Cities made of government glass shouldn’t cast stones

Like many Cape Bretoners, I cringe when fellow islanders, egged on by CBRM’s outgoing mayor, blame all our problems on Halifax. It’s unbecoming, it’s untrue, and it’s a lazy excuse for avoiding the hard work of re-imagining Cape Breton’s economy.

Just for the moment, however, I’m more annoyed by the volley of stones hurled these last 24 hours from the glass mansions of our capital city at the Dexter Government’s on-again, off-again, on-again rescue of the paper mill in Point Tupper, Richmond County.

There’s no question Dexter made a huge gamble on this bailout.* It’s natural for taxpayers to be nervous. No doubt Dexter himself harbours private doubts. How it all turns out only time will tell.

But the kneejerk assumption that any economic development spending outside HRM is by its nature a boondoggle, and the snide, supercillious tone of the spearchuckers—well, it’s beyond galling.

Forgive us for reminding you that Halifax swims in government cash. It is home to the head offices of every provincial department and most provincial agencies; to the Canadian military; to the regional headquarters of countless federal departments; to the province’s major hospitals; to a fistful of tax-supported universities. Government teats hang from every lamppost on the peninsula.

So why is it reckless and foolhardy to spend $125 million preserving the 1,600 jobs that depend on one of the most advanced paper machines in the world, but an act of statesmanlike foresight to spend $25 billion on warships for a country that hasn’t fought a naval battle in 67 years?

That’s $40 on Halifax ships for every one dollar to preserve a paper mill four counties depend on.

Last October, I didn’t hear a single resident of Antigonish, Guysborough, Richmond, or Inverness Counties complain about the use of their tax dollars to build those Halifax ships. Maybe the good burghers of HRM (where I reside part time) could have the grace to attenuate their pieholes for a brief interlude.

* Disclosure: I played a small, peripheral role in the paper mill saga, helping Richmond County communicate its position on municipal taxes over the last few weeks. The views expressed here are mine.

Why doesn’t Quinpool live up to its promise? – updated

TV producer John Wesley Chisholm,  whose Arcadia Entertainment production company is located on Halifax’s Quinnpool Road, wonders why the street never quite achieves its potential as a great urban neighborhood.

In some ways it’s a classic mainstreet. But it’s schizophrenic. It’s a highway with a hundred hidden driveways. It’s a shopping district and residential street. It’s six lanes wide in places, narrow in others. It’s a pedestrian arcade yet almost impossible to cross conveniently. It’s highspeed traffic and slow drag. It’s a parking lot and a thoroughfare.

One thing is certain, it’s tired. The faces of the buildings are tired. The wires, poles and transformers are the distinguishing architectural feature of the street.

But it’s great! It’s connected to some of the nicest neighbourhoods you could imagine anywhere. A wonderful mix of families, young and old. Single houses and apartments. Students and seniors. Folks of all varied mind and manners.

Recently RBC and the Empire theatre have put new facades on their buildings. Many of the small businesses on the street do their best to spruce things up a little. This year some bike racks were installed. There is, by Halifax standards, lots of pedestrian and bike traffic. There is a mix of businesses, services and food more diverse and established than most places in HRM.

But one look with a critical eye and it’s clear things could be better. Over the seven years we’ve been located on Quinpool I’ve been very hesitant to speak out strongly. In spite of the mish mash it all kind of works… at least as well as any other spot in town. Rents are reasonable. There are few blank spots where developers are holding properties empty. I don’t have a great idea about how to ‘fix’ Quinpool without introducing other problems.

It’s hard to leave well enough alone though. There is some kind of Quinpool Rd. development association and they are busy beavers. Early this summer they put up stylized banners on the poles with a graphic interpretation of the street’s name that simply says “QUI”. This week, at great expense I’m sure, bathtub sized plastic planters arrived.

Is mainstreet beautification in the eye of the beholder? Does adding banners and plastic crap, holding casino nights and car meets improve a business district that has seen little capital investment since the seventies? Could we go the other way? Bring in developers, take out all the stops and let them build some highrises, condos, whatever?

