All the Pretty Pictures

I’ve been thinking about what constitutes “journalism” lately and I’ve decided it all boils down to asking one question — and asking it repeatedly — and that question is: “Is it true?”

In no area is that question more appropriate right now than that of proposed “developments” for downtown Sydney. I came to that conclusion Monday morning while reading the Post’s — second — story about the wonderful things planned for the site of the old train station in Sydney.

It’s clearly intended as the antidote to the skepticism people (like me) have expressed about the project — there IS a plan for the former train station on Dodd Street and the Post is NOT just rushing to write about it so we’ll forget the building was allowed to sit derelict for years and became a refuge for homeless people, one of whom died in it last week.

In her first story about this project — which its developer says without blushing will be “magnificent” — reporter Sharon Montgomery-Dupe didn’t mention that tragic death until 16 paragraphs in, but less than a week later, she has written an article about the train station that doesn’t mention the death at all. (And disappointingly, our new mayor, Amanda McDougall, is quoted referring to the train station as “quite frankly an eyesore and a source of frustration” without acknowledging that it has also become a symbol of our lack of concern for marginalized citizens.)

So let’s ask the question, is this true?

The answer is some elements are real but some are not. Let’s break it down.

 

Has the train station been purchased?

Not yet, apparently. Montgomery-Dupe says, “Somerled Properties and DORA Construction owner Donald MacDonald is purchasing [emphasis mine] the former Sydney train station at 75 Dodd St.”

But it’s not like Somerled announces things before they’re ready to deliver, amirite?

Somerled Properties

(That is a screen shot of their website taken on Monday, November 2 but nothing had changed this morning, November 4.)

 

Has the train station been demolished?

Yes, by a miracle of the Lord Jesus, this demolition that has not been possible for years started on Sunday and was almost finished when this photo was taken on Tuesday. Montgomery-Dupe doesn’t say who paid for it, but she reported last week that owner Patrick Donovan was in the Civic Centre picking up demolition permits the very day human remains were discovered in the building.

Demolition of former Sydney train station, 2020.11.03

Spectator photo, 3 November 2020

 

What will replace the station?

According to the Post story, which relies on Clayton Bartlett, the senior vice-president of DORA Construction in Cape Breton, for its information, the station site will house “two huge modern and welcoming multi-living units, back-dropped by Open Hearth Park.” Bartlett who is, like his company, based in Dartmouth, was kind enough to provide the Post with a picture of himself writing things on a sheet of legal paper, so you know he means business:

Clayton Bartlett

 

How far along is this project?

Not very.

Which is why the artist’s conception looks like this:

Drawing of development planned for 75 Dodd Street

I actually love the sketch of Sydney, I just can’t get much sense of what this development will look like, although I assume the actual buildings will have doors and windows and the developers will not write “Multi-Residential Mixed-Use Building 1” and “Multi-Residential Mixed-Use Building 2” on the rooftops.

“What is known” about the development, according to Montgomery-Dupe, is that:

…it will be an eye-catching design with green spaces on more than two acres of land, with Open Hearth Park in the back. However, plans are suggesting mixed-use buildings, combining residential and commercial with amenities like a coffee shop and deli on the main levels.

First, I’m struck by the fact that 2 acres of property is suddenly large enough to accommodate two “huge” apartment complexes plus green spaces, plural. I’m sure that is being read with interest by citizens who were told the property was too small to accommodate the new fire station.

Second, I’m also struck that “parking” is not mentioned anywhere in the description, although alarms about “parking” are usually the first to sound in connection with any local development and the CBRM has yet to reveal its parking plan for the Marconi.

But mostly, I’m trying to figure out what Montgomery-Dupe means when she refers to “What is known” about the project. What is known by whom? By her or by the actual developers? And what does “plans are suggesting” mean? Has she seen these plans? Do they actually exist? And if so, why does Bartlett respond as if they don’t?

I know that’s been talked about. It’s all still under design but that’s a great possibility.

Bartlett then indulges in some high-end, technical jargon to describe the development that I will include although you mustn’t feel embarrassed if you don’t understand it — it will be “a nice project,” it will be “worth living there” and it will be “something that will make you feel good.”

 

What was the inspiration for this development?

According to the Post story:

Following the announcement in November 2017 of the Nova Scotia Community College Marconi campus move to downtown Sydney, development projects have cropped up throughout the community. Bartlett said that also inspired MacDonald, who saw a need for housing.

