A space where Nova Scotians see themselves

Photo: Muir Hotel

‘Glass-half-empty guy’ Scott McCrea on his aspirations for Queen’s Marque, the city, and the province

After months behind barricades blocking alleyway entrances, Queen’s Marque’s new public plaza on the edge of Halifax Harbour was officially unveiled on a grey, drizzly, late November day only fitting for a real-estate development that, like Newfoundland’s Fogo Island Inn, strives to be “born of this place.”

Scott McCrea, who’s sunk more than $200 million into the ambitious development (he prefers to call it a district), told the smattering of onlookers that public space often ends up “the leftover bits” in real-estate projects.

“I’m so very proud that our team of architects, designers, professionals started with the idea of creating a place,” he says. “The public space was held as the epitome of what Queen’s Marque would be.”

What it isn’t is another “commoditized” Bayer’s Lake.

“You can go to Bayers Lake — it’s a lovely place — and where are you?” he says. “You could easily be in any other province outside of a large-scale, big-box location.”

McCrea’s aspiration is for Queen’s Marque to be a destination district, like his now-late father Ben McCrea’s 1970s-era Historic Properties development (once a cluster of dilapidated warehouses on the Halifax waterfront).

“I hope people will see how the density has been pushed to the edges … how extra height happened in order to give more space to people so they can engage and be part of this development,” he says. “When we are a stranger to place and we don’t see ourselves in it, we start to lose who we are. Queen’s Marque seeks to overcome that. Hopefully as we open all of the public space, people will be able to see themselves in it and engage in it in a way that’s meaningful to them as Nova Scotians.”

To get there, McCrea took what was a 215-car parking lot and submerged it two storeys below ground. Rise Again Square, the central courtyard that hosted the opening celebration, sits above at ground level. It’s the centrepiece of nearly 9,300 square metres of public space, more than double the previous 3,827 square metres.

Steps made of Nova Scotian granite descend into the harbour, a nod to Halifax’s nautical history and a place to sit and contemplate, dip toes, or launch a paddle board.

In an interview with Unravel Halifax, McCrea hesitates to call his ritzy, mixed-use development, more than 10 years in the making, a legacy project. “In some respects, it’s kind of code with bankers for not making money,” says the owner of Armour Group Ltd., the real-estate development and construction firm started by his father. “For all of our projects, we build for the long term and don’t sell. In that respect, they’re all legacy.”

But he concedes Queen’s Marque is unique.

Scott McCrea

“It’s in the absolute centre of the city. What you’re able to spend on it is higher because you have less location risk,” he says. “There’s a different weight to what you’re doing. It is something that will always be in the middle of the city.”

What also sets the development apart “is the absolute, utter complexity of it,” he says. “I would argue it’s the most complex project undertaken in Atlantic Canada on a commercial basis and maybe one of the top two or three in Canada in the last five years.”

It’s not because of its size. At less than 46,000 square metres, the development is half the size Nova Centre up the hill. Its hallmarks are intricacies in engineering and architecture and almost-obsessive attention to detail.

The development on waterfront property the size of nearly four football fields is home to luxury apartments, upscale offices, restaurants, retail, and Halifax’s first five-star hotel, in addition to three new public wharves and other common spaces featuring commissioned pieces of art.

“It’s literally built in the ocean,” says McCrea. “Once you get past Water Street, east of Water Street, you are in the seawater once you dig. We have two floors of underwater parking.”

The development sits on 400 piles and, as an added safety measure, 200 rock anchors. “Even with the weight of the district, the ocean would still lift it, or move it, so we have to hold the project down, which is obviously very rare,” says McCrea.

Queen’s Marque has its own district energy plant, a green option that uses seawater for heating and cooling.

“It’s very unique,” says McCrea. “The number of angled lines, the type of materials, the fact that there’s four different uses; it’s not just office, or hotel. I could go on and on.”

