The largest infrastructure project in the province’s history got the once-over from the legislature’s Public Accounts Committee yesterday.

It will be at least the end of 2026 before the patients putting up with what some doctors have described as “third world conditions” in the leaking Victoria General Hospital will be moved out. The bad news is even that date may prove wildly optimistic if the province and HRM cannot get their act together to find property to build a new seven-storey parking garage to replace an existing parkade on Robie Street beside the Halifax Infirmary. Concerns raised by HRM councillor Waye Mason over further encroachments by the Province over Common land threaten to derail the QE2 Redevelopment amid much finger-pointing.

A government rendering of the proposed parking garage on Summer Street.

In the architectural rendering the government released earlier this year, the proposed garage appears to be just four storeys high, just slightly higher than the three-storey museum building next door. But Public Accounts yesterday was told the garage would be seven storeys high.

According to John O’Connor, the vice-president of Health Infrastructure at Nova Scotia Lands — the same agency that oversaw the build of the Nova Centre for the province — a new 900-space parkade for Halifax Infirmary staff and visitors is required by next spring (2021). It will replace the current parkade which will be demolished to make way for a taller expansion of the Halifax Infirmary, with inpatient beds and operating rooms, to replace some of what will be lost when the VG and Centennial Buildings close.

The parkade is the first domino in a series that also includes the construction of a new 13-storey cancer centre at the corner of Bell Road and Robie Street, where the Queen Elizabeth High school and urban farm once stood. O’Connor says the province’s decision to move all cancer services from the Dickson Centre to that corner effectively left the VG redevelopment managers without space to build a parking lot.

The Halifax Infirmary site is already jammed with a proposed eight-storey outpatient clinic where the current CBC building sits on Common land the city sold to the province. A new research pavilion will be built next door and the overall “footprint” of the medical complex at the Infirmary location will be 1.4 million square feet — nearly one-third larger than the downtown Nova Centre.

A potential and controversial solution to the parking dilemma was made public Tuesday when a tender was issued by the Department of Transportation Infrastructure and Renewal (TIR). The tender is for the design and build of a seven-storey parkade for 900 cars on the existing, paved parking lot beside the Museum of Natural History on Summer Street.

The drawing confirmed what had been rumoured by HRM Councillor Waye Mason and the Bengal Lancers horseback riding group: that the province has been having closed-door discussions with city staff for months about buying half an acre of Common land off Summer Street. This purchase (if approved) would enable the building of a parking garage on the south side of the Museum as well as a new building on the north side of the Museum (directly across from the CBC) to house all heating, cooling, and electrical services for the medical complex on the Infirmary site.

Councillor Waye Mason expressed concern about the loss of still more Commons public space and the potential impact on the paddock used by the Bengal Lancers riding school, as well as proposed changes to one entrance off Summer Street to the Wanderers Grounds where crowds gather to watch football and professional soccer. He said he was relieved to hear provincial officials say the entire master plan for the Infirmary site will be made public within the next two weeks, and that there might be a possibility of making changes to it.

Mason noted that the 13-storey cancer centre proposed for the Robie Street/Bell Road corner will be across the road from a 28-storey building permitted under the Centre Plan after a protracted battle with the Armoyan Group.

“Putting the parking on their own property and just building it two or three storeys higher is something I would like the province to consider,” Mason told reporters following the Public Accounts meeting.

Mason claimed that “a non-disclosure agreement” between city and provincial officials was the reason the public was kept in the dark since last summer about a potential swap of public land. “It’s a normal thing that happens when we are talking with the province about potential contractual arrangements,” said Mason. “But when you get to talking about removing half an acre from a public park, that’s always a public process. So we’ve had this conflict between the normal way of negotiating and then getting to the public process of having that discussion.”

But that description was contested by deputy TIR Minister Paul LaFleche. LaFleche said those recreation groups are technically “tenants” of the city and these conversations belong between HRM and the users of the Commons area. (Intriguingly, LaFleche acknowledged that as a former rider with the Lancers in his youth and a parent of children who belonged to the organization, he met months ago with the former president of the Lancers’ Board indicating a willingness to help the group find more space for a larger barn).

NDP Dartmouth South MLA Claudia Chender asked LaFleche if he would recommend expropriating the half-acre required to build the parking garage if the city chooses not to sell. LaFleche said “the issue of expropriation has not been raised” and the province is offering to trade or exchange some land it owns so that neither the horseback non-profit nor Wanderers Grounds users “lose recreation space.”

In the long-term, John O’Connor, the vice-president of Health Infrastructure at Nova Scotia Lands, suggested only that the “possible” relocation of the Museum of Natural History would free up enough space to replace all 2,700 parking spots that currently exist. But he says that’s not currently in the cards.

The Halifax Infirmary site appears to have some physical limitations. All new buildings will have three floors of underground parking but O’Connor argues it is too costly to go deeper because of the high water table and the presence of pyritic slate.

Chender also questioned why more parking levels couldn’t be created above ground since neither the eight-storey nor proposed 13-storey building are at the maximum height allowed by the Centre Plan.

O’Connor said the buildings as presently configured for the Halifax Infirmary site cannot accommodate tiered parking above ground without affecting the delivery of patient services. “You wouldn’t connect parkades into the O.R.”, said O’Connor, noting there will be physical interconnections between several buildings to provide more efficient in-patient, cancer treatment, and outpatient services.

