Below is a letter sent by Paul MacKinnon on September 8, 2014, to Mayor Mike Savage and HRM Regional Council regarding The Khyber Building.
Mayor Mike Savage and Councillors:
In 2009, HRM council made a commitment in the form of the Barrington Street Heritage Conservation District, as part of the HRM by Design plan. That plan reinforced the need for Barrington, as well as two other districts (yet to be formed) to form the basis of the city’s rich heritage. Heritage districts are not only about preservation of assets, but often are the places that give rise to a city’s cultural, food, arts and innovation scenes.
Barrington Street is unique in many ways. It’s value, for the most part, comes not from specific buildings, but from the heritage milieu that has been formed there, over time. There are several exceptions where the building itself is an iconic piece of stand-alone architecture, and absolutely imperative to save solely on its own merit. City Hall, Saint Paul’s Church, Government House are examples. So is the Khyber building. In fact, it is such a symbol of the street that it adorns the banners and other materials which promote the district.
While it is true that it is more important that the Barrington buildings be maintained than who maintains them, it seems unlikely that a private developer will be successful in rehabilitating the building to its desired standing. Because it was built as an institutional property, it is ill-suited for residential or commercial development. The staff report states how expensive it is, and unlike the current owners, a developer would want to rehabilitate it, and make a profit. Even if a buyer could be found, could they afford to rehabilitate the building without substantially altering its appearance?
Beyond the architectural merit of the building, the Khyber is one of the few city-owned properties dedicated to arts and culture. There is no question that it has been a challenge in Halifax for a bureaucracy to foster arts and culture. However, one of the key roles any city can play is to provide dedicated space. This is especially true in the case of Halifax, as there is no viable not-for-profit, or crown corporation to take on this role, such as Toronto’s Artscape.
While staff's recommendation may make sense from purely a financial perspective, the city’s obligations beyond that encompass its role in heritage preservation and fostering culture. Since 2009, there has been a substantial amount of private sector investment in Barrington. There has been institutional investment in the form of the Glebe House and City Hall. It seems appropriate for the city to continue its role, this time in the form of stewardship, in retaining the Khyber and continuing its use as the cultural hub of Downtown.