Gottingen street is a street with a lot of politics. The street has and still does embody the various social, political and partisan movements that have shaped and continue to shape Halifax as a city.
In this series “The Politics of a Street” I will look at the interesting bits of history between some of the street’s political interventions. In an earlier post I examined the impacts of post WWI race riots that affected primarily (though not exclusively) the cities young Chinese population. The following post will look at the politics of a building.
When a Building Becomes Political
Located on the South East corner of the intersection of Gottingen and Cornwallis Streets sits the Major General Donald J. MacDonald building. Built in the early 1990s the building houses primarily government offices, most recently belonging to the Department of Community Services for the Province of Nova Scotia.
The building itself is very typical of office buildings built-in the 1990s with little to no architectural value and a brick facade. Extremely out of character to the rest of the buildings along the street.
The construction of the Major General Donald J. MacDonald Building is an interesting story of how federal involvement in economic development in Halifax can take nearly a decade to resolve and became a bit of political hot potato between the local Liberal and Conservative candidates and MPs and city councillors during that period.
1983 – The Beginning
In the early 1980s the movement to revitalize Gottingen Street was in full swing. The previous decade had been hard on the street as the affects of the construction of the Cogswell Interchange and Scotia Square mall had fully played out. Long time businesses closed, the street was run down and the overall economic conditions of the 1970s were hitting the residents hard. So it’s no surprise that the city council and the area’s other political representatives would want to try to capitalize off of the need for revitalization.
In 1983 the federal budget of that year made a big announcement for Halifax. The construction of a new federal building to be located on Halifax’s waterfront. The project at the time was to be a $51.8 million investment. However, local opposition to the building’s location caused the federal government to reassess its proposal, so the site was relocated.
The revised proposed federal building, at the corner of Cogswell and Gottingen streets, was announced by Federal International Trades Minster Gerald Regan, the MLA for Halifax at the time, in February 1984 and (shown above) was going to be a $5 million investment by the federal government. The remaining costs would be realized by a $30 million dollar investment by the developer who would in turn have guaranteed financing through Public Works Canada and a 35-year lease of the building. The federal government was also making big promises in terms of tenants with the consolidation of some 2,000 federal employees from the departments of Employment and Immigration, Revenue Canada and Supply and Services.
At the time Mayor Ron Wallace suggested that “the announcement by the Federal Government represented a social statement ad declaration of faith in the City and, in particular, to Gottingen street with the project being the start of the revitalization of that historic street.”
This building would have been a game changer for Gottingen street in that it would have located 2,000 well paid federal public servants onto the street. This may have spurred a rejuvenation that would have rivalled the old days when the street was the central shopping area of the city. As is often the case in Halifax, these promises were too good to be true.
One of the major obstacles for the construction of a new federal building at Halifax was that the promises were being made in the dying days of Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government and in many cases the investment can be looked at as a way for the local MP, Gerald Regan, to hold on to his seat in what would likely be a rough election for the government.
Sure enough the election of September 4, 1984 was a landslide for the Conservatives, winning 211 seats, knocking the long governing liberals into opposition with a measly 40 seats, narrowly beating the third place NDP, with 30 seats, for the spot. Almost immediately upon election the Tories halted all previously announced infrastructure projects
To further add insult to injury the project was further delayed in 1985 when federal Finance Minister Michael Wilson placed the building on the “deferred” list of public projects. This decision alone can be seen as the federal government’s decision to kill the project.
Despite these delays the city continued to begin the process of clearing the site for construction. It became apparent that expropriating buildings along Gottingen street would take some time, not just at the corner with Cogswell, but also down the street in what Mayor Ron Wallace took to describing as “Cornwallis Corner.”
Right from the start local Councillor Graham Downey began to place pressure on City administration to get answers from the federal government on their plans for the site.
Downey’s biggest concern over this time was the between 1984 when the buildings were expropriated and ownership of the land was transferred to the federal government and late 1987/early 1988 when the buildings were torn down they remained vacant. In October 1984 Downey raised concern at Council that oil was still being delivered to the buildings, which led him to believe that they were still in habited.
