Halifax will never be the same

Illustration: Derrick Chow

Halifax’s skyline and the many “sidewalk closed, use other side” signs will tell you that development is the big story of 2016. From the Nova Centre’s never-ending construction, to community frustration over Homes Not Hondas, to the anticipated Centre Plan, Haligonians have a lot to say on how our city is growing up.

How we got here

To say that HRM’s planning strategy wasn’t maintained is an understatement. The Halifax Municipal (Secondary) Planning Strategy and the Dartmouth Municipal (Secondary) Planning Strategy date back to 1978.
Jacob Ritchie is HRM’s urban design program manager. He says that thanks to these outdated plans, five or so years ago, developers were knocking on council’s door identifying sites that were ripe for development.
If developers want to build things that don’t fit with the old plan, they can submit a development agreement to show that the original policy for a site is outdated. Not a high bar to cross nearly 40-years later.
Instead of the municipal plan dictating development, developers dictate the plan. “The developer through the application process says, ‘Hey, I think I have one of those sites, why don’t you consider new rules for me?’” Ritchie says.
That’s what’s happened. The Halifax Municipal (Secondary) Planning Strategy added 173 amendments between December 1978 and September 2016. There were 66 more amendments in Dartmouth between 1978 and 2015.
“We’re literally looking at a two-generation gap between the last plan and what people really value now,” says Waye Mason, District 7 (Halifax South Downtown) councillor. “If you don’t update your land use bylaws and municipal planning strategies on a regular basis it’ll become hugely out of synch with the values that the current generation has.”
In the 1950s, some of what are now up-and-coming neighbourhoods were slated for demolition to make way for more commercial developments. Falkland, Creighton, Maynard, and Bauer streets were considered a slum. To put that in perspective, a local realtor currently lists 5514 Falkland St., a single-family home, at $438,500.
“All these old houses that are now extremely valuable and are being historically protected,” Mason says, “at that time those were considered areas that should be levelled and rebuilt to look like, oh I don’t know, the oldest parts of Clayton Park.”

Nova Centre, Downtown Halifax

The Nova Centre on Argyle Street dwarfs its neighbours with two 16-storey towers and a 20-storey tower. It replaces the Herald Building, which was four storeys.

The Nova Centre on Argyle Street dwarfs its neighbours with two 16-storey towers and a 20-storey tower. It replaces the Herald Building, which was four storeys.

This retail centre/hotel/office complex/convention centre on Argyle Street is in the news constantly. If it’s not budget overruns, design changes, or the screaming noise the building made in 2015, it’s the competition date.
Since 2013, the developers have changed that date four times. As of press time, HRM and Trade Centre Ltd. officials, who will operate the convention centre portion of the building, say they now don’t know the completion date.
Organizers can move conventions, but what about downtown’s small businesses? The Downtown Halifax Business Commission’s Argyle Street pedestrian counter shows a 30 per cent decrease in foot traffic between August 2014 and August 2016. That’s 30,000 people who stayed away from Argyle Street last August.
At least two businesses have already moved north. Biscuit General Store owner Wendy Friedman is staying put, but isn’t happy. “As you can see it looks like a war zone and has for years now,” says Friedman.
She expected the project to affect her business, but says meetings with the city and developer Argyle Developments reassured her that they’d take the needs of local businesses into account. It didn’t play out that way.
For one thing, Argyle Developments promised to put hoarding, a temporary structure erected around buildings under construction that restricts as much noise and dirt as possible.
“The only attempt at hoarding that ever went up was a desperate attempt from the Downtown Business Commission to try to help us,” she says. The DHBC hung an art installation around the site in October 2014 in an attempt to bring a little life to what Friedman likens to Cold War-era East Germany.
The city hasn’t helped the situation. Friedman and other business owners complain about losing water and power with no notice.
Street closures in the area are frequent, with one coming just three weeks before Christmas 2015. The DHBC says the hoarding currently covering the building was installed by the developer.
This summer, Friedman joined a growing list of businesses threatening legal action against the developer and all three levels of government involved in the project. The list includes Attica Furnishings, The Carleton Bar and Grill, The Economy Shoe Shop, Indochine Banh Mi, Drala Books & Gifts, and The Wooden Monkey.
In September the group’s lawyer served all three levels of government and the developer with notices of negotiations under the Expropriation Act.
Friedman isn’t anti-development but that the city and developers have a responsibility to local businesses.
“It’s the whole wave of development,” she says. “There’s no stewardship. I really am concerned about the message it sends. I mentor aspiring entrepreneurs and so many of them have come to me in the last year to say they don’t know if they should start new businesses here. That breaks my heart.”

