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Heritage district conservation status won’t save Elmwood Hotel

7 buildings approved for demolition in proposed Old South Suburb district

4 min read
caption The historic Elmwood hotel was approved for demolition in November of 2016.
Julia-Simone Rutgers
caption The historic Elmwood hotel was approved for demolition in November.
Julia-Simone Rutgers

The historic Elmwood Hotel in south-end Halifax is one of several properties approved for demolition, despite being located in a proposed heritage conservation district.

The Old South Suburb heritage conservation district would extend from Bishop Street to Cornwallis Park along Hollis and Barrington streets. Community consultations have wrapped up, but approval of the district may not be able to save several existing historically significant properties.

“Right now we’re working internally to make amendments to the downtown Halifax municipal plan and land-use bylaw to support the goals and policy objectives of the heritage conservation district draft plan,” says Halifax’s heritage planner, Seamus McGreal.

McGreal says that the municipality hopes to phase in the Old South Suburb conservation district before the end of the year.

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What is the conservation district?

The municipality defines a heritage conservation district as an “area of historic or architectural value that is protected by policy and regulations governing such things as demolition and exterior alteration.”

Settlement of the Old South Suburb district dates back to the late 18th century, making it one of the first suburbs in the city. According to the district plan, approximately two-thirds of all properties in the district are historically significant.

The plan states that the Old South Suburb “is valued as an area of traditional architectural character and for its associations with the early social and economic life of the waterfront city.”

There are seven buildings within the district that have been approved for demolition, including the Elmwood Hotel.

Demolishing the Elmwood Hotel

McGreal says that there is nothing the municipality can do during this phase of the conservation plan to stop demolition. Three historic buildings within the Old South Suburb have already been demolished since the district was proposed in February 2015.

Once the heritage district has been approved by the municipality and by the province, heritage bylaws require that all demolition be voted on by regional council.

Peter Ziobrowski, president and co-founder of the Action Group for Better Architecture in Nova Scotia (AGBANS), has been advocating for a different kind of development on the Elmwood Hotel site.

“What they’re proposing is pretty generic; you can stick it on any corner anywhere in the city,” says Ziobrowski. “But here you have a 100-year-old Victorian hotel, big porch, right next to a big civic square arranged around the Westin and the train station. A lot of care was put into arranging that space.”

Ziobrowski would prefer to see renovations to restore the existing building, as well as landscaping.

Paul Skerry, the architect contracted to design the new building for the Elmwood property, thinks the municipality would face a potential lawsuit if it tried to halt demolition, even after the heritage district is put into place.

Skerry says the old hotel will look out of place in the square now that construction has begun on a new development next door. He notes that the building replacing Elmwood Hotel has been designed to create a consistent look for the street wall.

“We love history. We want to be the good guys, and we like to be sympathetic to everything,” says Skerry. “The problem that the historic movement has in Halifax is that it’s unfocused and it’s very confusing for everybody.”

caption Designers are proposing a building that will be consistent with new developments on South Street.
Paul Skerry Associates

Downtown development

The municipality has been trying to strike a balance between historic and modern buildings in the downtown area.

“The important message that we’re trying to convey is that it’s about blending new construction with the historic buildings,” says McGreal. “We don’t want to stop development in this area, but we want to find ways to integrate development appropriately.”

Skerry says that this approach to historic conservation makes work difficult for developers.

“There’s a lot of irrationality going on here in Halifax. It’s emotional, they’re not thinking properly,” he says. “They have a historic movement that does not want to negotiate with developers, doesn’t want to talk to anybody and wants to have a confrontation on every level.”

McGreal says the goal of the Old South Suburb is “to find creative ways of integrating new development alongside the historic architecture.”

Right now, McGreal is working with a municipal committee to finalize the bylaw amendment package that will be sent to the municipality and then the province for approval this year.

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