Nova Scotia

Concerns over NSCAD's Fountain Campus deepen board-community divide

The longtime home of NSCAD University has become a source of conflict as the Halifax art and design school grapples with what to do with its aging Granville Street campus.

Halifax university owns a row of historic buildings on Granville Street that need significant repairs

NSCAD University has three campuses around downtown Halifax, including the Fountain Campus on Granville street where it's been since the 1970s. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The longtime home of NSCAD University has become a source of conflict as the Halifax art and design school grapples with what to do with its aging Granville Street campus.

The Fountain Campus, which occupies a historic row of buildings along Granville Street, is part of a trio of NSCAD campuses around downtown Halifax. NSCAD started renting the property in the 1970s and bought it in 2001. It has a mortgage on the property until 2022.

Armour Group, the developer that was responsible for some reconstruction of the Granville Street buildings in the 1970s, has first rights of refusal should NSCAD decide to sell. Last year, it submitted a proposal to the university's board, which would see Armour buy the buildings on Granville Street, as well as a building on Brunswick Street that houses NSCAD's Academy Campus.

Under the proposal, NSCAD would accept a provincial land grant for a piece of the Salter lot, which is where the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS) is slated to build a new home. Armour Group would then build NSCAD a new campus on the Salter lot and lease it back to the school.

Granville campus 'unfit for function,' said consultant

In 2013, a consulting firm studied the school's infrastructure and called Granville "unfit for function," saying it would require a "heroic" effort to upgrade.

Board chair Louise-Anne Comeau told CBC the board has received "various unsolicited proposals" related to infrastructure in the past several years, including several from Armour Group.

Comeau said the board reviewed Armour's latest proposal last summer and forwarded it to administration.

"The administration decided not to pursue the proposal at that time, and there has been no further consideration of the proposal since the summer of 2019," Comeau said in an email.

Armour Group CEO Scott McCrea confirmed that the proposal described above is the most recent one Armour has submitted to NSCAD, but he said the company has since "moved past" those ideas.

Still, Comeau said the school is planning to join the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia on the Salter lot.

"NSCAD is excited about its future, which will include a campus on the Salter Block site, and is committed to a full, fair and transparent procurement process with respect to any infrastructure strategy it pursues," Comeau said in an email.

She did not say when NSCAD would relocate to the Salter lot or what the school would do with the existing campuses.

Dr. Aoife Mac Namara began her term as NSCAD president in August 2019 and was dismissed in June 2020. (The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design)

Karin Cope, a NSCAD professor speaking on behalf of a group of faculty, students and alumni called Friends of NSCAD, said she understands the need to address the campus's disrepair, but she's uneasy knowing the board is looking at proposals and considering moving forward without public consultation.

"The part I think that's the most concerning isn't change, change is possible," Cope told CBC's Information Morning.

Cope said her main concern about the future of NSCAD's campuses is financial, but is exacerbated by the recent removal of NSCAD's president, Aoife Mac Namara. The board has not explained that move publicly, and it has been widely criticized by students, faculty and alumni.

"The board is not listening to its community," Cope said.

Cope said Friends of NSCAD is worried the school could be undercut on the sale price of the Granville campus if it sells before the nearby Cogswell interchange redevelopment is completed.

Cope also expressed concern over the long-term cost of leasing rather than owning.

The Armour Group proposal estimated annual rent at $24.50 per square foot for a space up to 130,000 square feet. That would add up to about $3.2 million per year and almost $160 million over the proposed 50-year lease period.

The proposed deal with Armour Group would also leave NSCAD without any freehold real estate; the school currently leases its third campus, called the Port, from the Halifax Port Authority.

What the province thinks

When asked if he had any misgivings about the school not owning any of its own real estate, Advanced Education Minister Labi Kousoulis said it would depend on the specifics of the deal.

"If I was looking at a deal like that I would crunch the numbers, own versus essentially renting," he told reporters after a cabinet meeting last week.

"It'd be, you know, a fairly simple calculation in terms of just looking at your cash flows, looking at your net present value, and if it's more advantageous to you to rent then that would be the route to go."

When Mac Namara was still president at NSCAD, she was part of a team that developed a plan to keep all the school's existing real estate holdings, in addition to building a new campus on the Salter lot. The plan would see almost 90 per cent of the Granville Street campus rented out by NSCAD for income.

According to Cope, that proposal was presented to the board after Mac Namara's dismissal.

With files from Information Morning and Phlis McGregor