It’s easy to criticize the parking lot in the Grand Parade. As a prime piece of public land and a centrepiece for the city, there are plenty of uses for the square that would be more inspiring than a car park.
Now that city council has resolved to stop using the public square as a parking lot, the biggest problem might be choosing the single best way to revitalize the area. This week, city and provincial staff are accepting proposals that will ultimately decide the fate of the historic site.
Originally, the debate over the future of Grand Parade was exclusively a city issue. But according to Paul MacKinnon, executive director of the Halifax Downtown Business Commission, the province got involved about six months ago.
“They basically came to the table with some money and said, ‘We’d like to cost-share a study and expand the scope of it,’” says MacKinnon. As a result, proposals for the Grand Parade must now include a focus on several provincial properties between George and Prince Street, as well as plans for the future of Province House.
District 12 councillor Dawn Sloane has been fighting for months to remove the parking lot from the Grand Parade. She says with the cars soon to be out of the way, the space has enormous potential to benefit the downtown area.
“I’ve been travelling a little over the last couple of weeks, including a pleasure trip for myself to New York,” she says. “I checked out what they had for public art, how they used their open spaces, and I thought, ‘You know what? We can do that. This is nothing new. This is something we can do in Halifax and make it as attractive as anything in a high-profile city like New York.’”
It’s still unknown how many formal proposals the project management team will receive—the deadline for submissions is November 4. HRM’s Urban Design project manager Andy Fillmore is heading the project, but he declined to comment before the contract is awarded to ensure a fair competition.
Over the course of the parking debate, there were numerous informal suggestions about how the Grand Parade could be put to better use. Public art displays, outdoor music concerts, gardens, buskers and an outdoor skating rink have all been brought up as possibilities.
The province and the city have budgeted $80,000 for the project and have given all bidders an eight month limit in which to complete their plan. With the contract to be rewarded on November 21, any new design would have to be finished by mid-July 2006.
The HDBC was one of the first organizations to support the idea of an outdoor skating rink, and it’s now part of a committee that will provide community input on the proposals. Whichever plan is selected, Paul MacKinnon hopes to see more public events hosted in the Grand Parade.
“We’d like to see more programming that makes things more accessible to the public. I don’t think that’s necessarily going to mean a lot of huge design changes; it’s just a case of getting more activities in there,” he says. “What we’d like to see is the Grand Parade reclaimed as the most important piece of public space that we have.”
Sloane agrees with MacKinnon. The site is currently home to the annual New Year’s Eve celebration and the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in December. It also hosts an annual Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph. Sloane envisions the Grand Parade becoming more of a year-round haven for community gatherings.
“There is so much that we could do there,” she says. “I think we need to have more music during the summer time. I’d like to see each one of our districts highlight an artist for a week in the summer, whether it be visual or musical. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? You can go down and sing, dance, do whatever you need to do, and use it as your public space. That’s what I’d like to see.”
Sloane also notes that despite all of the progress, some councillors are still upset about the imminent loss of parking on the Parade.
“They’ll grumble and grumble, and it’s unfortunate,” she says. “Some people don’t see the big picture, which is if you’re going to have a spot that’s going to be known as a public centrepiece, it must be used for that purpose.”