How Hard Is It to Invest in Great Streets?

July 17/15
How Hard Is It to Invest in Great Streets?

Turns out, it’s pretty hard. This Tuesday, July 21, Halifax Regional Council will make a decision that has been ten years in the making -- whether or not they truly wish to embark on a consistent effort to invest in our main streets. If they vote yes, we can begin. If they vote no, they will betray their own economic strategy and the fundamentals of good city-building. Let us recap why investing in our public realm has been so complicated.

About ten years ago the urban core Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) worked with HRM staff to create a new streetscape plan. A $10 million fund was created to be spent over five years. Four streets (Spring Garden Road, Quinpool Road, Barrington Street, and Portland Street) were prioritized for recapitalization. At the time, the streetscaping project for Portland Street in Downtown Dartmouth had received ACOA and HRM funding and was already underway. That project was completed. Spring Garden and Quinpool roads had detailed streetscape plans drawn up. Due to conflicting challenges, a cohesive streetscape vision for Barrington Street did not emerge, but it was designated as a Heritage District in 2009.

As it had been so long since any streetscape work of this scope had been undertaken, the plan was woefully underfunded. None of the streetscape projects, other than Portland Street, materialized. The remainder of the reserve was spent on other projects throughout the city.

Clearly a more serious fund was required. Research done by the Canadian Urban Institute showed that Halifax ranked last in ten cities in terms of city investment in its downtown. In 2011 the BIDs worked with Halifax Partnership and proposed a $50 million intergovernmental streetscape fund as a key component of the 2011-2016 Economic Strategy. That plan was unanimously endorsed by HRM Council. It was also approved by the Provincial and Federal governments.

Despite that approval, it was not until February, 2014 that HRM Council unanimously approved the creation of the $50 million reserve. They committed to investing their share, $3.4M/year, over the next five years. They approved a priority list of projects as brought forward by HRM staff in consultation with the Strategic Urban Partnership. They instructed staff to seek matching funds from the other levels of government.  To date, those funds from other government levels have not been forthcoming, so at the July 21, 2015 Council meeting, HRM staff will be requesting that Council instruct staff to begin using the funds to begin work on the priority projects.

This is a very important Council decision. It could put in motion an actual program of streetscape reinvestment in the urban core. It will enhance the major investments that have been made in the form of the new library and convention centre. Beyond that, it will give other projects on the priority list hope that they will see investment in the foreseeable future. It also paves the way for a similar program for the main streets in the growth centres outside of our urban core as identified in the Regional Plan.

Investing in the public realm is one of the fundamental responsibilities of municipal government. DHBC encourages the Mayor and HRM Councillors to support staff’s recommendation to allow these funds to be accessed and used for the purpose they have been reserved for. We also encourage residents of the urban core of Halifax and Dartmouth, and indeed across the whole city, to voice your support to your local councillor by emailing clerks@halifax.ca.

Great cities have great streets. On July 21 we hope that Council will make the right decision and make the creation of great streets a funded priority.

PostScript [Added July 21, 2015]: Today, Regional Council voted unanimously to proceed with the priority streetscape projects. To date neither the province nor federal governments have agreed to fund them.

Paul MacKinnon
Executive Director
Downtown Halifax Business Commission

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Brenden Sommerhalder, Director of Communications and Marketing
Tel: 902-428-5433
Email: brenden@downtownhalifax.ca