Halifax reaches secret deal with Bloomfield developer: ‘With unauthorized entry prevented, the risk of fire is minimal’

Lawyers for the city and Banc Investments worked out a deal behind closed doors Tuesday aimed at keeping homeless people from squatting inside the former Bloomfield School.

The city was slated to make its case in front of the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board Tuesday for lifting the stay of a fire inspector’s order to get a structural integrity assessment of the derelict building between Agricola and Robie Streets in Halifax’s North End.

Banc is appealing the order, but after delaying the matter for an hour, it appeared the parties had come to an understanding.

“Thank you for giving us the amount of time that you did so we could have quite a detailed discussion of the circumstances,” Josh Judah, a lawyer for Halifax Regional Municipality, told the board member running the hearing.

Banc’s appeal was slated to be heard Dec. 15.

‘We’ve come to an agreement’

“We believe that we have resolved both the stay application and the full appeal, and we’ve come to an agreement between the parties,” Judah said.

The case is scheduled to return to the provincial regulator on Jan. 17.

“We think that everything should be fully concluded on that date,” Judah said.

Neither he nor Alex Halef, who heads Banc, would comment on the details of the arrangement after the brief hearing.

Halifax developer Alex Halef heads Banc Investments.

‘Well-founded concerns’

“HRM has significant and well-founded concerns about the structural stability of the building,” Judah said in documents filed with the UARB.

“Potential structural failure places individuals who are taking shelter within the building at risk. It also does not allow emergency personnel to make safe entry.”

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During a site inspection in early October, HRM Fire Inspector Dustin Garnett noted “apparent problems with the structural integrity of the building; HRM Fire’s multiple emergency calls to the building; and individuals taking shelter withing the building,” Judah said in his filings, which note a fire prevention officer reported a hole in the gym floor at Bloomfield and a ceiling collapse near the entrance.

“The state of the site raises serious concerns in regard to the structural integrity of the building. Compromised structural integrity would put occupants (whether authorized or not), emergency responders and the general public at risk.”

The developer said in a written submission to the board that Bloomfield doesn’t have any “unauthorized occupants.”

‘The building is swept’

Before reaching a deal, Banc’s lawyer Richard Norman had intended to present evidence to the board that the building doesn’t have any occupants.

“A diligent process has been put in place to ensure that unauthorized entry does not occur and the building is swept for anyone seeking to shelter there,” Norman said.

“The fire official’s information is out of date and there are no signs of occupation such as fire pits.”

The former Bloomfield School on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023.
Ryan Taplin - The Chronicle Herald
The former Bloomfield School on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023. Ryan Taplin – The Chronicle Herald

Banc has been in discussions with HRM fire officials to construct “a dedicated entry point for fire personnel,” Norman said.

“With unauthorized entry prevented, the risk of fire is minimal.”

‘No point’

If the city had managed to get a stay on the fire inspector’s order lifted, that would render Banc’s appeal moot, Norman argued.

“Banc will be obliged to obtain the engineer’s report. There will be no point in proceeding with the appeal.”

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A social worker who lives near Bloomfield said she can’t tell if anyone is still living rough inside the building.

“I walk by there all the time and, to be quite frank, I can’t imagine that anyone isn’t inside there,” Jackie Barkley said Tuesday.

“If I was a homeless person and I had a choice between a tent or possibly a dry, still building, I would probably go for the building.”

‘Enormous difficulty’

She’s outraged that the developer bought the former school in early 2021 but hasn’t done anything with the structure.

“They seem to have an enormous difficulty actually securing the place in any safe way,” Barkley said.

If squatters do get inside, she’s “hugely worried” for their safety.

“If there’s nobody living there today, there might well be somebody living there tomorrow,” Barkley said.

“It’s a ridiculous, technical appeal to try to not spend any money,” she said of Banc’s efforts to avoid getting an engineer’s report on the structure.

The former Bloomfield School on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023.
Ryan Taplin - The Chronicle Herald
The former Bloomfield School on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023. Ryan Taplin – The Chronicle Herald

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