What do we really want? What is the best thing for this mainstreet? The people? The neighbourhood? The city? Should the road be narrower? Wider? On-street parking or not? What would really ‘beautify’ the place? What would make it more useful and prosperous?

Chisholm’s right about the wonderfulness of adjacent neighborhoods. When in Halifax, I live two blocks from Quinpool in what I think is one of the best neighborhoods in Nova Scotia, for all the reasons Chisholm cites, but I almost always pick further away streets for eating and shopping, because Quinpool is somehow mildly off-putting.

The Coast’s Tim Bousquet points out that Halifax has a Quinpool Streetscape Project in the works, but it’s stalled. A Contrarian reader notes:

City staff and contractors prepared a detailed design for Quinpool, and the Merchant’s association was eager to proceed with construction. Unfortunately, our deadhead mayor and the council failed to acquire the needed money — they built a 4-plex hockey arena and a new library instead — and nothing has been done. If you ask business owners, they’ll tell you the street is simply a source of tax revenue for the City, but receives nothing but neglect in return.

At least Quinpool’s merchants were on board. A similar plan for Spring Garden Road, in desperate need of a facelift, was reportedly torpedoed by some of that street’s Neanderthal merchants, led by the owner of the always inaccessible Jennifer’s of Nova Scotia.

[UPDATE] Via Twitter, Tim Bousquet says HRM Council did make it a priority, but the federal  Conservative Government killed it by denying federal funds.

A fascinating [local] story of history, community, and class

It’s easy to overlook the loss we’ve suffered as traditional news outlets contract in Nova Scotia and elsewhere. This message from a former Halifax journalist, unpublished for four years, shows he has lost neither the itch nor the knack:

My wife, a friend and I went to the Old Mill tavern Thursday night to have a beer and laugh at a Dartmouth dive on the eve of its destruction. What we discovered, instead, was a fascinating story of history, community, and class.

The huge wooden beams running across the pub’s ceiling – six of them, at least 16 inches on the side, running the entire 30-foot length of the bar – unwittingly unlocked the story. Behind the bar was a small grey-haired, balding man whose subdued sadness peeked through the fissures of his smile. We asked him about the beams.

Marcel Logan, 64, has tended bar all his life – the original Misty Moon and Derby, two stints at the Lighthouse, and almost 20 years at the Old Mill, which closes forever Saturday. Marcel served Schooner while watching a young Matt Minglewood make his name, back in the days when cocaine was new and sex was carefree.

Marcel has lived the history of Halifax’s nightlife, witnessed its culture and weathered its seediness, but the looming loss that saddens him is far, far older. Those massive beams, hewn from trees the likes of which few remain in Nova Scotia, he told us, date back to the mid-1800s.

Because the Old Mill is the last standing piece of the historic Dartmouth Rope Works.

Founded in 1868, the rope factory laid the economic foundation of north-end Dartmouth in the anxious and hopeful years immediately following Confederation. It was the reason why Wyse Road was laid through a swampy stretch of the Dartmouth Commons. Within a decade, the Dartmouth Rope Works was manufacturing more rope than any other plant in Canada, at the end of the age when sailing ships fished, fought wars, and ferried immigrants and riches from foreign lands.

Almost a century and a half later, “heritage advocates” wail against any development that might be visible from the hallowed ramparts of Citadel Hill. Yet there is not a whisper of protest against the loss of a piece of history on the eastern side of Halifax Harbour.

And for those for whom history is a luxury, even more is being taken away.

The Old Mill is being razed to make way for a new Sobeys store. After it opens, the old Primrose Street Sobeys, located a little more than a kilometre away, will close.

The Primrose Street supermarket is one of the last of the small, community Sobeys in the Halifax region Metro Halifax. It serves one of the city’s most economically depressed neighbourhoods. Low income seniors and welfare mothers walk there to buy their groceries. That will soon end.

And nothing will replace it.

