Fredericton City Council bowed to public pressure at its regular meeting on November 13 to save more mature trees in a planned revitalization of Officers’ Square, a downtown heritage space.
The Square is part of the Garrison District, a National and Provincial Historic Site in downtown Fredericton. The District is an assemblage of heritage buildings, some of which exemplify Canada’s military past, found within a two-block wide swath along the river-front. Included in this district are the iconic Officers’ Barracks (now the Fredericton Region Museum), the Soldiers’ Barracks (home to the Casemates artist studios in summer and NB College of Craft and Design year-round), the Justice Building (formal Normal School), and the NB Sports Hall of Fame.
The City’s original plans for Officers’ Square involved removing much of the authentic heritage from the site. There was a loud public outcry when it was reported that would include removing 19 of 24 mature trees, mainly along Queen St. The uproar forced Council to press ‘pause’ until staff could re-evaluate the proposals. The result was that four mature trees were saved; however, 15 will still be cut. The trees woke up the public.
Over the summer, people signed a petition, now standing at 10,500 signatures, circulated by the group Save Officers’ Square (SOS), demanding a halt to the project. An informal survey of downtown businesses conducted by SOS also revealed almost universal opposition to the plan.
As the public became more engaged with the proposed changes, it came to light that no Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) had been done by the City. An HIA is considered best conservation practice when changes to nationally-important sites like Officers’ Square/Garrison District are contemplated.
The City of Fredericton held a public consultation meeting on June 26, 2018. Close to 300 people attended and all the presentations opposed the Master Plan. Although many of the individual changes drew ire — including a cooled skating rink, pre-rusted metal two-story stage, removal of the Lord Beaverbrook statue, fill and entrance changes — the imminent demise of the trees inspired the most criticism.
Despite this, at the November 13th City Council meeting, Councillor John McDermid said that the “contention in the last half-year has only been about the trees.”
“Where we screwed up was on the trees,” Councillor McDermid said, before voting on a resolution to save more trees. He stated that “poisonous” comments directed at Council by angry members of the public have left a bad taste in his mouth and that he no longer engages in any meaningful way on social media.
Kate Rogers, whose ward includes Officers’ Square, stated that the City is the steward of this historic site and that a Heritage Impact Assessment should have been done at the outset, but was not. She and several Councillors thanked the public for holding Council’s feet to the fire. Ultimately, they said, public input improved the project by saving more trees, eliminating an unsafe corner entrance and avoiding disturbance to an archaeological area.
Meanwhile, Officers’ Square is located on the traditional territory of Wolastoqiyik. Indigenous activists from the community contend that they should have had a chance to acquire the land when it was offered to the City of Fredericton by the Province in 2016. The Indigenous concerns for the archaeological potential of the Square, which includes Indigenous, Acadian, Loyalist and British heritage, remain unaddressed by the City or Province.
For its part, SOS is requesting a Heritage Impact Assessment be completed for the entire Garrison District before more authentic heritage is lost. A statement issued by the group on Remembrance Day asked for this and also that Council consult the public as promised during the detail design phase.
SOS also seeks a resolution to the acrimony between the community (including its group) and City staff, and has asked for a collaborative dialogue to be established.
“The only way to move forward is for there to be ongoing discussions involving the public, SOS, outside heritage experts and the City. SOS has committed to maintaining a respectful relationship,” said Beth Biggs, Spokesperson for Save Officers’ Square. Meetings have been planned to bring the parties together on solutions that will meet public safety standards, permit all authentic heritage to be saved and require no excavation or disruption to traffic.
“We don’t think Council wants more embarrassment as a consequence of not exercising its due diligence; it owes it to this space,” Biggs said.
Margo Sheppard lives in Fredericton.