Queen’s Marque, Halifax Waterfront

Queen’s Marque is a $200-million project that will cover several former parking lots along the waterfront.

Queen’s Marque is a $200-million project that will cover several former parking lots along the waterfront.

Standing on the boardwalk at dawn to talk to people about development as they rush to work isn’t glamorous, but it is illuminating. A lot of people are passionate about what our city should look like.
“Is that a public building?” Jennifer Smith asks as she looks at the architect’s rendering of Queen’s Marque. She’s headed for ferry to Dartmouth.
Of the 450,000 square feet available on the site, 75,000 square feet will be public space. The rest of the complex near the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic will house a boutique hotel, luxury rentals, offices, and commercial space. It’s slated for completion in 2019.
“There are playgrounds over there that I go to with my kids,” she says pointing past the development site. “I don’t want to have to walk through somebody’s house or office to do that.”
Heather Gallant works in a tower near the boardwalk. “My first reaction is why tear down all of this beautiful stuff,” she says gesturing at the colourful kiosks now behind a construction fence. “But when you go to big cities you see things like this, so I’m torn, but I’m not afraid of development.” She passes this stretch of land daily, says she’s surprised this is the first she’s heard about Queen’s Marque.
The developer, Armour Group, hosted a public engagement event about the space in August, which attracted about 150 people. But Mason says that wasn’t the first public discussion about the site.
The city designated the site a “by-right development” in the 2009 HRM By Design plan, after public consultations with 5,000 people. “By-right” means HRM already approved a site for a specific type of development. As long as the developer’s plan meets those guidelines (and any other applicable bylaws) they can build it.
Mason says he suspects the public would be less wary if Queen’s Marque was the only development downtown this fall. In 2008-9, he says, people were excited about the prospects laid out in HRM By Design.
“Then over the next four years, development went bananas and we’re basically seeing the last 35 years of development that didn’t happen all happening now,” he says. “It’s the velocity and huge volume of development happening at the same time that is freaking people out.”

Linden Lea, Dartmouth

New councillor Sam Austin (District 5–Dartmouth Centre) was visiting Cranston Park on Windmill Road when Halifax Magazine caught up with him. During the election, a constituent suggested this mostly-fenced space would make a good dog park.
Austin spent the weeks since the election investigating his district’s the nooks and crannies. “This is definitely a cranny,” he says.
While he’s new to council, Austin packs planning and development experience. He graduated from Dal’s Urban Planning Masters program in 2008, and spent eight years working with Public Works and Government Services Canada.
“I know everyone is tired of hearing about the mythical Centre Plan but I really can’t help but be enthusiastic about it,” he says. “The way we have handled most development and planning in the city for the last few decades can be very flawed.” Even recently.
Halifax Regional Council heard a development agreement from Milestone Properties on August 5. The developer wants 8 Linden Lea, a three-storey, 12-unit apartment building, rezoned to accommodate a four-storey, 41-unit building.
The narrow side street feels more like a country lane, with a postage stamp-size park and pond, than an urban street.
Opponents of the development, calling themselves Friends of Linden Lea, raised a host of issues with it in 2014. They say the proposed building will change the character of the quiet, dead-end street that’s largely single-family homes, and house up-to 90 residents while offer parking for only 49 vehicles.
Regional council approved the zoning change and kicked it back to Harbour East Council for final approval. Austin says this is “a formality.” The rezoning will happen, and he thinks it’s a mistake. “This project wasn’t envisioned under the old rules or the newer Centre Plan rules. There are other locations that are much better suited to development.”
He’s right. Even an HRM staff report on Linden Lea says the Downtown Dartmouth (Secondary) Planning strategy “identified five vacant or underutilized sites within the Downtown Neighbourhood Designation as ‘opportunity sites’ that provide potential for medium density housing, such as larger townhouse developments and low rise apartments, to be integrated within the existing neighbourhoods.” Linden Lea wasn’t one.

