The recent termination of lease notice that to the Khyber Centre for the Arts has caused a lot of concern about the future of arts at 1588 Barrington Street.
Last Friday HRM gave notice to the centre, requiring the society to vacate the building by the end of March. This letter came a month after city staff first started talking to the Khyber about the current asbestos and lead concerns.
Asbestos has been an issue in the building for years, starting with the “bar” space be closed in 2011. In November 2013, a piece of the plaster ceiling fell down creating a new asbestos risk.
A Hazardous Materials Study completed by SLR in 2012 and a more recent review by Stantec in February 2014 say is that all plaster in the building should be considered to have asbestos material in it. There are also high levels of lead paint on the walls.
This is not to say that every piece of plaster has asbestos. Each wall or piece of plaster might have asbestos, or release lead. A patch on a wall done 50 years ago might be contaminated when the rest of the wall is not. It is nearly impossible to be sure.
A lot of homes have asbestos in them and some have said that if leave the material alone it does not present a danger. Unfortunately the condition of the plaster is poor, and cracked, dusty and falling plaster, even a little bit, is a risk. The city cannot legally or morally leave a building open that may or may not be safe. Occupational Health and Safety regulations require that HRM inform the occupants and the public, rectify the problem, and use qualified people to do the work.
I first became involved with the Khyber and its predecessor about 20 years ago as a founding board member of the original No Money Down Cultural Society. I’ve been a tenant, an event promoter and a regular at the Khyber Club. I understand the concerns I am hearing, because I’ve lived the rocky relationship between the Khyber and the municipality. It has never been clear to me why HRM and the old City had such a hot and cold relationship with this amazing and beautiful asset that was sold to the city for just one dollar in 1986.
The relationship has been precarious by turns, sometimes because of HRM staff inconsistency and sometimes because the Khyber staff and board are struggling, as volunteer organizations often do. Every couple of years it seems like the building is on the verge of massive positive change and then It doesn’t come.
Whatever the current circumstances, it is important to remember that Regional Council voted in 2007, 2008, and unanimously in 2010 to have an arts and culture cluster at 1588 Barrington Street, with the Khyber Arts Society as a key tenant. That Council direction is the city’s position unless Council determines otherwise.
Saying that, the healthy and safety concerns must be resolved through improvements to the building.
HRM is working with the Khyber Centre for Arts to find a temporary home that allows them to continue their programming while the interior of the building is addressed.
It will take some weeks and months to figure out the real costs of fixing the building, and to make sure there are no deeper structural or maintenance problems.
Regional Council will have to consider all this information when it decides on the right course of action to revitalise this key asset.
My hope and expectation is the Khyber will come back better than before, continuing to be a vital, integral part of HRMs culture and heritage plan. Until then, have we all have to work together to make the best of a difficult situation.