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Field of dreams

The former infirmary site might become an exciting new library—in 10 years. But today it's a rubble-strewn mess that needs some attention before it turns into a rat-infected mess. Or, worse, a parking lot.


When Talbot Sweetapple, an urban designer with local firm Brian MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, considers the layout of downtown Halifax, he can’t imagine a more exciting corner than Spring Garden Road and Queen Street.

“I can’t think of a better location downtown to be more central, or more energized. Honestly. It’s amazing to have a space like that open to develop. ”

In addition to his day job at the architecture firm, Sweetapple can often be found working alongside the now-vacant block, teaching students at the Dalhousie School of Architecture. Seeing a real-life opportunity to inspire the students in his master’s-level design studio, Sweetapple will be asking his students to plan a hypothetical design for the downtown property.

“It’ll be starting in the next term, so I’m not sure yet exactly where the students will go with it,” says Sweetapple. “The whole scale of the area shifts right at Queen Street, so there’s a lot of energy on the site. Will it be a commercial site, or an institutional site? Will it be public use? At this point, it’s still hard to tell.”

Like most others involved in the Spring Garden and Queen debate, Sweetapple’s students will be dreaming about long-term functions for the property, imagining grand developments and major long-term investments.

So the question is: Who’s dreaming about right now?

“It’s rare in a case like this that people really think about the immediate use of the site,” says Sweetapple. “It all depends on how long the site stays there, undeveloped… but it wouldn’t really surprise me if it turned into interim parking in the meantime.”

A good portion of the block is already devoted to parking—a lot exists near the Spring Garden Road end of the block. The other end of the block—the former site of the Halifax Infirmary—still resembles a construction site. Rocky and fenced off, the effects of the Infirmary demolition still linger on the south end of the Spring Garden and Queen property.

As fun as interim parking sounds, what else could happen in the meantime? With public discussion fixed on the long-term potential of the site, the short-term opportunities have been largely forgotten. Could the former infirmary site be flattened? Paved? Cleaned up? Could part of the block be devoted to public greenspace? Could we add benches? Street lamps? Art? Music?

The short-term options are just as vibrant as the long-term schemes, and perhaps easier to implement. While the following are only suggestions—some more realistic than others—they would at least be more engaging than an extended parking lot.

Public performance venue

As Juno madness fades into local memory, one of the most striking images from the three-day musical bender remains the throng of 15,000 fans who packed themselves into (and around) Grand Parade for the free Thursday night kick-off concert. No Coldplay or Black Eyed Peas to be found, no swooping Pamela Anderson v-necks, just local rock stars like Matt Mays and Joel Plaskett being treated like, well, rock stars. Apparently, if you build it, they will indeed come. The corner of Spring Garden and Queen offers a similar opportunity as a central downtown performance space: easily accessible to pedestrians, close to public transportation routes and central enough to draw from a number of Halifax neighbourhoods. Even if not on the same scale as the Juno-welcoming bash, the corner of Spring Garden and Queen would be an ideal place to feature local artists in a series of downtown concerts (dare to dream, free downtown concerts). The corner even has prior experience as a musical venue—the soul-patch set will already be familiar with the Jazzfest tent that rises from the concrete every summer, turning a drab parking lot into a funky musical pavilion. So why not funk it up all summer long?

Festival madness

Speaking of the Jazzfest, festival season is about to descend on Halifax like a seagull on a piece of half-eaten anything. The annual influx of tourists—oh so vital to the local economy—is coming too. With Spring Garden being such a busy and visible downtown destination during the summer months, it’s a shame so many visitors will pass by such a stagnant and unfriendly block (cripes, the Harbour Hopper alone goes by there about 14 times a day). Events like the Jazzfest, the Busker Festival and the alFresco filmFesto already provide activities and performers in the downtown area—why not incorporate some of those festival activities onto Spring Garden and Queen? Throw up some banners, add some staging—with a small investment in decoration and signage, the block could be transformed into a festival hotspot. Movies! Jugglers! Musicians! Oh my!

Downtown carnival

And hey, while we’re at it, nothing says “downtown destination” like a midway and a carousel. Temporary fairgrounds do occasionally pop up around the city, like last fall’s mini-carnival near the corner of Bayers Road and Romans Avenue. Kids will love it, adults will feel like kids, and everyone—young and old—can ride the teacups. (Granted, there may be an increase in displays of public nausea, but nothing worse than what already exists at 2am after the bars let out). Can we at least install some festive food vendors? Cotton candy, anyone? Corn dogs, perhaps? Or—dare we say it—hot nuts? Let’s set up some outdoor tents and get this party started.

