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

In the last three months, it’s been reported that the Greenland ice sheet is melting faster than expected, which will mean a higher rise in sea-level than earlier projected; that temperatures in Canada are warming at approximately double the average global rate; and that more flooding is predicted for Atlantic Canada over the next 50 years.

These predictions and warnings have been made by various scientific bodies including by  Environment Climate Change Canada, the federal department in Ottawa. So it came as something of a surprise — or at least a bold move — to hear the provincial and federal governments  announce they plan to spend $110 million to build a new Art Gallery along the Halifax waterfront. Another $20 million will be fundraised from donors.

The announcement was made on the Thursday before the Easter long weekend. I wasn’t there. Had I been I would have asked a few questions about the suitability of the location. A 142,000 sq. ft. art gallery twice the size of the current AGNS will be built on the Salter parking lot on Lower Water Street. This YouTube video shows it would be covered with water if you combine the projected 1.0 meter rise in sea level with a 2.9 meter Hurricane Juan storm surge.

The Salter parking lot location is across the street from the historic Keith’s Brewery. The lot has been the site of beach volleyball tournaments, rib fests, and bike rentals. It faces the boardwalk, with Bishop’s Landing as one neighbour and The Waterfront restaurant the other. It is a spectacularly beautiful location. Except for its vulnerability to the impact of climate change, which does not appear to unduly worry government funders. Or the CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, who says a larger building is needed because its current space is too small to display much of its fantastic collection (including the famous Annie Leibovitz portraits still in storage but that’s another story).

“As announced, the province is moving ahead with building a new Art Gallery on the Halifax waterfront,” emailed Lynette MacLeod, spokesperson for the Department of Culture, Communities, and Heritage when I inquired last month about the rationale behind the choice of the waterfront location. “Geotechnical work was a consideration as part of the initial feasibility study which helped inform final decisions”.

How much geotechnical work and environmental site planning was actually carried out before the province decided to build a splashy art gallery on the waterfront will have to be left to the imagination for now — the province is refusing to release the feasibility study prepared by the firm Architecture 49.

MacLeod says the province won’t make the study public because it is now considered a “draft” report since “the scope of the project has changed from being a waterfront hub that included NSCAD to a stand-alone Art Gallery.”

Sounds rather thin as a rationale to keep secret a study taxpayers have paid for, that helped inform a major decision to spend more than $100 million. Meanwhile, MacLeod says Develop Nova Scotia will make sure that climate change and more frequent flooding over the next 100 years get addressed during the design phase and public consultation to start later this year.

“The next major milestone in building a new home for the Art Gallery is engagement of a design team in 2019-2020,” continues MacLeod. “Further consideration into how to protect the building from weather events and sea level rise will be made during this 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”.

Interestingly, the McNeil government announced the waterfront site just days after passing the Coastal Protection Act. The Ecology Action Centre had been pushing for the legislation for 10 years as warnings about the need to prepare for climate change kept trickling in. One of the principles in the Coastal Protection Act is 7(e): “Sea-level rise, coastal flooding, storm surge and coastal erosion pose significant threats to the safety of future development in coastal areas.”

Nancy Anningson is the coastal adaptation coordinator for the EAC. I asked Anningson how the choice of the waterfront location fit with the newly-minted legislation.

“It’s a good question,” she replied. “The intent of the Act is so no one can build something within the defined Coastal Protection Area that doesn’t comply with regulations which are being drafted over the next 12-18 months. They will set a minimum vertical allowance (elevation above sea level) and minimum setback distance from the coast. But the way the Act is worded, it does appear that when it comes to federal and provincial structures there may be some exceptions made.”

The EAC objected to the use of “whenever possible” as an attempt to water down (so to speak) the legislation. The government stuck with that wording, which Anningson worries could legally exempt a new art gallery or any other publicly funding building from going up (or sinking under)  the waterfront. Here’s the clause with a hole big enough to drive a Harbour Hopper through:

Section 16. Nothing in this Act prevents the construction, repair, maintenance or modification of federal, provincial or municipal infrastructure in the Coastal Protection Zone if it is done in a manner that is consistent, whenever possible, with the purpose and principles of this Act. (italics added)

“My hope is the same principles from the legislation, the vertical allowance and setback, would be applied to the Art Gallery,” Anningson continued. “We don’t want to be building things now that we know are going to be disastrously expensive to provide relief efforts or repair. Insurance claims have quadrupled in areas of coastal flooding, so we want to prepare for the worst. Valuable assets will be in this building and it would be pretty foolish to build it in a way that doesn’t protect people and the assets within.”

Develop Nova Scotia’s head of planning Peter Bigelow doesn’t dispute or disagree with any of that. Instead, he views the dire warnings around climate change as a hill to be climbed or a challenge to be overcome using the best technology available.

“Certainly, sea level rise needs to be part of the conversation — and the costs associated with it,” said Bigelow in an interview last fall with The Halifax Examiner. “But for someone to say ‘let’s not put the art gallery on the waterfront because of sea-level rise’…we better tell that to the owner of every property — including the Department of National Defence. Are we going to just abandon the waterfront, or find ways to protect it?”

Bigelow says the 3D modelling HRM is working on now which is scheduled to be ready this fall will provide new information on sea level rise. This could be used to establish new standards that would apply to all future builds along the waterfront, not just residential construction which is the case today.

Both Queens Marque on the Halifax side of the harbour and King’s Wharf on the Dartmouth side are built above the present 3.8 metre highwater line that is the standard for residential construction. Bigelow says the business case for Queen’s Marque assumes it will last 100 years.