Despite repeated requests at Council meetings throughout 1984 and 1985 the city administration was unable to get any answers as to the progress of the buildings much to the dismay of Councillor Downey, as the vacant buildings only contributed to the blight of the street.This stress was compounded further when in January 1986 the city was made aware of Sobeys’ plan to close its Gottingen street store. The council minutes show Councillor Downey’s frustration:
“Alderman Downey further referred to the Federal Building site and suggested that future development by Sobeys stores was being adversely affected by the lack of action on behalf of the Federal government…[Downey] indicated that he felt the blunt at the corner of Cornwallis and Gottingen streets and the lack of development of the Federal building site was affecting the area negatively.” (Halifax City Council, minutes, January 16, 1986).
When the 1986 budget was tabled later that Spring the Minister of Finance announced that the government had decided not to proceed with the project and that the land at “Cornwallis Corner” would be liquidated. The nail had been driven into the coffin on the project… or had it.
1988 – Election Promises
Luckily for Halifax its prominence has always meant that it was represented in one way or another in the federal Cabinet. After defeating former Premier and Liberal MP Gerald Regan the winner, Stewart McInnes, was named to Cabinet in 1985 as Minister of Supply and Services. The following year McInnes was elevated to the very prominent role of Minister of Public Works.
Councillor Downey rightly saw this promotion as an opportunity to reignite interest int he vacant buildings at the corner of Gottingen and Cornwallis. Halifax City Council wrote a letter to the new Minister, their MP, to petition him to support the project.
Despite the relative popularity of the Mulroney Tory government the Liberals were mounting a credible campaign against the Halifax MP in the form of candidate Mary Clancey.
Thus a month or so before the November 1988 election McInnes as MP for Halifax and Minister of Public Works announced that the federal government would be building a new federal building at the corner of Gottingen and Cornwallis streets.
This new building would be built using a public-private partnership and would include 77,000 square metres of office space. The site would also include a 1,60o square metre children’s Discovery Centre, a 500 square metre private sector day-care centre and 300 square metres of retail and commercial space. The cost would be $26 million.
The results of the 1988 Federal Election were spectacular for the federal Conservative party and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The party would go on to win a larger majority government. However, the Liberals would capture Halifax back from the Tories and in turn would throw the future of this project into question.
As late as April 1990 the city was still unaware of the future of the building with rumours surfacing that the building lot would be auctioned off. It appears that the federal government did sell the land to a company named Cornwallis Court Development Ltd. (CCDL) and in July 1990 contributed $500,000 of city money to help get the development off the ground.
The results of the sale of the land and likely the investment of city money led CCDL to quickly begin construction of the building we see today. CCDL was formed solely to build and operate the building, which it does, through leases with federal and provincial government offices. The Department of National Defence would locate some offices to the building but by late 1996 they no longer had a use for the building.
1997 – The Province steps in
Finally, in May of 1997, after four months of being vacant, the Provincial government stepped up and announced that it would be relocating its Department of Community Services offices to the Maj. Gen. Donald J. MacDonald Building on Gottingen Street in order to create a “multi-use centre for clients.” This move ensured the relocation of 145 provincial staff from the central Halifax regional office. The programs being consolidated into the building would include community care, family benefits, income assistance and employment support. The building would also house the administrative headquarters for the department’s Halifax region.
This building is just one example of how various levels of government and politicians and their political fortunes can really slow down and delay the construction of a building, influence the development and revitalization of a community and ultimately bring big P politics to a street.
Postscript: The Body Politic
During the period of time that “Cornwallis Corner” stood empty, waiting for the construction of a building, the space began to be used by the public. One of the more interesting things to pop up is a video of Halifax’s second pride parade in 1989. Gathering on the empty lot the video shows a lot of the buildings as they existed during that time, but also highlights a crucial period of time for the LGBT community in Halifax.
- Halifax Daily News, various dates, 1983-1990.
- North End News, various dates, 1988-1989.
- Federal Budget Speeches & Documents, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1988.
- Government of Nova Scotia Press Releases.
- Halifax City Council Minutes, 1983-1995.
- Pictures: Nova Scotia Archives, The Daily News, North End News, Google Maps.