The community Sobeys in Woodside shut down a couple of years ago, relocating to bigger store in a more affluent location, close enough for the corporation to say it still served the community, but far enough away to be immensely inconvenient for those most needing its service. No supermarket has replaced it.

The community Sobeys on Gottingen Street in Halifax moved away 30 years ago. That lot is still vacant.

I don’t blame Sobeys. Business is business. And business models that don’t or can’t modernize fail and die.

Like rope works.

But where are the people who profess to care about these things?

Where are the self-appointed protectors of our history and heritage?

Where are the anti-poverty activists? The occupiers?

Why are they silent?

Perhaps these things – historical integrity, community equality, class dignity – only count on the peninsula.

To which Contrarian adds, where are the keen young Herald/CBC/Coast/OpenFileHalifax reporters who should have noticed and written about the passing of this culturally important, non-peninsular institution? It’s enough to send subdued sadness peeking through the fissures of our smile. A year’s free Contrarian subscription to the fourth reader who correctly identifies the lamented writer.

UPDATE: Mike Dinn tweets: “Isn’t there still a community Sobeys out in Musquodobit Harbour?” It appears so. Any others?

How HRM’s anti-sprawl policies foster more sprawl

Richard Stevenson, one of the province’s top water and sewer engineers, spends a lot of time thinking about how the province can cope with its crumbling municipal infrastructure. He has come to the conclusion HRM’s stringent regulations governing development actually work against the stated goals of the city’s planning department.

HRM espouses a policy of increasing the density of the urban core, but its own planning regulations result in lower population densities.

  • R-1 single family zoning limits population density to 20 persons per acre, or 45 persons per hectare (to protect us against barrio-like overcrowding, I presume).
  • The city also requires that we design the number of single family serviced lots based on a minimum housing density of 3.35 persons per household.
  • The math is simple and leads to a maximum house count of about six houses per acre.

Census Canada’s records show the actual R-1 housing occupancy in the Halifax Census Metropolitan Area is less than 2.8 persons per single family lot, or 16.8 persons per acre—only 83.8% of their intended density.

The same problem applies to duplex, townhouse, and multi-unit  developments within HRM. Actual housing unit occupancies are all significantly lower than the design numbers.  This may seem like a small matter, but it results in fewer occupants per acre, less taxation per acre for HRM, less revenue from water and wastewater rates, lower utilization rates for all infrastructure systems, and larger infrastructure systems, which are all based on the prescribed planning occupancies.

It also results in more expensive building lots for the residents and larger mortgages per home. The developer of the residential subdivision is limited in the number of lots or units he can build, and therefore the cost per unit must increase.

If we want higher densities in our urban neighborhoods, we should adopt housing occupancy design targets that more closely approximate our falling census figures, especially since the size of the family unit appears to be falling as the baby boomers retreat to smaller residential arrangement, and their descendants stagger under the costs of maintaining the municipal infrastructure they are inheriting.

We have come to understand that we are unabl

;e to afford to expand our municipal trunk infrastructure or to fix what we have currently. Perhaps a more realistic set of population design densities would be a good first step toward increasing the density of our urban communities and making more efficient use of our expensive municipal services.

[Disclosure: Richard and I are old friends; that is, we’re both old, and we’re good friends.]

Has Don Mills put CRA in a conflict of interest?

A Contrarian reader asks:

Does it not seem to you that there is a major conflict of interest in the Savage-for-Mayor camp? [, the online news service]  lists Don Mills as one of Savage’s top supporters. Since  Mills operates Corporate Research Associates, the major polling firm in the province — one that just recently reported Savage with a big lead — why would one trust anything CRA has to say on the race?

A fair question, and we put it to Mills, who replied:

Corporate Research Associates has been since its inception a non-partisan polling company. It is one of the reasons our polling is so respected by the media. Every time we publish poll results , our reputation is on the line. We adhere to the highest standards in the conduct of our business. We attempt each and every time to ask questions in a fair ad unbiased manner. We publish the questions used in order for the public to judge the quality of our work. I have worked hard all my career to ensure the integrity of our work. Our record speaks for itself in that regard.

