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Our Annual Halifax Fix the City list

Our annual New Year’s look at what’s broken, and how to fix it

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Create an emergency shelter

When the harshest winds of winter hit the city, and the streets are buried beneath a blizzard's weight in ice and snow, where can the homeless turn in a pinch for safe and supportive care? Nowhere, since the closure of Pendleton Place, a harm reduction centre that the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services decided to cut funding for last year.

Harm reduction centres are an important part of transient care programs, built to deal with any number of emergencies and difficulties. They offer immediate health care service, a place to escape from the cold and the wind when the temperature drops below safe levels for those sleeping in the streets (and when beds available in standard shelters are quickly grabbed up), and specialized care for anyone dealing with various problems that could disrupt work in a normal shelter, such as struggling against addiction. They're also a place for people who don't quite fit into the mold, such as the transgendered, who may be unwelcome in one instance, and uncomfortable in another.

"There's been quite a gap in continuum since the closure of Pendleton Place," says John Hartling of Community Action on Homelessness. Despite a positive reaction to existing services when they are provided, according to the Health and Homelessness in Halifax report commissioned by CAH, and information that points to mental health problems being much higher among the homeless than once thought, there is "nothing on the horizon" for replacing the closed facility and providing necessary emergency services. —MG

Destroy St. Pat's

It's been over two years since St. Patrick's High School merged with Queen Elizabeth High to become the brand spanking new Citadel High, leaving us with only memories of the former glory of the old St. Pat's. That, and a big ugly dilapidated building on a prime piece of Quinpool Road land.

While plans have been made to turn the old QEH over to its neighbour the QE2, St. Pat's remains as the oversized, underutilized home of the Quinpool Education Centre, and perhaps as a monument to the lessons and rivalries of old.

The city can't do anything with the property until the school district turns it over, but we say bureaucratic red tape be damned! The building is an eyesore, and something needs to be done.

A much-needed multi-million-dollar redesign and rebuilding of Quinpool Road is in the works, promising to bring a fresh look and vitality to the street. But, even so, dumpy old St. Pat's remains at the entrance of the project, pulling the whole plan down. And a couple of new shrubs or other landscaping changes propped up in front of the building isn't going to change that ugly truth.

The education programs currently being held in St. Pat's could be held in a much smaller space and the current building could be replaced, revamped, sold...anything.

Doug Hadley, communication coordinator for the school board, says the district will continue education programs at the building "until such time as we feel there is a more suitable location to host them." So find or build that other location. How? Where? With what money? Whatever. Do it. —KW

Establish an Africville inquiry

Talk about Africville seems tired. It's been almost six years since the United Nations urged Canada to consider reparations for the removal of Africville residents, the closure of their businesses and church and the overall destruction of their community, but all these years later, the wrong hasn't been righted.

And neither the city of Halifax nor the province of Nova Scotia has found it in themselves to issue an official apology. Moreover, for nearly 20 years, politicians have been promising some sort of compensation, or at least to rebuild the church that was bulldozed to the ground in the dead of the night. But still no compensation, and still no church.

Eddie Carvery, whose family was one of the many forced to leave Africville, has been camping off and on at the site of his family's home, 1833 Barrington Street, since the '70s. He's not even asking for compensation at this point. But he is demanding a public inquiry to figure out once and for all what really was behind the relocation of Africville, and to openly and honestly acknowledge the wrong and suggest proper compensation.

Carvery is right. An inquiry is the logical first step, and the very least we can do. —CD

Put a bike lane on Quinpool

This city needs more bike lanes and we all know it. I'm sure having to move out of the way for cyclists to shoot by on the sidewalk is getting as old for them as it is me (a committed hoofer). But it's understandable, if not illegal and dangerous. Cruising along on six or so inches of wet leaf- or snow-covered pavement with side mirrors grazing your arms the whole time can't be enjoyable.

We need bike lanes in a lot of places, but Quinpool Road in particular. This road is notorious among my pedalling friends and it's not hard to see why. It's a main artery with lots of cars on the road and very little room for vehicles of the two-wheeled variety.

Barry Yanchyshyn, senior landscape architect for HRM, says that bike lanes were considered for the redesign of Quinpool Road that's in the works, but the amount of road available simply doesn't allow for them. What the plan offers instead is an extra-wide curb lane that would be shared by both cars and bikes.