Young Ave

825 Young Ave. before demolition began. Photo: Google Maps

825 Young Ave. before demolition began. Photo: Google Maps

As Halifax South Downtown councillor, Mason spends a lot of his time talking about development. He’s fought plenty proposals that he says would hurt his district, but the historic homes of Young Avenue are particularly important to him.
The boulevard is home to a number of stately, 19th-century homes. Based on HRM staff’s analysis of the neighbourhood, average lot sizes are significantly larger than the minimum the current zoning requires. This means, says Mason “You can take a lot that you bought for say $1.75 million and divide that into four, five, or six lots that you can sell for half a million each. Just sell the lots, don’t build anything, let someone else do that.” Under our current bylaws, 19 lots on Young Avenue could be chopped up.
“In this case what had been protecting Young Avenue historically was societal norms,” says Mason. “No one was willing to go for the cash and ruin a great street. So there were no rule protecting it.”
When demolition began on 825 Young Ave. this summer, residents and Mason mobilized to stop it. “We’re going to go through a public process to change their rights and the rights of everyone on the street to protect the historic character of the neighbourhood,” he says. But that takes a lot of time. Too much time for 825 Young Ave.
A public meeting in early November will see the neighbourhood’s minimum lot size double, making them much more difficult to subdivide.
825 Young Ave. on Nov. 4. “After the Brookfield Stanbury House was torn down at the corner of Young and Atlantic Avenue in 2006, that was the wake up call that should have led to the changes that are happening now, but there was no consensus in the neighbourhood,” says Waye Mason.

825 Young Ave. on Nov. 4. “After the Brookfield Stanbury House was torn down at the corner of Young and Atlantic Avenue in 2006, that was the wake up call that should have led to the changes that are happening now, but there was no consensus in the neighbourhood,” says Waye Mason.

Homes Not Hondas

North End-resident Laura Russell avoids Fern Lane now.
“I’m not against development,” she says. “I just think a vibrant neighbourhood is a great neighbourhood, and that parking lot seems like a joke to me. It’s contrary to what a lot of the people who live here wanted to see happen.”
Fern Lane was another by-right development. Ritchie points out that the 1978 municipal plan allowed the Colonial Honda expansion that spawned Homes Not Hondas. The homes on Fern Lane were crumbling and rezoned commercial to open up that space for future development.
“What happened between 1978 and now is a reinvestment in the North End as a residential community,” he says. “A lot more people were there in 2016, and a lot more people who may have been there during the 1978 plan, but didn’t have a voice in the process.”
For her part, Russell says the destruction of this little neighbourhood made her think about the kind of city she wants to live in. “I’ve been to Centre Plan meetings as a result,” she says. “I don’t know that I would have otherwise.”

The Centre Plan

The Centre Plan offers guidelines and rules to shape design of future buildings, streets, and public spaces. It incorporates modern planning approaches such as walkable streets, people-focused design, and protecting the unique character of residential areas.
“The process of city building can be messy at times for sure, but I’m hopeful that we’re finally going to get ahead of it and have some good rules and design guidelines out of the Centre Plan,” Austin says. “All of these projects out there are going to be with us for decades. This is what the city is going to look like.”
For his part, Ritchie says he’s seen public awareness of urban development spike. Part of the change is due to how his department gets the message out.
Public meetings happen at different times of day to encourage shift workers to attend, and events are structured as conversations rather than the traditional public hearing with microphones and planning staff behind a head table. The Centre Plan, which was released in draft form in October, is written in clear language, not legalese. Plus, he says the sheer quantity of new buildings makes it easier to talk about development.
“I can talk about a project now or a proposed policy change in the Centre Plan and point to a building like St. Joseph’s Square on Gottingen, and have a tangible example for people to look at when we’re talking about design. It’s not academic or esoteric anymore.”
Ritchie hopes the Centre Plan won’t end up like its predecessors–abandoned and amended beyond all recognition. A planning strategy only works if it evolves.
“I fully expect that in 2022 we’re going to have conversation about how it’s working, did we get it right?” he says. “That’s how you do development in a city, not we wrote a plan, here’s the plan, close the book on it.”

Get involved

Walk and Roll Community Led Walks
Nov 26-30, 2016
Various times of day and locations
Join in on one of these community walks to talk about how the Centre Plan will affect various parts of the city. It’s an opportunity to understand the Plan’s real-world applications and understand what our city might look like in the future. Learn more and find individual events on Facebook.
Development Proposals Open House
Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016
12-2 p.m. & 6-8 p.m.
Atlantica Hotel, Guild Hall
1980 Robie St., Halifax
The Planning and Development team invites residents to learn about 19 development proposals within the Regional Centre boundary. These applications are requests for new policy, and were received since the Centre Plan was initiated. This is an opportunity to have your voice heard. Learn more on the Centre Plan website.
CORRECTION: In the print edition Armour Group’s name was misspelled. Halifax Magazine regrets the error.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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