I have lots of issues with political polls and the way they are presented, but in this case, I’m inclined to accept Mills’s assurances. He runs the pre-eminent blue-chip polling firm in Atlantic Canada. It’s his bread and butter. He would be foolish indeed to squander that standing by rigging polls in a municipal election whose outcome doesn’t seem all that hard to predict, with or without polling data. Reinforcing this view is the fact Mills made no effort to hide his support for Savage.

Silver Don: How a progressive mayor might have handled OccupyNS

On his Green Interview website, Silver Donald Cameron imagines how an innovative, creative mayor might have responded to OccupyNS: He starts by quoting the late Allan O’Brien, mayor of Halifax from 1966 to 1971.

The Mayor has very little actual power – but he has the power to bring people together, to encourage action on matters that he considers important. He has the power to influence the public agenda. He has access to the press. And if you use those powers strategically, you can accomplish quite a bit.”

Cameron muses:

Imagine if Peter Kelly had that kind of awareness, that sense of direction, when he looked out the window in the middle of October. Imagine if he’d gone down there with his eyes and ears open. Who are you? Where do you come from? What do you do? When I asked those questions, I found I was talking with some very interesting people. An education graduate from St. Francis Xavier University who was playing a mad scientist in a children’s theatre. A sustainability consultant. A young boutique farmer. A Mi’maq veteran. A postal worker. A filmmaker.

Silver Donald Cameron at the Remembrance Day eviction

Okay (the Mayor might have said), let’s not talk too much about things that are clearly national or provincial. What are the things that municipal governments actually can affect? Food? Maybe we need an innovative urban agriculture policy. What do you think such a policy might look like? Homelessness? Let me get a couple of property developers and someone from the province down here, and let’s brainstorm a little. Tell me about youth unemployment. Say that again, will you – there’s an organization in Winnipeg called Build that trains street people to do energy refits? Fascinating. Let’s get someone from Winnipeg down here to talk about that. How can I reach them? (Answer )…

What if the Mayor had treated the occupiers respectfully, as though they were actually citizens whose voices deserved to be heard, whose ideas might have merit, whose concerns might reflect the concerns of other citizens? What if the city had welcomed the arrival of new ideas, new insights, a passionate commitment to a better future? What if the Mayor had paused to reflect that the young people among them were not aliens or monsters – or bums or dregs or scum, as they have been called by adult commentators who should know better? These are our own children, brought up in Dartmouth and Moser River, Blandford and Fairview. What if the Mayor had contemplated the possibility that those young people probably are the future?

What if the Mayor had acted not as a short-sighted enforcer of petty bylaws, but as the wise, patient leader of a functioning community?

If he had acted like that, Peter Kelly would have taught the occupiers that civic engagement actually works, that change is possible, that older people can and do welcome the energy of youth in the quest for a better tomorrow. Instead, he taught them the exact opposite – that their concerns are not of interest, that their involvement in politics is not welcome, that civic leaders cannot be trusted, that violence is just fine as long as it’s the police who start the brawl.

If Peter Kelly had found a fresh, positive way to engage with Occupy Nova Scotia, the news would have gone around the world – just as the news of the eviction has gone around the world. Other cities that are also trying to figure out what to do next would have taken note. Halifax would have looked like the thoughtful, creative community that it is. And Peter Kelly would have been a hero, a prime contender for higher political office had he chosen to pursue that.

Like I said, history just tossed Kelly the political opportunity of a lifetime. He blew it. And we are all diminished by his failure.

HRM’s abuse of power — feedback

Lots of reader mail on HRM’s use of force to evict Occupy Nova Scotia protesters camped out on the grassy strip known as Victoria Park.  To start with, Juanita Mckenzie (writing on Facebook):

I think it was very distasteful to do this on Remembrance Day… I think the Halifax powers that be should be ashamed of themselves. If our youth don’t protest for their future what is the future going to have for them. I’m sorry I may not know exactly all the facts of the Protesters, but they were respectful of the veterans. They should have been given at least that respect back. The Powers that Be knew when they were talking to the protesters that they were planning their attack, and that is totally disgraceful and dishonest bargaining in my books. Shame on Mayor Kelly and his thugs.

