Last Thursday the Nova Scotia government announced the site of a new outpatient centre designed to replace some of the services currently offered at the Victoria General Hospital, which is slated for demolition by 2022. The new centre will be built in Bayers Lake, a retail business park known for inaccessible design and traffic congestion.
At about the same time that this provincial announcement was taking place off Chain Lake Drive (behind the Home Outfitters), the city’s Integrated Mobility Team (IMP) was at the Central Library introducing the latest outline of their 15-year transportation plan. (The second of six consultation sessions continuing through this week, and online.)
New to this iteration of the IMP was a map focussing on land use, identifying locations for “transit oriented development”: the art of choosing where it makes sense to densify and diversify based on what’s easily served by existing and future planned transit.
You may also know this practice as “putting the horse before the cart.” It just makes sense that instead of chasing random developments around with crappy bus routes, we focus our development around some of the most expensive infrastructure we have: our transportation system.
But of all the dots on Halifax’s “potential transit oriented communities” map, the Bayers Lake Business Park dot is conspicuously absent. Which means that our new, multi-million dollar health centre will be located in an active transportation desert (while the Chain of Lakes trail can get you there, there’s next to no sidewalks to get you around), featuring some of the worst transit service we have to offer. And there are no plans to change that anytime soon.
So what’s the deal? Do the province and the municipality ever chat about this stuff? Or do we live in some sort of “Gift of the Magi” dystopia where one branch of government tries to buy us something nice but just ends up ruining the nice transportation network the other one had planned?
This, apparently, is not a partisan thing, at least from a planning perspective. (I’ll leave the coverage of the financial shenanigans to Jennifer Henderson.) Case in point, in 2010, under Darrel Dexter’s NDP government, Access Nova Scotia’s Halifax office was relocated from the former West End Mall near the Mumford Terminal to its current location in Bayers Lake. And then in 2013, the same government moved Truro’s Access NS office out of downtown and into the cars-only boonies of Truro Heights.
So what gives? Is there a conspiracy afoot among Nova Scotia technocrats? A sort of wilful ignorance of the consequences of these basic infrastructure choices beyond their own departmental bottom line in a particular budget year? Whatever it is, it’s pretty damn irresponsible.
“It goes against everything we are talking about,” said Rod MacPhail, the transportation consultant heading up Halifax’s IMP team last week, when a citizen asked him about the provincial decision. “Employees who don’t own a car today are going to have to think about getting one.”
Now of course, there will be a chorus of voices saying, let’s just make Bayers Lake better. For the record, I’m not against improving transit and pedestrian access in Bayers Lake, but let’s face it, the cards are stacked against us there. And I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons the “BLIP” (as it used to be known back in the early oughts) doesn’t feature prominently in any of the IMP maps.
Bayers Lake was designed for people in cars, and only them. Chain Lake Drive is a four- to six-lane-wide boulevard lined with massive parking lots, at the end of which you will find rows of storefronts or isolated box stores. Even once you drive to Bayers Lake, if you plan to hit more than one location you are compelled to keep driving, since the whole place is “dangerous and unwelcoming” as one citizen commenter put it at last week’s IMP consultation.
All this is not to say that there might not be a case for moving some outpatient services outside of the downtown core. If there’s a critical mass of folks driving in from rural areas, then maybe it makes sense to distribute our care centres off the peninsula. But the province isn’t really presenting this argument, or at least any numbers along with it.
“The primary users are intended to be those 40 per cent of people living in rural communities, as well as outside the downtown core,” wrote provincial media relations advisor Brian Taylor in an email. I’m not entirely clear how the 40 per cent figures in, since this centre cannot possibly be meant for the entire rural population of Nova Scotia. (If it is, some of them are going to be pissed!)
Rather, it seems to be about parking, and the lure of the seemingly endless free surface lot, the kind that makes places physically inaccessible by transit or active transportation. The province was looking for a 15-acre slab of land so that it could build a massive surface parking lot to go along with a new outpatient centre. And if the Cobequid Health Centre is anything to go by, the lot will be placed between the new health centre and the closest sidewalks and transit access, adding insult to injury for anyone without a car.
As for increasing convenience and reducing travel time for HRM citizens “outside the core,” it’s important to note that there’s zero residential development in Bayers Lake. The closest human homes are on the other side of the 102, in Clayton Park, where incidentally the IMP team has identified an area for high density, diverse transit-oriented development.
Can you just imagine if the province had announced a new health centre to kick off our first major transit oriented development area? What a triumph of smart, collaborative, long range, sustainable planning that would have been. But then we’d miss out on the O. Henry ending, I guess. So we will have to settle for a 100 per cent car-oriented “health care” facility instead.