Making the most of our waterfront
The waterfront offers many development options for Halifax.
You zip across the Northwest Arm Bridge, merging onto the highway cutting between Point Pleasant Park and the water. Soon you’re on Harbour Drive, cruising past the waterfront until you reach the Cogswell Interchange, which seamlessly feeds you to a parking spot near your downtown office.
If the planners and promoters of the 1960s had their way, Harbour Drive would have become a reality four decades ago. And today, we’d be talking about how to get rid of it and reclaim our waterfront.
Fortunately, Halifax was so far behind the curve when it came to waterfront highway construction that we wound up ahead. Toronto is struggling with the Gardiner Expressway’s future and Boston spent $14 billion to dismantle its Central Artery and replace it with a park. Meanwhile, Halifax’s waterfront is the most visited tourism destination in the province, and the only monstrosity we need to tear down is the Cogswell Interchange.
During the 1970s and ’80s, the decline of manufacturing and the move to containerized shipping completely changed the face of the waterfront.
Harbour Drive died as part of a wave of action planner Andy Fillmore calls “the great North American highway revolt.” Fillmore, former vice-president of planning and development for Waterfront Development (the provincial Crown corporation that owns some 40 hectares in Halifax, Bedford, and Dartmouth), says that within a decade “the Halifax waterfront [had become] a derelict industrial wasteland.” (Editor’s Note: After this interview, Fillmore was elected as the Liberal MP for Halifax.)
(Technically, the Northwest Arm Bridge is still on the books, appearing on a “generalized future land use map” for the area. But Councillor Waye Mason says the outdated plan is like a “science fiction document” and that “the planning for that area was based on the idea that we were going to finish Northwest Arm Drive and build that bridge but it’s not going to happen.”)
Urban designer Ken Greenberg has worked on waterfront plans for cities including Toronto, New York, and Boston. He says that in the early stages of reclamation, cities don’t recognize the value of the waterfront and take a piecemeal approach to development. Eventually, though, cities like Halifax realize “there is a major transformation underway, and there needs to be a larger vision.”
Fillmore is confident that we’re getting there, and that both the city and Waterfront Development recognize the value of connecting communities around the harbour to the water.
“The waterfront is the reason the city is here,” he says. “We’re Maritimers. The sea is in our souls. There’s a magical, visceral connection we have with the harbour that we want to protect and preserve and enhance.”
That includes linking communities on both sides of the harbour with the water. The city and Waterfront Development have plans to protect views of the harbour from key east-west streets (such as Duke and Sackville) in Halifax, and similar protections are in the works for Dartmouth.
Jacob Ritchie is Halifax’s urban-design manager. “If those view corridors were blocked, you wouldn’t be able to have that regular interruption reminding you that are actually in a waterfront city, on a harbour,” he says. “You see the ships, the boardwalk, the activity in our harbour, the sailing vessels in the summer. We want that feel of our waterfront to be connected to downtown.”
It’s not just a feel-good effort. Turning waterfronts into attractive locations is a key to bringing people downtown and attracting new residents. “[Waterfronts are] where 21st century cities that happen to be lucky enough to be on the water are reinventing themselves,” Greenberg says. “Cities are becoming their own resorts for their populations, and waterfronts have incredible potential for this.”
Three new projects (in Bedford, Dartmouth, and Halifax) are poised to bring even more people and business to our waterfronts. Waterfront Development has taken control of the former Coast Guard lands in Dartmouth for an ocean innovation centre, and is moving ahead with the Cunard block (a mixed residential and commercial development in Halifax, near the new Nova Scotia Power headquarters at the foot of Morris Street).
The Bedford development concerns some people.
“It’s a case study in how things can go wrong,” says Mark Currie, president of the Save Bedford Waterfront Society.
Back in the 1980s, the provincial government was looking for an infill site, just as Bedford wanted to expand its water frontage. So trucks started infilling the shallow waters of the Basin’s western ledges, and connecting Crosby Island to the mainland. But in 2010, when Waterfront Development showed residents its proposals to build thousands of residential units on 15 hectares of those in-filled lands, there was a collective gasp.
“I was shocked, as were many others, by the scope of what they had planned,” Currie says. “When you walked the streets of Bedford and asked people if they knew what was going to be done with the waterfront, they had no idea.”
Waterfront Development has since scaled back its plans. It won’t expand the current seven-hectare infill. The latest version of the plan calls for 1,300 residential units, while advocating for dredging to release Crosby Island from the clutches of the mainland.
Getting more people down to the water sounds appealing; it also requires new thinking in an era of climate change bringing rising sea levels and more powerful storms.
Fillmore recognizes the need for planning for climate change, and says because our boardwalk and wharves are built using traditional construction, they are already designed for resilience. “When there’s a terrible storm, we lose a few pieces of wood and there’s a guy going out in a raft the next day replacing them and the problem is solved.” Other cities, like Vancouver, have created boardwalks with concrete and steel, which require far more complex and expensive repair, he says.
Eric Rapaport, a professor at Dalhousie’s School of Planning, has some concerns about bringing more people to live near the water. “We really didn’t design our waterfronts or historically make them places where people should be living full-time,” he says. “You have the Cunard development coming, which is supposed to be mixed use. That could be quite problematic in the future given that these areas are prone to flooding.”
City planner Jacob Ritchie says he’s aware of these concerns, and that the conversation among planners has shifted from redevelopment to resilience.
“Mother Nature is a force and you either design to include that force in your plan or you design to hold it out,” he says. “Maybe the trick is to design our communities to accept a storm, let it move around us, and then have it go out to sea. We can have a more resilient coastline, have people living there, and have the density that we want for the 350 days of the year that there are no major storms.”
What everyone seems to agree on is that waterfronts represent an opportunity to dream big. Rapaport would like to see more ferries, plus a greenway and bike lanes running from Eastern Passage around the Bedford Basin, and out the other side of Sambro. “We’re really slow to achieving a dedicated bike lane around the coastline,” he says. “We’re really missing an opportunity there.”
Ken Greenberg’s advice is to aim high. “Waterfronts are where what’s new in 21st-century life is being most vividly expressed,” he says. “The challenge in Halifax is to raise the level of ambition.”
THE HARBOUR DRIVE THAT ALMOST WAS
• The waterfront portion was just part of a more ambitious ring road plan that would have also seen a third bridge from the South End to Dartmouth, and a bridge across the Northwest Arm that linked to Highway 102.
• At one point, the plan called for six lanes of traffic, carrying 1,500 vehicles per hour per lane.
• In 1972, Mayor Walter Fitzgerald told the Mail-Star that without the expressway to bring people into the city, the downtown would “die.”
A TALE OF TWO HARBOURS
Boston and Halifax share a coastline and a lot of history. And both cities’ waterfronts have undergone a similar process of reinvention, from buzzing industrial areas to obsolescence to reinvention as magnets for tourists and residents.
But there are major differences too.
Want to get out to one of the 34 islands in Boston’s harbour or use the water for transit? You can choose between regular ferry service and a slew of water taxis. Boston’s islands are parkland managed jointly by state and national park services. They see more than 300,000 visitors a year. Meanwhile, in Halifax Harbour, McNabs and Lawlor islands form a provincial park. But with few amenities or transportation options, hardly anyone visits.
On the other hand, Ken Greenberg says Boston has been hobbled by a “piecemeal and defensive approach” and the lack of an agency dedicated to waterfront development.
Halifax Magazine invites reader comments and encourages respectful discussion; we reserve the right to remove spam and libellous or abusive comments.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.