“There is no other option we are currently exploring,” O’Connor said. “We are working with HRM to try to fine-tune this option. We are looking at trying to build the parkade on to this site and respect the Wanderers Grounds, respect the pathways through that property, respect the museum, and respect the Lancers’ paddock.”

Dartmouth North MLA Susan Leblanc suggested the furor and the lack of transparency  around the land dealings between HRM and the province may actually pale in comparison to the secrecy over the McNeil government’s decision to go with P3 public-private-partnerships to design, build, operate, and maintain healthcare buildings over the next 30 years.

“The lack of transparency around this small aspect of this massive project is a great case for why we have to be talking about the whole project in a more open and transparent forum,” Leblanc said.

Leblanc pushed Gary Porter, the Finance director with NS Lands, to explain why Nova Scotians couldn’t see the business case prepared by its hired consultant Deloitte to “justify” its conclusion that P3 provides the public with the best value for money. Porter argued the consultant’s advice makes cost comparisons that “would interfere with the competitive bidding process” and promised the Deloitte report would be made public after the tenders are awarded and financing costs are locked in.

“It’s seems ludicrous to me that the public won’t have a clear picture of where it’s money is going until after the contracts are awarded,” said Leblanc. “Then it’s too late to question whether the right decision was made.”

All of the new buildings except the parking garage will be built through the P3 model. The parking garage will be built directly by the province, and will be managed by Partners for Care.

Efforts by The Halifax Examiner using FOIPOP legislation to get access to the Deloitte report have been rejected. Ironically, the Public Accounts Committee spent very little time questioning senior officials about the original purpose of the meeting, which was to follow up on a report by the auditor general last December.

That report raised concerns about whether procurement officials with TIR and the Health Authority had adequate training and anti-fraud policies to protect the public from being ripped off on a $2 billion-plus project of this size.

O’Connor said 11 of the auditor’s 18 recommendations have now been fully implemented and the government has brought in an outside consultant to help staff ensure “good governance” models are in place before construction begins on a new outpatient facility at Bayer’s Lake this spring.

One of the auditor’s outstanding recommendations is to prepare a succession plan before the project’s two senior co-chairs — engineer John O’Connor at NS Lands and clinical services vice-president Paula Bond at the Nova Scotia Health Authority — are due to retire. A headhunting search continues to find one overall project leader.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. Can people attending events at the Wanderer’s Grounds use this new Hospital Parkade which abuts it? Is this supposed to be a money maker for the hospital?

    1. Trying to shuffle land use around for a parking lot in the centre of town isn’t going to work well.Block off Summer St and make it a cul de sac? Add a few more stories? Why not just provide remote parking lots and a free accessible shuttle service. Short time Parking is a miserable problem in the city, Why would the Province want to aggravate parking problems?. I hope that the Province rethinks this. Regardless the Lancers barn would be better located on Pt Pleasant common lands I expect the air is cleaner for the horses there than in the downtown which has the dirtiest air on the Peninsula. The St Pats community property across the street would suit lawn bowling and a garden. I hope the Provinve is serious about making the VG lands a green space

  2. Global TV Halifax had the details of the proposed parking garage on their October 31 2019 broadcast :

    ” According to the government, the current parkade at the Halifax Infirmary was built in 2003 and has 672 parking spaces.

    The new parkade will have up to 900 parking spaces and sit on the current site of a parking lot for the Museum of Natural History. As a result of the new construction, a temporary parking lot will also be built on the other side of the museum to replace the spaces lost.

    “The location of this new parking development will allow convenient and safe access for patients, families and staff visiting the Halifax Infirmary during the construction of the Halifax Infirmary expansion,” said Dr. Alex Mitchell, acting vice-president of clinical infrastructure with the QEII New Generation project.”

  3. Considering the size, cost and generational scale of the health infrastructure proposals, here’s hoping NO commitments are made until after the next provincial election. If the government is so sure that P3 is the best way to proceed it should be prepared to go to the people with that decision. Nova Scotians will be living with the financial consequences well beyond mid-century and should have an opportunity for the fullest possible discussion of what is involved. The arguments over the use of Commons land are just a small part of the story but the naked expediency of what has been proposed does nothing to generate confidence about the rest of what is planned.

  4. Considering how much of the public “parkland” has been removed from “common” usage by the municipality by turning it into sports grounds (used by a minority of the HRM population) I’m hardly going to get my knickers in a twist over half an acre being taken over by the province to provide health services to the entire population of the city (and province). HRM councillors are being more than slightly hypocritical on this issue considering how much leeway they’ve granted developers (while getting very little in return) throughout the overall city, not to mention the sports conversions of the “Commons” grounds.

    Beyond this, frankly a big problem in that area is lack of parking for the Commons and the Wanderer’s games. A large parking facility right next door, that will be much less full during the times that both of those entities could use parking, should be considered a boon, not a detriment. I’m MUCH more likely to go to a Wanderer’s game on a whim if I think that I can more easily park in the area than I would be now.

    1. Amen.
      Lot of hypocrisy from politicians. Halifax and Dartmouth have a very long history of taking land set aside as common open space and then allowing construction of public and private infrastructure. It is a bit rich for a councillor to complain about the parkade when he supported the construction of a high school and then the concrete skating space which is often closed to the public. And then thought it was okay to allow a private sports business to convert public space for private profit.
      Compare and contrast the former status of Dartmouth Common with what it is today.
      and this :