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Pressure grows to turn vacant Halifax library into public housing

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The old Halifax Memorial Library on Spring Garden Road has sat vacant for nearly a decade, but calls are now growing to turn the heritage property into housing.

The Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia has traditionally worked to protect and preserve buildings and land across the province that’s of heritage value. Now, the agency is stepping outside of its mandate and urging the Halifax regional municipality to use some of its heritage buildings to help tackle the housing emergency.

"Here is this wonderful building in the centre of all these pieces of heritage and it's been vacant for nine years,” said Sandra Barss, president of the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, while referring to the old Halifax Memorial Library.

Barss argues that leaving large public buildings, like the former Halifax Memorial Library to sit vacant and fall into disrepair at a time of a housing crisis, borders on negligence and says it’s not too late to repurpose the building.

“We look at these buildings and think, ‘Why are they not being repurposed to house some of these poor people who are living in tents?’” said Barss. “Especially, as the weather gets more and more colder.”

Closed in August 2014, the old Halifax Memorial Library has sat empty since the new Halifax Central Library opened down the street at the intersection of Spring Garden Road and Queen Street.

But the old library site wasn’t supposed to sit empty for this long, there were several plans brought forward for the historic property but they never panned out.

In 2014, the city and Dalhousie University were entertaining the possibility of a $30-million glass addition that would have doubled the square footage of the building and created office space for HRM and classroom space for the Dalhousie Architecture and Planning programs and other retail and commercial space.

Before that, there was a proposal for the site to become the headquarters of the Nova Scotia Assembly of Mi'kmaq Chiefs, but it didn’t come to fruition either.

One option was to simply tear down the former Halifax Memorial Library and create a larger park space, but instead it’s remained a financial drain.

"The longer that we ignore heritage buildings and just let them stand over time, the more they will become an issue,” said HRM councillor and Heritage Advisory Committee member Pam Lovelace.

In recent years, the land was the site of a chaotic clash between police and housing advocates, when an encampment was torn down on the site in August 2021.

Historically, it's a complicated site, as for years Halifax used the land as a burial site, where it's estimated there are more than 4,500 people buried.

Councillor Lovelace agrees with the Heritage Trust and says the building should be used for housing.

"The last thing that I would approve at any point in time is selling that building to anyone,” said Lovelace. “I think the building must remain in public hands."

A plan for the site is expected to land in front of city councillors in the coming months.

For more Nova Scotia news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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