The waterfront site of the future Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Photo: Halifax Examiner

The McNeil government is taking the next step toward building a $100-million Art Gallery along the Halifax waterfront.

The Department of Transportation Infrastructure and Renewal (TIR) has issued a request for proposals (RFP) to design an “iconic” building to be built on the Salter lot across Lower Water Street from the Keith’s Brewery, where a parking lot and beach volleyball court today face the boardwalk along the harbour. Of the $100 million, $70 million will come from the province and $30 million from the feds.

“We are embarking on an exciting phase of the project to build Nova Scotia’s new waterfront art gallery and public space,” said Communities, Culture and Heritage Minister Leo Glavine in a news release.

“We are seeking an exceptional team of architects and designers to realize the ambitions of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and the dream of creating an inclusive world class centre for art, here in Nova Scotia,” said Nancy Noble, CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. “A design competition is the best way to capture a global perspective on how a gallery can best serve a community, while ensuring that architecture helps achieve our vision of being an inclusive public gathering place that connects all people with art.”

The province is hoping to attract architects from around the world through a six-month competition that will announce a winner this July. The first stage involves pre-qualifying firms competing to design the Gallery. A committee that includes representatives from TIR, Develop Nova Scotia, and The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia will make those selections.

“In summer 2020, during the final stage of the competition, the field will be narrowed to three design teams before a qualified jury selects the winning team,” says the RFP document. “The conceptual designs of all finalists will be on public display for feedback which will be provided to the winning design team.”

A “qualified jury” will include architects, engineers, and professionals from outside government circles.

The prize is a $10.2 million fixed-fee contract to design and engineer a building that will become the centerpiece for a new waterfront Arts District. Here’s part of the vision statement expressed in the RFP:

Nova Scotians are a people shaped by the land and the sea. The ocean gives people a reason to know us. If “art is the signature of a civilization” (Jean Sibelius), the selected waterfront venue is an ideal place to build our renewed Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The Halifax waterfront is a vibrant destination for locals and visitors. Last year the waterfront attracted more than 2.7 million pedestrians and is the most visited destination in Nova Scotia.

The building will be nearly twice the size of the current AGNS at 11,600 square metres (125,000 sq ft) and will provide the appropriate climate-controlled conditions to perhaps finally display the Annie Leibovitz collection of celebrity photographs.

The RFP document says the new Gallery must incorporate and showcase elements of Mi’kmaq culture while meeting standards that align with the Sustainable Development Goals Act to reach zero net emissions by 2050.

The New Art Galley of Nova Scotia will address targets related to energy use and GHG emissions, embodied carbon, water efficiency and indoor air equality. The Project design scope will include energy modeling and life-cycle assessments to positively impact the design and operations of the building. The Project will seek certification of a third-party sustainability program. The Province is committed to a sustainable project outcome and will work with the selected integrated consultant team to develop design solutions for a sustainable facility.

Nowhere in the 91-page design RFP document can the words “climate change” or “rising sea level” be found. Presumably those issues will be addressed after the design competition is over this summer and before the final design is approved. The Examiner is waiting for a response from TIR to explain at what point in the design or construction process rules will be laid out with respect to how far the building should be set back from the coast and how high it should be built above the high-water mark, or the minimum vertical allowance.

This Youtube video shows buildings along Lower Water Street would be submerged if you combine a projected 1.0 metre rise in sea level with a 2.9 metre Hurricane Juan-like storm surge:

Environment and Climate Change Canada have studies showing the Maritimes can expect more frequent flooding in the future as a result of warming temperatures. It’s entirely possible the 3.8 metre minimum vertical allowance that is the current standard for building residential buildings along the waterfront may be increased AND expanded to include other types of construction. Queen’s Marque and King’s Wharf have exceeded that standard in light of science that shows the ice caps are melting and sea-level rising faster than expected.

Decisions around how to protect a new $100 million building on the waterfront may be informed by the digital elevation models being created right now from a LIDAR survey of the coastline.

The survey was conducted in September 2018 and Applied Geomatics Research Group of Middleton, NS was supposed to submit the modelling to the Halifax Regional Municipality by September 2019. HRM’s Energy and Environment program manager Shannon Miedema says “quality control issues arose” which pushed back delivery until March of this year. Develop NS, which manages the development of the Halifax waterfront, also wants a look at that data, according to Lynette MacLeod, spokesperson for the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage. Here’s what she said last August:

Further consideration into how to protect the building from weather events and sea level rise will be made during the design phase… We are working closely with stakeholders including Develop Nova Scotia — sea level rise and climate change are important parts of Develop Nova Scotia’s master planning overall. As a waterfront province, we are in a position to be leaders and innovators in creating spaces that can adapt to changing conditions through adaptive design and choice of materials.

The Preliminary project schedule outlined in the RFP suggests construction could begin during the summer of 2021. The projected completion date for the new Art Gallery is summer of 2024.

Jennifer Henderson

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

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  1. “the 3.8-metre minimum vertical allowance that is the current standard for building residential buildings along the waterfront may be increased AND expanded to include other types of construction.”
    The way to view what this means is to PAUSE the YouTube video at ~9 seconds and zoom to full screen. We see that the water is well above the level of Lower Water St. Which means that the basement areas (if any) of buildings along Lower Water are full of salt stormwater… not good for pumps, furnaces, cars and any Art that happens to be stored below grade. And anything on the ground floor will at least gets its feet wet.

    And if you move to 11 seconds you can see where 5 meters of sea-level rise plus storm surge gets you.

    Based on scientific scenarios I’ve seen presented over the past years, the worst-case for the next couple of decades presented a decade ago have already happened somewhere last year…

    So is it really sensible to put a $100 million dollar Gallery that should serve the Province for another fifty or hundred years in this location? I don’t think so…

    1. Check out the Oslo Opera House….on the waterfront, cost US$700 million
      And the Sydney Opera House.
      Not the problem some people seem to think.

  2. In the name of common sense this gallery project on this site has to be stopped. There are better choices for the site that don’t involve having to spend millions of extra dollars to protect against inevitable inundation by sea level rise and storm surges. How can both the City and the Province claim to have declared the climate crisis an emergency and then proceed with building a massive piece of publicly funded infrastructure in a known danger zone????