Downtown rising

In the wake of recent store closures on Barrington Street, Brent Sedo looks into a revitalization plan that’s already been three years in the making.

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The revitalization of Barrington Street is moving into a new phase. Those involved in the project hope it will lead to the implementation of a plan by this time next year.

The most recent discussions about Barrington began in 2004, when HRM formed a steering committee—comprised of Barrington retailers, property owners, Nova Scotia Heritage Trust members, the Downtown Halifax Business Commission and HRM staff—who were given the task of coming up with a long-term plan for the street.

The resulting draft—Barrington Street Heritage District Revitalization Plan—unveiled in 2005, made the point that two issues concerning Barrington—heritage conservation and economic revitalization—are actually closely linked.

HRM council discussed the plan in January of 2006, and, although approved in principle, it was sent back to the HRM departments involved with a list of questions, primarily around the issue of funding for heritage improvements and the actual changes to the streetscape.

“The plan is based on the broad idea that in other cities in North America and Europe, old historic commercial cores have had new economic life breathed into them through the creation and naming of a historic district,” says Bill Plaskett, heritage planner for HRM. “Naming the district, putting some money into the district and promoting the district becomes the package that leads to economic revitalization.”

Plaskett acknowledges there has been frustration from the steering committee on the time it has taken the various issues to be addressed by HRM staff. He explains the streetscape component, which includes the actual redesign of the street to make it more pedestrian-friendly, while at the same time addressing issues of traffic circulation through downtown, was held up due to lack of a landscape architect on HRM staff. That position was filled earlier this year, and Plaskett says things seem to be back on track.

“It has taken awhile to figure out where the money for the grant program is going to come from,” says Plaskett. “The question was if that was going to be new money via a tax increase, or if it was going to come from existing heritage-related accounts.”

The plan now calls for a 50-50 cost sharing grant program, with $300,000 per year to come from existing budget funds. Plaskett says that if the program proves popular with building owners in the first two years, options would be to continue the funding through existing budgets, or create a new budget from general tax revenue.

All is contingent on HRM council approving the final plan. Plaskett says he is personally optimistic that will happen by the fall of 2007, enabling the project to get under way for fiscal 2008.

That will be a red-letter day for Craig Sievert. A member of the Heritage Plan steering committee, Sievert’s family has operated the street-level tobacco shop at 1575 Barrington for 100 years, and owned the building for the past 75.

“I think we’ve done a lot of work, and it’s time to see it through,” he says. “It was supposed to be a one-year project, and now it’s been two. And when you’re talking about development, and asking developers to wait two or three years, they’ll just take their development somewhere else.

“I look across at the old National Film Board building, and that has been empty since 1995,” he says. “That building wouldn’t sit empty like that on Spring Garden Road for that long, somebody would do something with it. That’s what I mean by development. Along with the heritage designation, you have to have something there.”

David Garrett is another steering committee member and an architect with an office on Barrington. In 1997 he was involved in a study called Downtown Barrington: A Strategy for Rejuvenation of Barrington Street. He believes that since then, things on the street are “no better and no worse.”

“We’re talking about two generations of neglect, so it’s not going to come back on its own and it needs assistance,” he says. “But right now I’m very optimistic for the future of Barrington. I think there is general agreement about what needs to be done, and I don’t hear anyone saying it’s a bad idea. So now we need to work out the details.”

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