C. Llyod disagreed:

The HRM did absolutely the right thing – evicting these campers – they were tolerated for too long. Let’s see now if they can actually act like protesters – or maybe go one step further and act responsibly and contribute to society, get a job, a useful education or even run for mayor.

So did Mark Pearl:

Disappointed to read today’s commentary. You fail to consider all users of public space. Protesting is one thing and camping is another.

John Chesal struck a common theme among those who upset over Mayor Kelly’s action:

What galls me most about this sorry situation is the duplicity shown by the Mayor in “negotiating” with the protestors. He led them to believe they would be permitted to protest, if they would leave Grand Parade in time for Remembrance Day ceremonies. To their credit, they agreed. It now seems the Mayor had no interest in allowing the protest to continue, he just wanted to move them to a less prominent place, so he could sneak up behind them with his police force and do what he’d intended all along. This guy has no honour. His word means nothing. We now see the kind of treatment people can expect when dealing with this snivelling backstabber. It’s no wonder he holds council meetings in secret. That way, he can keep his electorate from seeing him as he really is.

A journalist friend sounds the same note:

I was glad to see Dan Arsenault press the mayor on the question of whether or not he had tricked the Occupy folks by getting them to leave the Grand Parade for the Remembrance Day ceremonies. Kelly stuck to his key message, namely that Council had made the decision Tuesday night. I presume that means “I let them think they could come back, but Council made me renege.”

Given that no one reported such a decision after Council’s Tuesday meeting, it must have been made in camera. Section 19 of Halifax’s charter allows secret meetings on matters of “public security” or to “give direction to staff.” The topics discussed are to be made public, but not the details. Public security is not defined. I also note that the Occupy people were arrested for obstruction of justice rather than violation of a bylaw.

So. It seems to me that if the demonstrators are to held accountable for violating a bylaw, His Worship and company should be accountable for their devious approach to public business.

Or is it just me?

It’s not just him. Roberta Clair writes:

Bravo Contrarian. Thank you for this article, it’s a nice start to my day.

Jay McNeil, writing on Facebook

I think the entire think has been botched from the get-go.

It was a sad day when the veterans had to go sit in a tent to negotiate with the protesters about them leaving for the Remembrance Day Service. The negotiation was great to see, but I think the protesters could have shown some more respect and met somewhere else. And I think it’s a sad day when veterans who fought to keep us free watch a peaceful assembly end in violence and arrests. The failure for officials to deal with this properly isn’t just upsetting for those who were protesting, and those who supported them. It’s disappointing, I’m sure, to the soldiers who were willing to give their lives, if need be, so that things could be done differently here.

Another journalist friend on Facebook:

Actually, one of the most inspiring elements of the story, if you ask me, was the relationship that developed between the veterans and the protesters. From the very beginning, the head of the Legion was commenting to the media about what well spoken, and (in her words) well brought up young people the activists were. The veterans offered to meet them in that tent as a sign of good will. That was their choice, and I not only respect that, I honour it. Yesterday, the protesters asked if they could lay a wreath at the service. They were given the honor of doing so… and accompanied by a veteran who volunteered to walk up with them.

Biosolids panic – rebuttal

Responding to my response to his earlier response to Lindsay Brown’s letter to HRM Councilor Jerry Blumenthal decrying council’s decision to spend $50,000 repeating decades of studies that have confirmed the safety of biosolid use in agriculture, Cliff White writes:

Halifax Harbour is certainly cleaner then it was. Well, as long as it hasn’t rained in three days, and thank god we get so little precipitation here abouts. And it would be churlish of me to mention that the sewage plants don’t meet the new federal regulations for what can be released into the ocean, so I won’t.

Let me just point out that I originally sent the list from USEPA because you had suggested there was no scientific basis for the concern people were expressing about exposure to sewage sludge. My point was, and is, that there is valid scientific concern, or governments and other institutions, across the developed world at least, wouldn’t be testing the damn stuff.

