From Slums to Shopping Mall

Halifax's "urban renewal" and the construction of Scotia Square

Beginning in 1958, the City of Halifax acquired and razed more than 7 hectares of the downtown between the waterfront and Brunswick Street, displacing countless low-income families and businesses in the process. The blocks around Jacob Street were hardest hit, now home to Scotia Square Mall.

Scotia Square and Duke Tower are landmarks in Halifax’s downtown. The area they occupy originally contained many streets: Buckingham, Starr, Hurd, Jacob, Poplar, and Hare Lane plus the tail ends of Market, Grafton, and Argyle Streets. As Halifax grew into a city, these streets came to be lined with two- and three-story wooden buildings, most of them apartments and houses. Halifax’s population grew during the early 20th century, which caused overcrowding especially in dwellings downtown. Moreover, many of these buildings were not well maintained and fell into disrepair. Thus, following WWII, the City of Halifax felt the need to make sweeping changes to the city, especially downtown.

Under the 1945 National Housing Act, the Canadian government made grants available to help municipalities pay for slum clearance and the construction of new housing in its place. The grants were administered by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), who partnered with cities in their "urban renewal" programs. From the 1950s to 1960s, many cities across North America cleared and redeveloped low-income, residential neighbourhoods - Toronto, Vancouver, and Halifax amongst them.

Halifax’s Civic Planning Commission was the first to identify slum clearance as a pressing need for the city. In Halifax’s first Master Plan of 1945, the Commission claimed that many areas of Halifax were "blighted" with slums, which needed to be cleared away. What pushed the City into action, however, was an ammendment to the National Housing Act in 1956, which allowed cities to receive funding for slum clearance as long as the land was put to its "best use" not just residential redevelopment. The City of Halifax thus hired Gordon Stephenson, a professor of Town and Regional Planning at the University of Toronto, to create a plan for the city’s transformation. Published in August, 1957, Stephenson’s report recommended that the City 'sweep away' slums around the city and rebuild the downtown with shopping districts, office buildings, and modern highways.

The City of Halifax began instituting Stephenson’s plan immediately. In Halifax’s downtown, demolitions were concentrated in what was called the Central Redevelopment Area - approximately 10 hectares east of Brunswick Street between Duke and Proctor Streets. This area was home to countless businesses plus thousands of people, most of them low-income families. These families were to be moved to Mulgrave Park, which was one of the projects the CMHC helped fund and design. But when demolitions began in 1958, Mulgrave Park was only an architectural drawing. Nonetheless, building inspectors from the Works Department began locating and writing reports on neglected buildings around the city. These reports were submitted to the Committee on Works, who, in most cases, ordered dilapidated buildings demolished and swiftly.

According to Stephenson’s report, the neighbourhood around Jacob Street had the worst slums in the city – the six blocks west of Argyle Street between Duke and Jacob Streets. These blocks were home to more than 1800 people. A series of colour photographs taken by the Works Department sometime in 1961 show this part of the Central Redevelopment Area, much of it still standing. The streets are lined with older buildings, many of them with shops on the ground floor and living quarters above. Some buildings are boarded up but others have curtains in the windows. An aerial photograph taken March 21, 1962, shows this same area stripped to the ground except for a few buildings on Barrington Street and the City Market Building at the corner of Duke and Brunswick Streets, which housed the Police Station. These 7 hectares would remain vacant for nearly four years as the City looked for developers.

In 1963, the City of Halifax issued its first call for proposals for the Central Redevelopment Area. None were successful. After a second call in 1965, Halifax Developments Limited presented a proposal for Scotia Square, Duke Tower, and the Trade Mart Building, which together would fill the cleared area. In 1967, the remaining buildings on west side of Barrington from Duke to Jacob Streets were razed. Barber shops, liquor stores, bowling alleys, hotels, and pawn shops were forced to move or close, and more families were pushed out of the downtown if not the city itself. Nearly two years later, Scotia Square and Duke Tower were complete followed by the Cogswell Interchange. In the eyes of many City officials and citizens, clearing and rebuilding the downtown had paved the way to the future: Halifax was now a modern city.



5201 Duke Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia