June 22, 2024

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Bloomfield School developer ordered to address ‘immediate’ safety threat

4 min read

A long-vacant, derelict building in Halifax’s north end has been deemed a serious hazard to those sheltering inside, but the developer who owns the property is refusing to conduct an assessment, pending an appeal.

The site of the former Bloomfield School, now owned by developer Alex Halef of BANC Investments Ltd., was described as an “immediate safety risk” in an inspection by Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency’s Dustin Garnett last month.

After the city subsequently ordered the developer to conduct a structural integrity assessment, the company appealed the decision with the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board (UARB), with a hearing not scheduled until the middle of December.

That’s despite what Garnett believes is a strong possibility more homeless people will seek shelter inside the building as winter approaches.

Halifax Peninsula North Coun. Lindell Smith says the results of the inspection should be taken seriously.

“They don’t just willy-nilly decide they want to bring something into compliance, it takes some serious health and safety concerns for them to do that,” Smith said on Wednesday. 

In its appeal, BANC argued Garnett “did not have a reasonable belief” the Fire Safety Act has been violated, that the order fails to note the specific violation, and that the deadline is unreasonable given the size of the property and the “vagueness” of what is required.

A bald man in a blue blazer and sweater stands in front of a construction site
Alex Halef of BANC Investments Ltd. is appealing the fire inspector’s order to conduct a structural integrity assessment. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

The city has filed a motion to lift a stay on its order to assess the structure, granted when the appeal was filed. That matter will be heard by the UARB on Nov. 14.

A hearing to consider the merits of the appeal itself will be held on Dec. 15.

People seeking shelter in building, says inspector

In a case summary submitted to the UARB following the appeal application, Garnett wrote that he believes there are people currently inside the building and expects that with winter approaching, more individuals will look to it for shelter.

He noted the building has no working fire protection system. If occupants start fires to keep warm, obstructed exits and access points will make it difficult for first responders to safely enter in the event of an emergency.

Garnett conducted his review without entering the building, after being advised by a colleague not to enter.

“We investigated an incendiary fire at this address about a year ago and due to unsafe conditions on the first floor we did not make entry,” fire prevention officer Larry Varin told Garnett in an email that was included in Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency’s submission to the review board.

A brick building stands against a blue sky with a low grey fence in the foreground
A photo of the old Bloomfield school site on Agricola Street taken by Halifax bylaw staff in May shows boarded up and broken windows, and areas where bricks have fallen from the building. (HRM)

Numerous structural issues with the building were also observed by Garnett, including collapsed ceilings.

In notes from a phone call with Halef submitted to the UARB, Garnett wrote that after expressing concern there could be a risk of a fatality on the site if there was an incident, Halef told him he didn’t think there was much risk of a fire, and that the building was built like a “brick shit house” and he couldn’t see it being compromised.

Garnett wrote that he stressed to Halef the importance of emergency crews being able to safely enter the building, and was told by Halef that he may be able to fix the entrances but first had to consult with a lawyer.

In an Oct. 26 email shared with the review board, Logan Savoie, a property manager with BANC Investments, told Garnett the company had “managed to devise a solution and give you guys a door that can be opened and closed freely on the attached area.”

He added that “we still have a long way to go” but that the work, which would likely include welding and concrete chipping, would begin on Oct. 31.

When reached by CBC News, Halef declined to comment.

Subject of past complaints

The Bloomfield School site, which has been owned by Halef since 2021, has been the subject of complaints from the city and residents in the past. 

In May, Halef said he can’t afford to demolish the building, and there is currently no concrete plan for developing the site, despite one condition of the sale being that construction must begin by January 2026.

He went before the city’s appeals committee that month to ask that four orders to address dangerous and unsightly issues on the property be overturned.

The committee allowed the appeal of an order to remove graffiti, but gave him another 60 days to fix the other issues. 

A Black man with a black beard and glasses stands outside Halifax city hall, wearing a grey sweater
Coun. Lindell Smith represents Halifax Peninsula North. He’s growing increasingly frustrated by the Bloomfield developer’s actions. (CBC)

Smith said it’s frustrating to hear there are still issues at the Bloomfield site, given that Halifax Regional Municipality granted the developer leeway and more time to address some of these same issues in the spring.

He said he’ll wait and see what happens with the appeal before deciding next steps, but remains worried about the developer’s overall plans for the site.

“We’re getting to the point where I’m concerned that they’re not going to build in the timeline that we expected them to do,” he said. 

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