We say no. There needs to be a bike lane, somehow, some way. Why not get rid of the street parking? Sure, businesses will be pissed, but the times they are a-changing and hey, cyclists like to shop too. And if you're rethinking the whole street anyway, why not take the plunge and make a major change, lead the way? Here's five or so metres of road being taken up by stagnant cars that could instead be flowing traffic. Environmentally friendly flowing traffic. Seems like a good idea to us. —KW

Replace the free graffiti wall

Two weeks ago, the parking lot at the corner of Lower Water and Morris Streets became the temporary home for the historic Charles Morris building. While that's good news, our problem is the lot has been one of the city's best examples of making the best of a bad thing---transforming an urban eyesore into a creative space. With it goes one of the only forums for spontaneous public expression in the HRM.

Over the last decade or so, grafitti artists have used "the pit" (as it's affectionately known) as a canvas. Though not strictly a legal wall, a tacit agreement with Nova Scotia Power, owner of the lot, has allowed graf writers to do their thing without being harassed by the police.

The moving of the Charles Morris building was accompanied by the filling of the pit. NS Power filled the pit to make the lot level with Lower Water Street. The levelling, says spokesperson David Rodenhiser, was a "neighbourly gesture"---there had been complaints about people drinking and using drugs in the pit, and "unfortunately the folks who had been using the lot responsibly are going to lose out."

Downtown councillor Dawn Sloane says that nefarious doings in the pit are nothing new, but she's let things slide for the sake of the graffiti artists. "I would rather have [grafitti] concentrated in one area than have it all over." It's probably fair to guess that the escalation in complaints might be related to a condo that'll soon be on Hollis and Morris (on the former Charles Morris lot).

Sloane says it'll take a big public stink---a petition with about 250 names would do---to get the city to even think about replacing the wall, especially with fellow councillor Linda Mosher's push for a "graffiti management plan" standing in the way---a plan that doesn't distinguish between street art and vandalism. —JL

Put a crosswalk on Cogswell Street

One of the most dangerous traffic hot spots in the city got a little more hectic this year, with the opening of a park for service dogs---working dogs assisting blind people---at the grassy lot between Rainnie Drive and Cogswell Street, by Centennial Pool.

Problem is, the corner chosen for the park is well-known to be a nightmare for even pedestrians with perfect vision.

To make matters worse, there is not a crosswalk down Cogswell or Rainnie near the park entrance, or anywhere between North Park and Gottingen streets. Residents wishing to use the land have to precariously venture across the road, through traffic coming from all points from the intersection up the street.

Kevin McEachern of HRM Right of Way says that crosswalks are only placed in areas that record a high enough traffic count and low visibility of the pedestrians, and that the strip of Cogswell between Rainnie and Gottigen must, therefore, not be busy enough.

Hogwash, says we. Let's place common sense above the bureaucratic logic, and put a marked crosswalk on Cogswell Street. —MG

Impose a coffee cup tax

Halifax is nothing if not strongly caffeinated. The city seems to have a coffee shop on every corner, much to the delight of its many coffee addicts---and the chagrin of its environmentalists. These dozens of coffee shops not only produce tons of coffee, but tons of disposable cups.

While there are a couple municipalities in the province who accept the cups for compost, Halifax does not. Most disposable cups have a plastic or wax lining to keep them from leaking, making them difficult or impossible to compost and/or recycle.

All these cups are simply going in the trash, and cafes are handing them out left and right with nothing being done to stop the waste.

The City of Toronto proposed last year to either put a high tax on disposable cups, create a deposit-return system similar to that of alcohol bottles or simply ban the cups completely. The proposal was rejected by the Toronto council.

Maggy Burns of the Ecology Action Centre suggests reusable or travel coffee mugs, but she believes the only way to really discourage coffee drinkers from paper is hitting where it hurts---their pockets.

"My recommendation is for the province to put a levy in coffee cups, the same as they've done for plastic water bottles."

Burns says at least the environmentally unfriendly could provide revenue for other ecological programs, or even fund a coffee cup recycling program. At the same time, a tax would discourage people from using disposable cups.

Trident Booksellers & Cafe on Hollis Street has tried a different approach.