Since 1999 Centre for Disease Control in the US has been measuring 219 chemicals found in people’s blood and urine. These of  account for only a small number of the many tens of thousands of chemicals in use today, many more of which likely end up in our bodies. Besides the chemicals in the sludge, of course, there are also pathogens and there are many peer-reviewed papers looking at how sludge containing these products effects the environment, people, and other animals who live in it. The reality is the debate goes on, and it’s a valid one. It isn’t just the individual products in our bodies, the chemicals, heavy  metals and bacteria, but how interact with one another.

If people are happy adding a few more dozen chemicals to their internal environment, that’s fine with me. But those who prefer to limit their intake should have an equal right to do so. If farmers want to use sewage sludge on their land, then the resulting products should be labelled to indicate they were produced in this way. Those who wish to add a few more of the above mentioned chemicals and such to their internal environment can do so freely, and everybody else can continue to try and avoid them.

Now there’s a thought. Does this mean the thousands of Nova Scotians who pay extra for local, organic food grown in untreated farm manure should have the benefit of warning labels to alert them to the pathogens and heavy metals that time-honored organic fertilizer contains? Here’s a slide Andrew Carpenter of Northern Tilth presented to the 2006 New England Residuals and Biosolids Conference:

So, poultry manure spread on fields has 48 times as much fecal coliform bacteria as uncomposted municipal biosolids; and 65,000 times as much as composted biosolids like those produced at HRM’s new plant. Cow manure has 125 times as much fecal coliform as untreated biosolids, and 171,000 times as much as composted biosolids.

For trace amounts of heavy metals, the picture is more mixed:

The values shown are in parts per million. NT means not tested. Biosolids and poultry manure were about on a par for most metals; cow manure slightly lower. All three were well below the levels contained in phosphate fertilizer. Remember, we are talking about metals that can be harmful in high concentrations, but which are essential to life in very small quantities. That’s why they are found in vitamin supplements:

The level of heavy metals in Rite Aid Central-Vite Multivitamin-Mineral tablets dwarfs that in biosolids and untreated manure. Of course, Rite Aid is a US brand, but Canadians can get multivitamin mineral tablets at — what do you call those places? Oh yeah, health food stores.

Further reading:

A Halifax resident writes her councillor

JerryBlumenthal-150CContrarian has previously voiced astonishment that environmentalists — more accurately crackpots posing as environmentalists — would oppose a recycling project that transforms harmful municipal waste into a valuable organic fertilizer here and here. We’re also chagrinned the Halifax media’s gullibility and lack of interest in actual scientific information about the topic. Now, a North End resident has voiced similar incredulity in a letter to District 11 councillor Jerry Blumenthal:

Dear Mr. Blumenthal,

For a long time, I couldn’t understand why Haligonians keep comparing their city to tiny Moncton, but now I’m beginning to get it. And I’m not referring to Moncton’s apparently inexplicable ability to host major concerts.

Halifax has set aside $100,000 to study whether its own biosolids, produced according to a plan established at least five years ago, are safe. All of the hundreds of similar studies done in the past 80 or more years are evidently insufficient, no doubt because they didn’t benefit from the special scienctific perspective available only in HRM. And it seems there is no obligation for opponents to biosolids to produce any reputable science supporting their position. All this because staff made the mistake of mixing the material with wet compost and causing a stink in Clayton Park. We’re spending $100,000 to investigate a bad smell in Clayton Park that has come and gone.

Meanwhile, Moncton is selling its biosolids by the bag back to the citizens who generated it in the first place as a fertilizer branded “Gardner’s Gold.” Even better, they’re getting the equivalent of $40 a tonne for it, roughly four times what HRM gets from farmers still brave enough to buy its material.

At this point, convention requires me to make a bitter reference to the Great Cat Bylaw Debate, or HRM’s inability to join the rest of the province in mandating clear garbage bags, but I’m just too tired.

Lindsay Brown