Here’s my summary of what the Ekistics report evaluating potential sites for the Marconi campus in Sydney said about the need for housing:

[A]t the time the report was written, there were 1,300 students enrolled at NSCC Marconi, 86% of whom lived — and can be expected to continue to live — at home. Of those who move from outside CBRM to attend the NSCC, 55 live in residence at CBU, so:

“This gain to the private sector rental market would come at the expense of revenue reductions at CBU.”

It will also come at the expense of landlords elsewhere in CBRM who are now renting to NSCC students. But let’s say 14% of 1,300 people — 182 students — do need accommodations in Sydney, are you telling me this “magnificent” development is targeting community college students?

 

Affordable

Which brings me to an important point:  it’s not that we don’t need quality housing, and particularly apartments, here in Sydney — we do. And plans to build units in downtown Sydney and to encourage more people to live within walking distance of amenities are to be applauded.

But what we really need are affordable apartments, and as the word “affordable” doesn’t occur anywhere in the article, I’m guessing these apartments will not be.

I realize that, left to their own devices, private developers are not going to build new apartments targeting low-income renters when there is a pool of well-heeled, downsizing seniors to draw from (my guess as to the demographic these apartments are really targeting). But that’s where the CBRM comes in, because if the site of the old train station has become attractive to developers, it’s only because we, the people, have spent millions of dollars rehabilitating the old steel plant site into a park and are spending millions more now moving the Marconi Campus to the waterfront which itself has been the object of millions of dollars in public spending.

So rather than simply adopting the position of grateful supplicants toward developers, we should — through our municipal government — make permissions for developments contingent upon the inclusion of a certain number of units of affordable housing.

Or contingent upon a contribution — financial or in kind — to the construction of a facility like Halifax’s Buddy Daye Street Apartments which is owned and operated by HRM’s Metro Non-Profit Housing Association (MNPHA) with its mission to “assist single individuals who have been homeless or at risk of homelessness to create and maintain their homes.”

(I wrote about it in this longer article about CBRM’s housing problem back in 2017.)

The Buddy Daye Apartments are home to people struggling with mental health and addiction issues. The complex is the kind of place the Ally Centre’s Christine Porter was talking about when she told the CBC’s Wendy Bergfeldt that Halifax offered more supports to such people than does the CBRM, where Porter says the Ally Centre has a stash of warm clothing for them and the homeless shelters (when they’re not full to capacity) can give them a bed for the night, but where they are left to their own devices all day and can end up sleeping rough at night.

Sleeping in places like the abandoned train station.

Dying in places like the abandoned train station.

Smaller Nova Scotian municipalities — see this CBC article about an affordable housing initiative poised to open in Bridgewater — are trying to come to grips with the issue, why shouldn’t the CBRM?

Knocking down the station with such alacrity and talking up the “magnificent” project about to take its place seems calculated to make us focus on the lucky few who will get to live in this “nice” place (if it ever actually comes to fruition, a big “if” given the Post has never met a development “plan” it didn’t love) and forget the people in our community who really need shelter.

I would support all the downtown developments currently under discussion if they contributed in some way to increasing the municipality’s stock of quality, affordable housing but I have heard not one peep about affordability in all the glowing reports about the “boom” happening in downtown Sydney.

 

So, is it true?

It’s true that the old train station has been torn down.

And it seems to be true that Somerled Properties and DORA Construction are in the process of purchasing the property from Donovan — I’m assuming the demolition of the train station was a condition of sale — but if neither party is simply saying the property has been sold, that’s because the property hasn’t been sold.

I think it’s true someone did a lovely sketch of Sydney’s downtown with two large, white rectangles marked “multi-residential mixed-use building” where what’s left of the train station currently stands. But people have done lovely sketches of much more elaborate local developments that have never materialized. I give you Exhibit A, circa 2006:

So a pretty sketch, however elaborate, does not make a project real (and with the software available these days, children in daycares can probably generate convincing architectural renderings).

Furthermore, we know from Montgomery-Dupe’s first story that no permits have been issued and there is no mention of financing being in place, so I’m going to put the eventual existence of this development in the “not-yet-proven-true” file, along with plans for the old Cape Breton Post building on Dorchester Street in Sydney and the Smart Shop building on Charlotte Street (or should I say, the latest plans for the Smart Shop building) and the lot at the corner of Dorchester and George and the multi-million dollar development mooted for the Sydney waterfront and the container project mooted for the greenfield site.

I pity the visitor to the CBRM who’s learned everything they know about the municipality from breathless press reports — they must be so confused when get here and try to order a beer at the pub in the old Post Building, or go down to the harbor to watch the ultra-large container vessels unloading, or rent an apartment at the corner of George and Dorchester or play the slots at our waterfront casino.

But even that confused individual would know better than to try to find affordable housing in CBRM because nobody’s talking about that.