It may not look like much—just another slab of concrete among the rest that line the waterfront near Dartmouth Cove—but the small plot of land at 33 Maitland has been quite the hot potato for the past decade, and is now costing thousands of provincial tax dollars to fix.
The land was ceded to the province after the building caught fire in a suspected case of arson this past August. Along with the charred remains, the province inherited decades of possible soil contamination, and it now has to find a solution for a problem that no one wanted to deal with.
“There are two sites you don’t buy: old drycleaners and ex-gas stations,” says Paul Bembridge, who co-owns the nearby Moffatts Pharmacy and much of the land near the former Deluxe Dry Cleaners property. “You can almost guarantee there’s going to be pollution on it.”
Bembridge has watched the old building decay for the past 30 years. Over the past few years the downtown had started to rebuild and use abandoned properties, but Deluxe stayed virtually unchanged, except for a new coat of paint that the city applied just over a year ago.
“The loss of that building wasn’t a loss for the community,” says Bembridge. “We don’t need buildings that aren’t being used and just don’t look good. Buildings like that pull down the atmosphere of the downtown.”
The former owners of Deluxe stopped paying property taxes more than a decade ago. In 2003, the property was put up for sale twice. The city says there was no interest in the land because of the suspected contamination.
“The province asked if we wanted to buy it,” says the city’s communication manager John O’Brien. “Being a drycleaners there would obviously be soil contamination problems and so we didn’t want to get into that.”
Although the province knew the land had been abandoned, there were no plans to deal with it before the fire. The Department of Environment and Labour says nothing could have been done about the old Deluxe Dry Cleaners, because it fell under their radar.
“Obviously, there would have to be complaints about the site before we could do anything, otherwise we wouldn’t know the site existed,” says Jacqueline May, from the Department of Environment and Labour. “If the complaint is reasonable we follow up with the responsible party to get them to remediate the land.”
Most of the complaints from the community were directed towards the city. Gloria McCluskey, the councillor for Dartmouth Centre and member of the dangerous and unsightly premises committee, had been pushing for years to fix up the area.
“It was unsightly, so I thought it fell into that category and I kept blaming the city. Then I found out it was really the responsibility of the province because of the suspected contamination,” says McCluskey.
As a result of confusion and a lack of communication, Deluxe Dry Cleaners remained an eyesore and a hot spot for criminal activity in the area. “I guess I should thank god it burned down,” says McCluskey, “or else it would still be there.”
The land is currently under the control of the Department of Transportation and Public Works. So far they’ve removed and disposed of the bulk of regulated materials from inside the burnt drycleaners and demolished the building. This month the land will be formally tested to see if it’s contaminated.
Transportation and Public Works controls about 22,000 properties in the province, and Dan Davis, communications officer with the department, says they’re used to managing property. The Deluxe site, however, has them scratching their heads.
“With this particular property we don’t have any answers. Ultimately, it’s not clear at this point what will be done, but this isn’t something we normally have to deal with. This is a piece of land we never wanted,” says Davis.
Despite all the cost of dealing with the Deluxe property, Tim Olive, the executive director of the Downtown Dartmouth Business Commission, says the province can still cash in on the land.
“As a stand-alone property it has limited worth,” says Olive. “But within the context of the redevelopment in the property between Maitland and Canal streets...it will be a valuable piece of property that the province should be looking at.”