It all sounds expensive. But McCrea says it didn’t blow his $200-million budget. “We have had some budget incidents, but it’s broadly within the parameters that we set out,” he says.

Queen’s Marque is 2.5 years behind schedule. McCrea puts the blame on an Ontario window outfit, the only off-site, non-local contractor he enlisted for the structure. “COVID has not been the issue as much (as it) has been that,” he says. “Those costs we fully expect to reclaim in later proceedings.”

While the public space is now starting to open and new restaurant Drift is welcoming diners, he doesn’t expect Queen’s Marque to be finished until summer.

McCrea has had his hands on every aspect of the project, from choosing contractors to the design of “each and every light, piece of furniture and fabric” for the bespoke Muir Hotel, which opened in December.

“It’s custom-designed based on New England or Maritime reproductions,” he says. “That alone gives you some sense of the enormity of the task. You’re going to look at design of the chair and compare it to what you had in your grandmother’s house. It’s beyond uncommon in terms of the time that’s required.”

He told his wife that Queen’s Marque takes fiftyfold the time he spends on other projects around the city, such as the new office tower going up in his Westway Park in West Bedford. “It’s a pressure and intensity driven from a rare singular project that will abate, for sure,” he says.

The Halifax native is no stranger to hard work.

“My father had an immersive approach to raising his children,” he says with a chuckle, seeming to choose the adjective carefully. “I was kicked out of bed at 12 years old and told to sweep underground parking garages. I was a labourer on Founders Square using muriatic acid to clean the old buildings. I was an accounts payable guy for a while.”

McCrea doesn’t think the training under his father (a visionary builder known around town, and in his own family, for being tough as nails) was necessarily to spark an interest in the development business. “It was more about tutoring hard work and knowledge,” he says. “I was fortunate to have a certain bent that probably serves me well to be in this type of business in terms of the skillset. But honestly, it wasn’t necessarily thrust upon me.”

Brian MacKay-Lyons, the design architect for Queen’s Marque, says he’s “always surprised and amazed” at McCrea’s ambition for Halifax and the region.

“It’s for this place. It’s not for himself,” says MacKay-Lyons. “You’ve got to give him credit because, in the Maritimes, all you often hear is why you can’t do things. ‘This won’t work, that will never work.’ This kind of attitude that we’ve been brought up on. This project really challenges that.”

MacKay-Lyons says he ended up on the development after McCrea heard him on a CBC interview talking about how Maritimers “put their lack of self-esteem on their young.”

“He believes in Atlantic Canada, that we can rise again like in the song and in the building at Queen’s Marque that we have called Rise Again,” he says. “He thinks we can do it here in the Maritimes. He wanted to hire an architect who believed that too.”

MacKay-Lyons says the development is the biggest undertaking yet for his firm, McKay-Lyons Sweetapple, but his background is in urban design, so it was a natural fit.

One of the things that impresses him the most is that so much of the land is earmarked for public space, with the owner promising to keep it accessible. That’s “something developers don’t often do,” says the architect, who sold his firm’s North End offices on Gottingen Street to move into Queen’s Marque. “The thing that the public is always afraid of with private developments is that the public domain will become privatized. Scott isn’t a promoter, so he doesn’t defend himself against those comments that come up. He’s just confident what he’s doing is the opposite of that.”

The opulent Muir Hotel is the centrepiece of the Queen’s Marque development.

After renderings for Queen’s Marque were unveiled in 2016, detractors pounced. Journalist Tim Bousquet called it a “giant piece of crap,” half the size of Nova Centre “but twice as ugly.”

Stephen Archibald, who has a popular Twitter account spotlighting Halifax’s history, architecture, and placemaking efforts, likes the addition to the waterfront.

“I certainly don’t have any expertise. I’m a noticer,” says the Nova Scotia Museum retiree and avid photographer. “It’s interesting, my sense from my Twitter world, how prepared some people were to not like it from the very beginning.”

