Marconi Part II: They Coulda Been Contenders

Since it was announced the NSCC Marconi Campus would move from its location next to Cape Breton University to the Sydney waterfront, I have been curious as to how the site was chosen — and what other sites were considered.

Last week, I got the answer to the second part of that question when I received a (highly redacted) copy of an Ekistics Plan + Design report evaluating four potential sites for the campus. How the final choice was made, though, remains a mystery.

As outlined in Part I of this article, the “community” was given a chance to have input early in the site-selection process, although very few people actually weighed in. I think that might have been different if Ekistics, having initially asked people to blue sky ideas for the new campus, had gone back to them with the four, detailed proposals I’m about to recap.

I think people would have had more to say about the project which, ultimately, is as much about reshaping Sydney’s downtown as it is about providing a new home for Marconi, had they seen these visual representations of the possibilities.


Site 1 — Waterfront

This is the one you know — the one that was ultimately chosen; the one that is alive with heavy equipment even as I write.

Ekistics described it as “clearly one of the preferred sites by the public.” For the record, I think the notion of building on the site was first floated in the 2016 Sydney Public Library Feasibility Study, as a “shared use” facility that would see the Marconi Campus sharing space with the new central library. (How the library disappeared so completely from the equation is a question I have never heard answered.)

Option 1 -- New Building: CBRM Lot Across from Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion. Rendering View from Esplanade (Facing South). Source:

Option 2 – Shared Mixed-Use Complex: Mercer Fuels/Fire-Station side, Esplanade, Sydney,

It is one of the larger of the four proposed sites with a total area of 198,276 square feet or 4.5 acres. But it also holds “potential for future growth.” Why? Because of the “pre-Confederation waterlots which can be filled to create additional land.”

The waterlots associated with the waterfront properties provide an additional 123,282 sq.ft. (2.8 acres) of future expansion potential. Clearly, this site offers the most flexibility for future expansion.

Yes, one of the advantages of our much-vaunted harbor is the possibility of filling it in.

Waterfront Site NSCC Marconi Campus

Mind you, the amount of infill already present on the site was viewed as something of a drawback:

The waterfront site is likely made of imported fill material meaning it is likely not geotechnically stable and may require structural fill or piles increasing site development costs. The Gas station will require an environmental assessment and possibe [sic] remediation.

And then there’s the obvious:

This site could be affected by sea level rise and may require some infilling to bring the floor elevation up to a safe level. This will require further study to determine the safe floor elevation of the building. Raising the site will have cost implications. The boardwalk may have to be raised as part of this development so that the building is not divorced from the boardwalk.

The report lists the opportunities and constraints for each site, and redacts one of each in its assessment of the Waterfront Site — go figure — but among the “opportunities” not redacted is “highly visible from cruise ships.” (Remember those pre-COVID days when we used to worry how our waterfront would look to people on cruise ships?)

Ekistics also claims that Sydney Fire Station No. 1, which the campus will supplant, is “nearing the end of its service life,” a fact I don’t recall being mentioned in the 2016 Fire Services Review.

Finally, I should note that the sketch in the Ekistics Report looks significantly different from the sketch released more recently by the province:

NSCC Marconi Campus artist's rendition

Conceptual drawing of new Marconi Campus on the Sydney waterfront.


Site 2 — Centre 200 Adjacent

Remember when Mayor Clarke suggested we build the library next to Centre 200? I guess that land is just crying out for development, because here it is as an option for the Marconi.

It’s the largest site considered by Ekistics, at 277,491 square feet or 6.4 acres but it also requires the largest land assembly — about 30 properties — and the removal of about 13 buildings.

Here’s the aerial photo:

Site 2 aerial

And here’s the accompanying sketch:

Site 2 Sketch


Site 3 — Bentinck Street

This is the option that appears on the cover of the report. It’s the only one that actually occupies space in the downtown proper, as opposed to sitting on the periphery.

“Identified by the public as another preferred site,” it is also the smallest of the four considered in the report at 91,226 square feet. The parking lot would be located on Pitt Street and would require the land assembly of seven properties while the NSCC area would require the assembly of 10 properties.

Conceptual Space Sketch, Bentinck Street

Given the brouhaha over the CBRM’s decision to locate the new fire station across from the Highland Arts Theatre, it’s interesting to read the role Ekistics envisioned for the theater in this proposal:

The real benefit to this location is the opportunity for the adaptive reuse of the Highland theatre [sic] as part of the NSCC complex. This would strengthen the areas [sic] heritage resources while providing a modern new use.

Having access to this complex for large lectures, for large events and for students performances could be ideal. The opportunity is to highlight the heritage of downtown Sydney through adaptive reuse within the NSCC college.

If you read Part I of this article, you’ll remember that the Oshua Campus of the Ontario Institute of Technology incorporates the Regent Theatre which is used by the college for lectures during the week and is open for community performances on the weekend. I have no idea if the Highland Arts Theatre would be interested in such an arrangement (or if it was even approached) but it certainly seems like a proposal worth entertaining.

Here’s an aerial view which might help you get a better notion of what was proposed (the report, for the record, doesn’t go into great detail about what’s happening to George Street in this image):

Bentinck aerial view



Site 4 — North End

This is the smallest site, covering 157,000 sq ft or 3.5 acres. It sits along Dorchester Street between George and Johnston, reaching to the end of Kendall on the south side. Just under half of it, notes Ekistics, is “outside of what is currently considered the downtown core.”

Here is the aerial view:

Site 4 North End aerial view

Ekistics notes:

There are only a couple of operating businesses on this site and the sites are generally large meaning not a large number of land owners to negotiate with. There are only 11 properties and 6 buildings in this area.

One of those businesses is the Cape Breton Post, which has already put its building up for sale. Another is the offices of the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional Centre for Education (the former Central School).

As with Site 2, Ekistics doesn’t waste much time on this option — there are no conceptual drawings of the facility other than this:

Site 4 North End Sketch


The Matrix

Having explored all four sites, Ekistics then uses a Site Assessment Matrix to evaluate them and sure enough, the Waterfront Site comes out on top, with a score of 38 (or 70%).

But the Bentinck Street site comes second, scoring 37 (or 69%). (Which is why Site 1 and Site 3 get the VIP treatment in the report.)

Site Assessment Matrix

This, it seems to me, would have been a good point at which to return to the community. Hold a workshop with something detailed to show people. Let them consider the pros and cons of these four options. Because this decision — with its implications for the downtown and its impact on the community — seems too important to be left in the hands of a provincial department.

And yet, as best I can tell, the location was simply chosen by the Department of Labour and Advanced Education — certainly, there was no further opportunity for community input and I don’t even get the impression CBRM council had much say in the matter, although I stand to be corrected.

I’d say we could file this under “lessons learned” but I don’t think the CBRM possesses such a file.

(Before I leave this subject, I have a few odds and ends that didn’t fit into Parts I and II, so I will put them in Part III.)


Note: The full report is too large to upload to my website, so I’ve uploaded it to Dropbox. You can access it by clicking here