The cafe only uses disposables that have a lining made of corn syrup instead of plastic, and are therefore compostable. The plastic lids, however, are still not recyclable, so a couple years ago Trident came up with a fix for that too: It started charging five cents extra for lids and tries to get customers to reuse them.

Manager Janet Shotwell says the most effective deterrent for disposable cup use at the cafe was to stop giving out loyalty stamps for beverages in paper cups (after 10 stamps, the customer gets a free drink)---people began bringing their own reusable cups, just to get the stamp.

But other cafes haven't followed Trident's laudable lead, and the garbage continues to flow. It's time Halifax try to succeed where Toronto failed---we should impose a tax on paper coffee cups. —SK

Provide water in bars

It's true that many places in Halifax are happy to provide customers with as much free tap water as they want, whether they serve that water or provide a pitcher and glasses at the bar, but there are other places that straight-out refuse to give people water unless it's bottled and sold at pretty ludicrous prices.

Let's look to our friends, the Aussies, to learn how to do things better. In New South Wales, the government has a legislation that states: "Free water mandatory." They recognize that at establishments where liquor is sold, it makes sense to allow patrons to have access to tap water.

The legislation says it is necessary for people to have water if they need to take medication or to relieve dehydration. The law also mentions that bottled water often doesn't conform to "reasonable charge" guidelines The legislation also points out that having water accessible is important in slowing down alcohol consumption and preventing dehydration. (And remember, bar owners: the longer it takes people to get wasted, the longer they can stay out and keep buying alcohol, so the more money your establishment will make.)

It's next to impossible to figure out who should be responsible for passing this legislation in Nova Scotia. Each government department suggested someone else to speak to, saying the issue didn't fall under its jurisdiction. But it seems the Department of Alcohol & Gaming should be the ones in charge. Once again, that's how the Aussies did it! —CD

Make street names more visible

Halifax is a difficult city to navigate on many levels, but the undercover street name signs make matters worse.

Tourists and newcomers to the city complain that street names are rarely visible---either they are blocked by overgrown trees or simply not there at all. Busy intersections such as Connaught and Chebucto pose this problem, as well as streets near Dalhousie University where trees are close to the road.

Taso Koutroulakis, deputy traffic authority of the city's Traffic Services, says if people want the problems with signage fixed, they just have to ask. "If there are signs that are missing or damaged or obstructed residents should call the 490 number," he says of the city's request line, 490-4000. "We would look into it and have it corrected."

Koutroulakis says if signs are missing entirely, the only reason would be theft or damage. HRM policy requires a minimum of two signs indicating intersecting streets, but Traffic Services doesn't have the means to drive around checking on the thousands of street signs around the city.

At least, not yet. Koutroulakis says regular checks to make sure signs are visible are in the near future.

"Starting next year there's a program in place where there's staff that are going to be assigned specifically to drive the streets of HRM to note any deficiencies," he explains. "They're tasked to identify any hazards or maintenance problems."

Until then, Koutroulakis advises that any problems with sign visibility be reported to the HRM service request line.

Let's hope these check-ups begin soon--- there's only so much last-minute turning our necks can handle. —SK

Let pubs open on Quinpool Road

It's high time that people should be able to go to Quinpool Road restaurants and have a drink without having to also order food. Thanks to a community plan from 1986 that worried that "lounges" would somehow compromise the neighbourhood, only three places on the street can currently serve booze without serving food: Freeman's and Seasons were grandfathered in, and Athens picked up Quincy's old license, which Quincy's only got after a lengthy application process. Others have been rejected.

Northwest Arm-South End councillor Sue Uteck says two solutions are being batted around: either a site-specific or a general area allowance of lounge licenses on Quinpool. Both Uteck and Connaught councillor Jennifer Watts favour the site-specific option so that there can be more control on hours of operation and public input.

As for public support? "I don't think I have had one negative call yet," says Uteck. "The demographics of Quinpool have changed and people want to be able to go to their local."

Hear, hear. Halifax is in desperate need of neighbourhood pubs and the idea that any enjoyment of a bevvy sans food needs to be relegated to the downtown core is arcane.