Graffiti wall

City council is chronically debating the merits (or lack thereof) of graffiti. Street art to some, vandalism to others, the problem with graffiti is often the damage that it causes to private property and local business (business owners on Quinpool Road have recently complained to council about a rampant graffiti problem on their street, and their inability to cope with the problem). Adding a sanctioned space for graffiti on Spring Garden and Queen might be a way to please all parties—local muralists and graffiti artists would have a public domain to show their work. Graffiti is never an easy sell, but for those who consider their spray can a means of expression rather than a tool of destruction, a regulated graffiti wall could act as an inspiring canvas.

Market space

Halifax already has a regular pool of merchants who gather every Saturday to peddle their wares in the Brewery Market between Hollis and Lower Water Streets. Now imagine all the fun of market shopping…but with fresh air!

If transplanting the market is too much of a logistical nightmare, other market concepts might prove successful on the site. For example, the Halifax Public Libraries Board has proposed one of the most popular long-term developments for Spring Garden and Queen: a new downtown public library facility, intended to at least partially replace the old downtown library building located just across the street (also on Spring Garden Road). To capitalize on the proven public interest, let the Library Board host an outdoor book market to sell off older library titles and raise money for the new library.

Surface parking… for bikes

Surface parking for cars is one of the most common interim uses of downtown space awaiting development. Cars have a way of seeping onto any unclaimed downtown property—the corner of Barrington and George Streets currently features one such “temporary” parking arrangement that has taken on a seemingly permanent status. If we can’t turn back the tide of surface parking, we can at least diversify what gets parked: Rather than cars, provide bicycle racks and create parking spaces for city cyclists. During the summer months, bikes fight for space along Spring Garden Road—you’ll find them locked to trees, garbage cans, staircase railings, public benches and anything else anchored to the ground. Seems like a good opportunity to give bicycles a more suitable downtown corral.

Community gardening

After all, it’s called Spring Garden Road. Following the demolition of the former Halifax Infirmary, Spring Garden and Queen sees more sunlight than it has since…well, a long time. This can only mean one thing: It’s time to plant seeds. Greenthumbers, unite! Rise up! Claim a piece of downtown for your experiments in urban agriculture! Can downtown Halifax sustain a carrot patch? How about a crop of lettuce? Rhubarb? Green beans? Tomatoes? We’ll never know unless we try. With other urban gardens generating renewed annual interest, finding volunteers to help organize a downtown grow plot might prove relatively simple.

Sports & recreation

As nice as it would be to incorporate more greenspace into the area, installing grass over such a large space doesn’t seem like a very likely short-term solution for Spring Garden and Queen (don’t get us wrong—if somebody out there wants to do it, we say bring on the sod). Although the lack of turf immediately discourages a number of physical activities from happening on the site (we’ll pass on the tackle football), what about throwing up a couple of basketball hoops? Or tennis nets? Or street hockey rinks? Last year, a TSN-sponsored Canada-wide street hockey tournament shut down a portion of Quinpool Road for a multi-day celebration of street hockey—think of this as an opportunity for all of the fun with none of the civic disruptions. Besides, in a city that briefly considered a municipal ban on street hockey due to safety concerns, here’s an ideal way to move the game further away from city traffic.

Outdoor skating rink

While we’re at it, a winter rink would be fun too. The call for an outdoor skating rink has grown consistently louder since someone imagined the possibility of skating on Grand Parade—even the Downtown Halifax Business Commission jumped on board to support that idea. Cold, hibernating Haligonians are hungry for winter activity, and outdoor skating seems an obvious answer. Wouldn’t it be nice to work up an appetite by gliding and sliding near the glow of Spring Garden Road, and then warm up with a steaming mug of hot chocolate? Or a slice of pepperoni pizza from Pizza Corner? Besides, if dad can build a rink in the backyard with a garden hose, we should be able to manage it on a big, flat empty block, right?

The tenth option is to let Talbot Sweeptapple’s students—and other creative minds—come up with solutions.

On a vacant lot located directly beside a School of Architecture, it seems unfortunate that nobody has asked any aspiring architects to give the site a makeover. In addition to the stream of pedestrians that file by the site every day, design students live and work on a campus that includes a large portion of the undeveloped block (Dalhousie University owns a portion of the Spring Garden and Queen land). Dreaming, designing and implementing creative uses for public space is part of their curriculum—why not let them try it in their own backyard?

Get your dream on. Make your suggestions for Spring Garden and Queen by adding a comment, below.


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