Khyber building sold to arts society for $1

The long-running dispute over the Khyber building's future has ended with a 14-1 vote by Halifax regional council to sell the historic Barrington Street property so it can be renovated and used as a cultural hub.

130-year-old heritage building vacant since 2014 due to asbestos, code violations

In 2015, the windows facing Barrington Street had giant letters that read, “Khyber Forever” - a mantra that has guided supporters of the familiar downtown building. On Tuesday, the building finally found a new owner. (CBC)

Members of the Halifax arts community erupted into cheers and applause Tuesday evening as Halifax regional council voted 14-1 to sell the historic Khyber building for $1.

For four years, the 1588 Barrington Building Preservation Society has been working to purchase and convert the now empty space into a community arts hub.

"I'm feeling really excited. This is a really positive day," said society president Emily Davidson. 

The 130-year-old heritage building has been vacant since 2014 due to asbestos and building code violations.

Emily Davidson, president of the 1588 Barrington Building Preservation Society, said the society is excited for the future of the building. (Emma Davie/CBC)

The society's $3 million renovation plans include adding an elevator and a fourth floor.

The proposal to the city included a one-time grant of up to $250,000 to put towards redevelopment and asbestos abatement.

Ideally, the rest of the money will come from fundraising, corporate sponsorship and government funding.

There is also a buy-back agreement that allows the city to repurchase the building for $1 if the funds can't be raised within two years.

Public hearing

About 20 people came to the public hearing on Tuesday and eight speakers, including Davidson, stood before council to explain what the Khyber means to them and what the building could be.

"The Khyber and what this building as a cultural hub would represent is a significant investment for the city towards supporting marginalized members of its communities," said Julie Hollenbach, co-chair of the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project.

"This space is important and spaces like this are important to the future of queer community in Halifax."

Hollenbach, who also works for NSCAD, added that it could also support students and young artists who study in Halifax and then have to leave because there are no spaces to support their practices.

Julia McMillan, artistic director for Eyelevel, said in 44 years the artist-run centre has moved 12 times.

She said within the next year, they'll have to move again and called the Khyber "essential."

"It takes months and months and time and resources and staff energy... to rebuild our spaces from scratch every few years. Imagine if we had the time and energy to put that into programming," she said.

Deputy Mayor Waye Mason tabled the motion to sell the building, calling the Khyber "a legendary building in this city."

"It's been agony for four years," he said of the work on this project, noting this was the seventh vote on this file.

The only councillor to vote against the motion was Matt Whitman, who raised concerns about the funding and request for tax-exempt status.

"The math doesn't work for me on this particular project," he said, adding he doesn't oppose the ideas for the building itself.

Still lots of work left to do

While the tax relief will be decided at a later date, Davidson said the plan is to ask for the non-profits to be exempt, but have commercial tenants pay taxes, which would guarantee the city some tax revenue.

Davidson said it will take at least three months for the sale to be finalized and there's plenty of work to do in the meantime.

"We're already going to be right along and rolling with our efforts to fundraise this project. We really want to make good on our promise to the community," she said.

The society also needs to make sure nothing in the building has changed since the last architectural assessment in 2015.

"We're not just reopening the building as is, we'll be recreating it as a space that can serve as a home for the arts community."