OPENFILE: HRM misses the point with the St. Pat’s-Alexandra decision

If you’re not familiar with Gottingen Street, the uproar around the St. Pat’s-Alexandra School site redevelopment simply might not make sense to you.

For the tens of thousands who drive past the neighborhood every day going to and from work, the community is a mystery. In just a few decades, the street has declined from being a shopping Mecca bigger than today’s Spring Garden Road to a dead zone many choose to avoid.

In 1990, my frosh leaders at Dalhousie told us it was one of the places stay away from, but I remembered my father taking me to see the Empire Strikes Back at the Casino Theatre—“a real theatre,” as he then put it. I ignored the frosh leaders and checked out Gottingen as soon as I could—and found one of the most interesting, dynamic and diverse communities in Atlantic Canada.

Over two decades magnets, like Wormwood’s, Camaros, the Bike Shop, Area 51, Rumours Club, the Marquee, the Paragon, my own No Records Store, Norman Wade, the Fall, the General Store and many more have come and gone, briefly but regularly creating the feeling that ‘it’s coming back.’

Some have endured, like Alter Egos Café, Molly’z and the Menz Bar, The Company House, Monster Comic Lounge and Propeller, creating the sense that the district can come back.

Businesses are only a part of the community, of course. The descendants of African Nova Scotian field workers have lived in the neighbourhood since the old North Suburb was created. The 180-year-old Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, attests to that.

Much later, Uniacke Square was built and African Nova Scotians evicted from Africville landed there. They were promised the 1960s urban planning utopia of social housing, a new recreation centre, new schools, a new library.

Forty years later, through good intentions and poor planning, the community continues to struggle to achieve the stability and success those planners hoped for. The struggle creates opportunity for artists, for new businesses, for the gay community to find a place where others fear to tread.

So some came to Gottingen at its founding, some arrived as their community was torn to the ground, some arrived because they saw an opportunity to make a home, but all these people have been made promises, and have seen the promises broken again and again.

St. Pat’s-Alexandra school is one of those promises. Local kids grow vegetables in the park that separates this massive school from Uniacke Square. Vastly expanded in the 1960s to accommodate the Square, it was recently closed due to declining enrollment.

Many community organizations hoped to play a role in developing the site, keeping some or all of it in the community. This didn’t happen.

This has caused outrage in a community.

As Reverend Rhonda Britton said on CBC’s Information morning today, there would not be an issue “If HRM would follow their own processes.” HRM was supposed to consult the community before going to re-development, and they did not, instead selling it to a developer.

Community groups on Gottingen need new and larger spaces—so the old school would help them with that. But the impact of moving the agencies from Gottingen could be strongly positive and long-term.

Moving the Mic Mac Friendship Centre, North End Health Clinic, the Mi’kmaq Children’s Centre, and Direction 180 off of Gottingen Street and on the St Pat’s site would clear up four or five large commercial spaces for redevelopment—which would be a huge opportunity for the struggling merchants’ strip.

By not following their own rules, HRM staff and council have again alienated this embattled neighborhood, creating mistrust and anger, all the while missing the real prize.

What is lost is the chance for all of community—be they residents, businesses, newcomers or long-timers—or create a lasting vision for the future.

No wonder the community is so angry. Who can blame them?