for public grazing & wood, and as public open space.
Over the next two and a half centuries, public institutions were added to the common as these were seen as appropriate public uses. Today much of this land is occupied by the hospitals, CBC television studios, Queen Elizabeth High School, the new Citadel High, Camp Hill Cemetery, Dalhousie’s Carleton campus, the Public Gardens and Victoria Park, the Museum of Natural History, All Saints Cathedral, etc.
What Happened? In the early years the land was considered a bit of a wasteland and over the years using it for institutions and selling parcels to private owners seemed like a positive civic step.
Unfortunately, as a result, less than 1/3 of the original Common remains and more is in danger of being lost.
The Friends of the Halifax Common are an active group, and are sure to speak up whenever a change is proposed for the Halifax Common.
But what about the Dartmouth Common? A similar shrinking of the original Common has occurred on the Dartmouth side of the harbour, but no one much talks about it. The shrinkage is explained via a series of maps in the Dartmouth Common Master Plan, published in 2010:
The Common was established as grazing and timber land for the residents of the town of Dartmouth. But, as in the case of the Halifax Common, there were two historic trends that changed the character of the Dartmouth Common. The first is the shrinking of total acreage. The second is turning the remaining space over to institutional uses.
In terms of institutional uses, the mid-19th century saw the building of Wooden Park School and the Stairs Street School for Coloured Children on the Common. (The School for Coloured Children obviously needs more investigation — I have always assumed that Nova Scotia never had segregated schools.) The Covered Rink and Exhibition Building was built in 1884. The rink was destroyed in The Explosion, and was replaced with Park School. Another rink was built along Wyse Road, at what is now the parking lot to the Sportsplex. The Wooden Park School was converted to an armoury. Bicentennial School was opened in 1951, Dartmouth High in 1958. The Dartmouth Sportsplex opened in 1982. And the new Bridge Terminal was opened in 2012. I’m not sure when the apartment complexes along Boland Street were built, but I think Victoria Gardens started as military housing, and Demetreous Lane is a social housing project.
Cemeteries fill much of the original Common footprint — north of Park Avenue, the old Public Cemetery and Saint Peter’s Catholic Cemetery are as old as the Common. Saint Paul’s Cemetery, on the waterfront, was opened in 1835. Mount Harmon Cemetery opened in 1927.
As with the Halifax Common, some people argue that the Common should remain green space and that institutional uses are inappropriate for the site. That was the crux of the debate over the siting of the Bridge Terminal on what used to be the Dartmouth Urban Wilderness Park.
I won’t takes sides in the green space vs institutional debate. What interests me here is the shrinking of the land area of the Common. One could reasonably argue that a transit terminal is appropriate for the Common, because it serves a common, collective purpose. But how on Earth did a bank, a gas station, a McDonald’s and a strip mall get built on Common land?
I set out to answer that question. Here’s what I’ve found.
The loss of much of the Common — almost half of what was left by that time — is tied into the construction of the Macdonald Bridge.
First was land that went directly to the Bridge Commission. At its March 24, 1954 meeting, the Dartmouth town council voted to convey Williams Street from Best to Lyle Streets, and Best Street from Lyle Street to Wyse Road, to the Halifax-Dartmouth Bridge Commission. That is essentially the land under the Bridge Commission building and the approach to the bridge, including the toll booths.
The bridge itself was constructed over what was then the north edge of the Common. Where the bridge met land, however, the Common stretched still further north, to Boland Street.
An approach to the bridge — then labeled simply “new street,” but what we now call Nantucket Avenue, was built straight through the Common, all the way to the corner of Victoria Road and School Street. The western section of School Street was then a road transecting the Common, more or less diagonally from the new street.
At some point — I couldn’t find it documented in the property office — the land on what is now the the northeast and southeast corners of Wyse and Nantucket were transferred from the town to the Bridge Commission.
The next month, on April 5, 1954, a plan was submitted to the property office showing “Town owned land parcels to be conveyed to Maxwell Cummings & Son, 29 March 1954.” The property “conveyed” (no sales price is mentioned) was a triangular shaped piece north of Nantucket and south of Green Street, excepting the corner lot owned by the Bridge Commission.
Remarkably, there is no discussion of the conveyance recorded in Dartmouth town council minutes. The mayor at the time was C.H. Morris. Councillors had the last names of Carter, Ferguson, Waterfield, Beazley, Driscoll, Guptill, Swaffer and Roberts.
Maxwell Cummings was the Montreal real estate mogul who introduced strip malls to Canada, and that’s exactly what he did with his new property in Dartmouth.
The shopping centre property has an interesting history. Cummings’ Dartmouth Shopping Centre Limited sold it to Dartwyse Holdings on February 14, 1969. Dartwyse held onto it for just two years before selling to Triton Centres Limited on December 29, 1971.
Triton was owned by Trizec Equities in Calgary, which was bought by Invescorp Limited in Toronto on September 18, 1986. In 1990, Invescorp was in turn bought by Bramalea Centres, also a Toronto firm.
On April 10, 1994, the shopping centre was sold to Larex. The president of Larex was Larry Swinamer, who was then restoring the Hydrostone Market in Halifax.
On March 13, 2001, Larex changed its name to a numbered corporation — #2342933 NS Limited. Two months later, on May 30, 2001, there was a tax sale of the shopping centre property to the Royal Trust Corporation of Canada for $207,496.90.
Royal Trust Corporation sold the shopping centre to Homburg June 3, 2003. Lastly, Homburg sold it to Cominar NS Real Estate Holdings, a Quebec firm, on July 19, 2012. Cominar is the current owner.
Bank and gas station
Four years later after the town of Dartmouth sold much of the Common to Cummings, the Bridge Commission followed suit. On January 29, 1958, another map in the property office shows the subdivision of Block AA (Lyle street to Faulkner Street between Dickson and Wyse), BB (future gas station property) and CC (future bank property) by the Bridge Commission.
Block BB was bought by Cummings, who entered into an agreement with Imperial Oil for the site. Imperial bought the property from Larex in 1995.
But the Bridge Commission held onto Block CC until November 22, 1973, when the property was sold to the Bank of Nova Scotia.
When Larex owned the shopping centre land — on January 31, 1995 — it sold off the eastern tip of the triangular shaped parcel to McDonald’s. The numbered company that owns the lot has had a couple of mechanics’ liens placed on it for failure to quickly pay for brickwork done on the site, but those claims were settled soon after they were filed.