That may work for the private developer behind it (the Armour Group) but when there is $110 million of public money invested, the stakes are higher, suggests Anningson.

“If we are putting that kind of money into something, should we be building it only for 100 years?,” she asks. “I will have great grandkids who will want to go to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and if they want to go, it needs to built in a way that will protect it far longer than that. And if we can’t do that or it is prohibitively expensive, is that the best site? I would say ‘No.’ I would say build on high ground back from the waterfront.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Savage’s office says it is premature to speculate about what Halifax will do when asked for a financial contribution toward the waterfront art gallery. Hopefully by the time that decision rolls around there will be more information available about the site and the best practices to build and protect buildings from the heavy rains and storm surges that are on their way.

Jennifer Henderson

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

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  1. Here is an interesting website on relative sea level rise and vertical allowance. http://www.sealevelrise.ca/halifax-ns.html What is sobering is that this chart does not take account of storm surges, hurricanes or the very real possibility that sea-level rise might increase suddenly because of compounded or interacting effects . It is sheer hubris to think that we can design around climate change when we can’t even design policies or systems to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

    To locate an art gallery, which houses numbers of works that are not water-proof, at a location that will be flooded at some point in the next 15 -20 years ( because we know that storm activity will increase by 25% with a 4 degree rise in temperature) is totally irresponsible.

  2. Is a new waterfront art gallery primarily being motivated by shortage of display space and greater boardwalk traffic, or does it have more to do with flogging of the existing site for the benefit of interests far narrower than that of the general public?

    Call me suspicious, but it seems that’s how government works here.

  3. Lynette MacLeod’s assertion that the Architecture 49 engineering report can be withheld under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act because it has been retroactively reclassified as “a draft” is puzzling. The word draft appears in the Act four times:

    — 4(1)(d) refers to, “draft decision of a person acting in a judicial or quasi-judicial capacity;”
    — 13(1) refers to, “draft legislation or regulations submitted or prepared for submission to the Executive Council or any of its committees.”
    — 14(1) refers to, “draft regulations developed by or for a public body or a minister.”
    — 19A(a) refers to, “(a) the draft of a resolution, by-law or other legal instrument by which the local public body acts or the draft of a local bill that has been con- sidered at a meeting held in the absence of the public unless the draft or legal instrument requested by the applicant has been considered at a meeting open to the public or the record has been in existence for more than fifteen years.”

    None of these exemptions from disclosure under the Act would apply to an engineering report. Even if some part of the report could be shoehorned under the provisions about drafts of the Act, the government is obliged to sever exempt parts of a record and release the rest. MacLeod appears not to have contemplated that.

    The McNeil government has consolidated FOIPOP decisions within a small group of communications folks who specialize in responding to requests under the Act. You would expect them to know that you cannot exempt a record simply by stamping “draft” on its cover.

    I suspect I know what’s going on here. Officials charged with responding to FOIPOP requests know the appeals process under the Act is broken. Appeals to the Information Commissioner take many years to be heard, and result only in a recommendations the government may, and often does, reject. Appeals to the court take almost as long, and are frightfully expensive and time consuming.

    Knowing the appeal process is broken, FOIPOP officers like MacLeod toss off any pretext they like, no matter how illogical or flimsy, knowing they are unlikely to be appealed.

    That’s not how a professional civil service is supposed to operate.

  4. Technology and planning might be used to make the new waterfront Art Gallery safe from storms and rising waters, but wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper to simply build it somewhere that is not expected to flood? There’s a known risk – let’s avoid it.

    As for Bigelow’s claim that we can’t abandon the waterfront because of sea level rise, there’s a slight difference between managing the infrastructure already there, and happily adding to the challenges by building more.

    1. At the risk of appearing facetious, the You Tube video makes me think we need to worry about the entire downtown, not just the hare-brained plan to add to the problem. Maybe Waterfront Development should be looking at Amsterdam to figure out how to design around the rising sea levels.Turning Water Street into a canal would certainly solve the trucks downtown problem.

  5. The Youtube video appears to show the effect all the way up to 30 metres of SLR, and not just the 1 m + 3 m storm surge, so the effect over the next 100 years is shown at roughly the 0:08 mark.

    Sea level rise is absolutely an important risk, but it’s also a known risk. I agree that something like the art gallery should probably be built for more than 100 years, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be built on the waterfront – just that the building needs to be designed for whatever we choose as a lifespan.

    1. The significant amount of extra money which will be required to adapt the building to sea level rise would be better invested in the base building in a location not in the imminent risk zone for sea level rise. It is as you say a known risk so it should be avoided completely. There is no compelling reason to locate it at the shoreline.

      1. But it’s not just about risk. It’s risk vs. reward. We know the risk, so we can test that against the reward.

        The waterfront is a highly visible and public location. The gallery would be well-served having that traffic, and the waterfront would be well-served having a public amenity rather than another condo building (not that I have any particular axe to grind against condo buildings, just that I think an art gallery is an even better feature for the waterfront).

        The marginal cost of preparing for SLR isn’t a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. It’s more about making smart design decision.

        1. And to be clear, I am typically more on the side of retreating from SLR. I’m a planner and in a lot of the plans I work on around Atlantic Canada, we generally recommend prohibiting development (with the exception of wharves and such) in areas of SLR. In cases of someone building a home right on the coast, the reward (living with the beauty of the coast) goes to the homeowner, but the risk is borne by society (emergency services, government disaster relief).

          But the art gallery is different because we, as society, are taking on both the risks and the reward. So we actually need to do some analysis of the balance rather than defaulting to “sea level risk = no go”