Then again, maybe we're wrong. Maybe you get a couple of pubs on Quinpool and the whole street gets burnt to the ground by roving groups of lawless drunkards. Maybe the whole area ends up getting cut off from the rest of the city and all the criminals are sent there and then Kurt Russell shows up and starts kicking ass and taking names.Or maybe people will just be able to go and enjoy a drink after a hard day's work. —KW

Lift the Argyle parking ban

About a month ago the city, without telling anyone, put up signs warning that cars parked in certain spots on Argyle between 12:05am and 8am might get towed. To lose a few parking spots is a big deal in a city where downtown parking is so bad, and the move upset Argyle businesses owners. The city's excuse: the parking ban frees up space for emergency vehicles. The idea is to prevent street brawls such as the one that spilled out from the Dome a few years ago.

The story, via councillor Dawn Sloane, goes like this: Police say douchebags (our word, not theirs) like to roll past bars looking for trouble. When they see their nemeses in line at the club, the douchebags park, rush out and throw down. Cramped parking spaces mean cops can't get there in time to stop any nastiness. That's Halifax for you---can't walk two steps without a gang of street toughs jumping out of their Range Rover to beat you up for no reason.

If the city is so worried about violence, it should focus on prevention instead of enforcement. A late-night bus would kill two birds with one stone: alleviate parking and help clear drunk people out of the troublesome area between Argyle and Pizza Corner. The Coast asked for a boozer bus two years ago. So far, nothing. —JL

Fix the City Hall software

City Hall had new meeting management software installed in 2007 and, ever since, city council meetings have been an embarrassing cascade of dropped votes, microphone cut-offs, lost PowerPoint slides and the Coast reporter busting a gut from laughter.

City clerk Cathy Mellet says the problems with the system have been fixed, but council meetings continue to see operators struggle with the system---due to user error. "The mics are controlled by the mayor, and we are new to being in the chair"---Mellet and her staff have just begun sitting in on council meetings and are adjusting to the new technology.

"It's a new system, different from what we're used to," she says. "We're dealing with a bit of a learning curve." Staff underwent training for the system, and there is a user manual to refer to.

Backman Vidcom is the system's vendor and has installed similar software at other municipalities around the province. Sales manager Daniel O'Malley confirms Mellet's claims that the technology takes some getting used to.

He says councillors using these systems "don't essentially come from technological backgrounds; it's not an easy thing."

We're not buying it. Mellet is an excellent clerk, capable and self-effacing. We can understand that the bumbling mayor might have problems with the on-off switches, but if Mellet and her staff can't operate the software, the problem's not with them---the problem's with the software.

And software salespeople blaming users for the crappy user interface is the ultimate in tacky, don't you think?

Backman Vidcom's contract should be revoked, the company sued for non-compliance and a decent software firm should be contracted to build a working, user-friendly system. —SK

Accept Ontario health cards in bars

This is really irritating to anyone from Ontario who is of legal drinking age and without a driver's licence: Despite the fact that, in terms of giving your birthdate and photo, Ontario health cards are identical to driver's licences, Halifax bars will not let you in based with health cards alone.

"It's really up to the establishment," says Jeremy White, head of investigation at the alcohol and gaming authority.

So if there's no rule, why do Halifax bars categorically deny health cards? As White explains, Halifax bars' main reference is The ID Checking Guide. Made by a Californian company, the book lists driver's licences from every province and US state, and nothing else.

So Halifax bars: why not exercise some autonomy and allow lazy Ontarians to get their drink on? —JL

Drain the Common paths

Before being developed into Canada's oldest city park and Halifax's most prominent green space, the Halifax Common was a swamp. Some might argue it still is.

The North Common especially is essentially a big, sometimes grassy, sometimes muddy bowl. And what sits in the middle of that bowl? A nicely paved footpath. Or a lake, depending on the weather.

After a good rain fall or snow melt there are sections of the footpath that force you to either get soaked as you wade through their murky depths or attempt a risky portage through the muddy swamps that surround them.

Peter Bigelow, HRM real property manager, says the city is aware of the problem and he jokingly dubs it a "nice, natural skating rink," referring to the state of these water obstacles during a freeze. The issue is in discussion, he assures, and plans have been proposed for either more drainage or new, wider, less-floody footpaths.

Yes, good. Both please. And maybe before next winter. My shoes will thank you. —KW

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