by Hilary Beaumont
It’s been seven months since Housing Nova Scotia held a sticky note consultation at the former Bloomfield school, two years since the province won the RFP for the site and 10 years since citizen group Imagine Bloomfield formed to push for a “dynamic neighbourhood hub” on the property.
And there the old school sits, no obvious sign of progress for redevelopment. It’s been vacant of programming and parking since June 30, 2014, this winter the former school site serves as little more than a neighbourhood shortcut between the roads that border it, Fern Lane, Robie, Almon and Agricola Streets. Last summer, kids and sometimes dogs whizzed down the slide on the playground. A boy and a man played catch on the site’s only grassy strip despite a city sign expressly forbidding such fun. Imagine Bloomfield and the province held a festival and community consultation last June to excite the area about what Bloomfield could be.
But finally, the province says it’s almost ready to announce its design for the three-acre site. Well, sort of.
The province’s housing agency, Housing NS, has a workable plan for the property, CEO Dan Troke told the Examiner over the phone recently, but the public is still months away from seeing the design.
Housing NS’s core consultation team still needs to approve the design, Troke explained, which should happen in the next one-to-three months. Then and only then can the province ask the city for a development agreement.
A rough start for the province
In December 2012, the NS Housing Development Corporation beat out three private sector proponents on the Bloomfield RFP. The three other proponents scored higher on understanding of vision and objectives for the site while the province scored only 18 out of 35 points on that measure. But the provincial corporation won the tender with its financial offer of a reported $15 million, scoring 45 out of 50 points.
Imagine Bloomfield wasn’t stoked on the outcome. During an interview a few weeks ago, IB’s co-chair Susanna Fuller described the group’s relationship with the province as good, with room for improvement, but that wasn’t always the case. When the city announced the winning proponent two years ago, Imagine Bloomfield sent out a carefully-worded release critiquing the province’s lack of meaningful consultation with them and limited knowledge of the Bloomfield Master Plan.
“Imagine Bloomfield did a needs assessment in 2012 that very clearly showed the kinds of spaces, how big the spaces, how many spaces and what they would be used for,” Fuller explained. “So I think we really did not feel that the way the community space was designed at all took into consideration the needs assessment that we had done.”
She remembered the province’s initial design as “architecturally awful.”
“Their first design was a crime against humanity, so we convinced them to scrap it,” Fuller said.
Troke disagreed with that characterization. The province didn’t scrap the plan, he said — rather, Housing Nova Scotia refined the design based on “a lot of public feedback.”
I asked Troke how much the design has changed since 2012. “You’ll have to wait until you see the final product,” he answered.
Troke and Fuller can’t reveal much about the design until it’s finalized, but here’s what we know so far about the future of the Bloomfield site:
Construction will happen in three steps with revenues from each phase paying for the following phase. The province will spend a total of $100 million on the redevelopment that could take eight years to complete.
The two oldest school buildings, built in 1919 and 1929, have good bones and will be preserved in the redevelopment, Troke confirmed.
There will be 478 residential units on site, and the province has promised 40 percent of those for lower-income earners.
Troke said there would be opportunities for people earning a range of incomes to ultimately own their Bloomfield homes.
“We did consultations on the housing strategy three years ago, and as part of that work, what we heard extensively is a lot of folks were having a hard time entering into home ownership, whether it had to be with a down payment, whether it’s due to the fact that the rents they’re paying today are prohibiting them from being able to make the leap,” he said.
“This site is about people moving toward ownership,” Troke continued. “While we’re looking at creating an affordable range of opportunities, ultimately all of this site is about people who will call Bloomfield home, and they will be owning their homes.”
The Housing NS CEO said there would be a mix of unit sizes — bachelor, one-, two- and three-bedroom units — but he couldn’t break down the numbers for each just yet.
Given the number of residential units and requirement for a minimum of 20 percent public space on the site, the plan will include tall buildings.
“Folks are expecting height on that property,” Troke said.
Before the Bloomfield project can move forward, though, the province must ask the city for a development agreement.
Troke believed securing such an agreement would take six to eight months since the province and city have a close relationship on the project. But an October 28, 2014 staff report to city council stated the development agreement process is expected to take 10 to 12 months.
Staff expected the province to submit its development agreement application back in October, the report said. Troke said they plan to apply before the end of this winter.
“I would anticipate that it would be in the winter, but I can’t say whether it would be a month or three months,” he says. “It shouldn’t be too long of a process.”
“Really what we’re shooting toward is hopefully by the end of next summer we would be in a position where we would be able to start work on the site,” Troke said.
Vacant money pit
Until Housing NS earns its development agreement, the city still owns the site. That means while we wait for the province to finalize their plans, the city is paying for the vacant site’s utilities, snow removal, maintenance and security, among other things.
According to a staff report, the city budgeted $93,212 for the 12 months the property would sit vacant, beginning July 2014.
City spokesperson Tiffany Chase sent us the actual numbers last week. In 2014 the city spent $175,126 to maintain the vacant site for 2014. She said the cost of security would increase in 2015 due to vandalism on site.
By renting out the property to a film crew for five weeks, the city recouped $5,000 of that cost. (The city also rented out the vacant St. Pat’s-Alexandra School to a Trailer Park Boys movie crew.)
Staff looked into other ways to offset the vacant building’s costs, including renting out the gym and parking spaces, but found that only parking rentals would ultimately rake in revenues.
Bloomfield is a money hole at the moment, and the longer the province takes to apply for a development agreement, the more it will potentially cost the city.
Since its initial stumble, the province has done almost a year’s worth of consultations. Housing NS dreamed of iterative consultations similar to the process that birthed the new central library, but this had to be done on a “fairly limited budget,” Troke said, often with volunteers giving their time, and sometimes their living rooms.
Fuller is excited by the prospect of transforming Bloomfield into a destination development similar to the library — but wanted more from the consultations.
“There’s some sense that that process was good, and Housing Nova Scotia was like, well we want to be like the library,” Fuller said, “but unfortunately their budget didn’t meet what they needed. They need a much bigger budget than what they had in order to do it.”
“It’s really good to aspire to what the library did because it’s done something really good for us,” Fuller continued. “This arguably as a government housing project should do the same thing. It should raise our expectations. So much of what I hear from the government is, well we don’t want to raise people’s expectations. Why the fuck not? It would do us a world of good to raise our expectations, and actually meet them. It would be amazing.”
“Can I quote you on that?” I asked her. “Absolutely!” she answered.
“Let’s do it,” she concluded. “We proved it with the library. Everybody is so happy because we did something really good, and it’s made us feel better about ourselves collectively. So Bloomfield is another opportunity to do that—albeit with different outcomes.”