The site used to be a mishmash. “It was federal fisheries research, one- or two-storey buildings with the wharf areas used for fishery patrol vessels,” he says. “I have a friend who in the 1960s or 1970s was doing lobster research in one of the buildings. There was a 1950s federal government building in there. Lots of things got added … It was nothing anybody ever missed.”

One thing that puzzles Archibald is the new name.

The property was long known as Queen’s Landing, but McCrea renamed it Queen’s Marque (pronounced “mark”) in homage to the early prosperity generated by the “letters of marque” the Crown issued to Nova Scotian privateers raiding enemy shipping.

“It evokes a privateering context that I don’t think is going to wear all that well,” says Archibald. “In Nova Scotia, for a long time we played up those rascal privateer days. I think there’s a better understanding now (what happens) when you have rogue militias in various countries.”

Armour and Develop Nova Scotia maintain that the area wasn’t considered a thoughtful location for Indigenous stories since it was a British military site for centuries.

Develop Nova Scotia owns the land, which sits between Prince, Lower Water, and George streets, and partnered with McCrea on the development. The Nova Scotia Crown corporation, formerly known as Waterfront Development Corp., leases the property to Armour in a 99-year contract, the terms of which aren’t being disclosed. Develop Nova Scotia is leading programming for the outside area and will operate the public space.

The outside area has already sparked concerns, including the potential for slip and falls on the granite steps and lack of tactile markers to help guide the visually impaired. (Armour and Develop Nova Scotia say the steps are cleaned regularly and that they’re addressing other safety and accessibility issues.)

McCrea’s Toronto-based PR handlers asked that interview questions not veer into politics. McCrea has become a big donor to the provincial Progressive Conservatives and served as chair of the transition team for Premier Tim Houston after his election win. With Halifax in a housing crisis, Houston has taken a pro-development stance, funding developers to create more affordable housing (or at least somewhat affordable, at 20 per cent below the market rate), and launching a new taskforce that can override the municipality on development decisions.

It took Queen’s Marque years to wind its way through the approval process. McCrea’s father got a green light from the province for a conceptual plan for Queen’s Landing in 2010, a year before he became terminally ill, and the younger McCrea returned to take the helm of the family firm. The municipality approved his plan six years later.

Initially he wanted a four-star hotel, plus apartments and office space. But with Halifax’s fortunes rising, McCrea could up his game and spend more to create his own independent brand.

“If you use a hotel brand, they pretty much dictate how it’s going to look at feel and the finishes and any number of things,” he says. “You’d have somebody in Dallas telling you what Nova Scotia should look like.”

He says Zita Cobb’s Fogo Island Inn and its “power of place” were the inspiration. The Muir, which means “sea” in Gaelic, has an art gallery for guests, a private speakeasy with premium cocktails based on heirloom historic ingredients, and a yacht for jaunts around the harbour.

Armour has long operated other hotels and McCrea says the trend is moving away from a simple head-on-a-bed and warm-shower concept. “When you’re in Paris, you want to feel like you’re in Paris,” he says. “It’s about that simple.”

McCrea says he hopes Queen’s Marque, and the Muir Hotel in particular “alters people’s perceived notion of what Nova Scotia and Halifax is, that it wipes away some of that hackneyed imagery or concept of who we are that is so 1970s, and really reaffirms what anyone who is living here feels: that there is a renewed sense of prosperity, interest, and life in Atlantic Canada, and most particularly Halifax.”

McCrea says he’s surprised by how much the city and province’s profile has risen amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s not that I haven’t been a believer in the place, or else I wouldn’t be here investing in it for so many decades now,” he says. “The simplest way I would put it: I’m a glass-half-empty guy.”

He sees it as a positive, a risk-management trait he learned from his father to come up with all the things that can go wrong so he can guard against them.

“My actions are positive, but my thoughts are decidedly negative,” he says. “And I can’t come up with anything negative about Nova Scotia at this juncture. I really think that the future is extremely bright here.”

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