The importance of Officer’s Square’s trees and heritage to Fredericton residents was palpable at the June 22nd press conference where residents demanded a halt to developments currently underway at the site. Residents also decried city council’s handling of the revitalization plans for the downtown historic site.
“When we walk into that space, it is an experience,” said Beth Biggs, a spokesperson for the newly formed citizens’ group, Save Officer’s Square. “We don’t culturally designate parking lots,” added Biggs.
Biggs and other spokespeople noted the site’s 19th century decorative cast iron fence, vista of the Wolastoq (St. John River), large mature trees and open green spaces as just some of the defining features that deserve preservation.
Attendees denounced city council’s unanimous support for the plans, plans that Biggs said misled the public. Biggs clarified that the master plan made available to the public did not mention the destruction of several defining features.
“Nowhere in the plan was the removal of the fence, the widening of St. Anne Point’s Drive, the taking of land, the destruction of trees . . . a large stage that would obstruct the view of the river,” said Biggs.
Walter Learning, theatre director, actor and founder of Theatre New Brunswick, received applause for speaking against the stage plans. He referred to staging options that would work better within the existing space.
Chris Smissaert, a forester, who called himself “an unabashed treehugger,” said that the city should work with the trees. He received appreciation from the crowd when he encouraged people to contact John Ames, the Tourism, Culture and Heritage Minister, and ask all parties to “go back to the drawing board.”
The city of Fredericton acquired Officer’s Square from the province of New Brunswick in 2017. Any changes to the defining features of the provincially-designated heritage site must receive approval from the province.
In a Facebook post, Fredericton South MLA David Coon declared that, “Minister John Ames is the final decision-maker on what happens in Officers’ Square’s character-defining elements.”
“Minister Ames has required the City to submit a development plan. Permission was granted to alter the following character-defining characteristics: demolition of the wall along the eastern perimeter and the removal of five adjacent trees. No further character-defining elements are to be altered until Minister Ames receives the final development plan from the City, following its public consultation on Tuesday June 26th at the Delta Hotel and renders his decision on that plan,” noted Coon.
Marie Perley with the Maliseet Advisory Committee on Archeology said her committee’s concerns over the plans were not addressed. She has registered complaints with the ministers responsible for culture and heritage at both the provincial and federal levels.
Mayor Mike O’Brien told CBC on June 21st that “Officers’ Square has been well researched, thought out. It was endorsed by the downtown business network, it was endorsed by city council, it’s been reported heavily in the media.”
City councilors have also defended the plan, saying that the site is long overdue for infrastructure upgrades. According to John McDermid, Ward 10 City Councilor, the city has to catch up on the Square’s neglect by the province over the years. He feels that there was considerable public consultation over the past two years on the city’s master plan for Officer’s Square.
“In the end Officers’ Square will be far better suited for hosting festivals and the multitude of events held in the space throughout the year. A refrigerated skating loop will be installed which will extend the skating season to four to five months. Last year there were only 12 days of skating there. A performance stage is planned for the North West corner of the space and infrastructure in the back parking lot will be upgraded to allow vendors to set up during special events,” said McDermid in an email.
Save Officer’s Square members are encouraging the public to attend the public consultation at the Delta Hotel on June 26, join the Facebook page “Save the Elms at Officer’s Square,” and to donate to an online fundraising campaign for legal action against the city when it is launched.
Tracy Glynn is a member of the NB Media Co-op Editorial Board.