Eastern Promises

PROJECT Creighton/Gerrish Affordable Housing Initiative, Halifax, Nova Scotia
ARCHITECT Savage Stewart Architecture and Niall Savage Architecture
TEXT Terrance Galvin
PHOTOS James Steeves

The story underlying the North End of Halifax can be found in many cities all across North America. Prior to the mid-1950s, the “Old North End” of Halifax, adjacent to the centre of town, was a real neighbourhood with banks, family-run general stores, drugstores, and two cinemas within blocks of the north-end spine, Gottingen Street. The area had a strong identity, a major shopping and entertainment street in Gottingen, and a vibrant mix of cultural groups populated the surrounding blocks. Everything wasn’t rosy and there were urban problems. Then along came urban renewal.1 The City of Halifax commissioned a CMHC-funded report by Gordon Stephenson that concluded only the urban renewal process would save the North End.2 The ensuing planning process, drawn up in Toronto, pushed out the general store along with many family-run businesses and families. From the late 1950s through the 1970s, Halifax’s North End population declined from over 20,000 people to under 10,000. Since then, countless well- intentioned groups have wanted to “save” the area, investing millions of dollars in community projects that would revive, renew, or revitalize the now troubled neighbourhood. Despite the investment of the Neighbourhood Improvement Program (NIP) and several key public buildings, including the Halifax North Memorial Public Library and the YMCA, it should come as no surprise that once the lifelines were severed, the urban fabric continued to decline.

It is against the backdrop of this history–all too familiar to the followers of Jane Jacobs or Herbert Gans–that the Creighton/Gerrish Development Association (C/GDA) has created a remarkable and somewhat unique model that has contributed to urban infill, affordable housing, and neighbourhood stability. Their initiative has been driven by sheer will, a sound business plan, good design based upon the premise that “poor does not mean cheap,” and collaboration with every level of government in forming community-based partnerships.

How does one even address the question of designing affordable housing in Canadian cities considering that in 1993 the Federal Budget announced complete withdrawal of government funding for new social housing? Enter Grant Wanzel, President and Director of the C/GDA and indefatigable housing activist during the past four decades.3 Two years following the government pulling the plug on national funding for social housing, in 1995 the C/GDA formed a community development group comprised of four non-profit organizations: the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia (AHANS); Harbour City Homes (HCH), the former City of Halifax’s non-profit housing society; the Metro Non- Profit Housing Association (MNPHA), which provides housing for low-income and hard-to-house single persons; and the Black Community Work Group (BCWG),4 an umbrella agency for many organizations active in Halifax’s black community. While the four groups joined as one development association, individual groups within the C/GDA mobilized the community when necessary, and organizations including the MNPHA and HCH eventually became clients. No obstacle has been able to stop the relentless working methods of the C/DGA. Wanzel has repeatedly commented that the “all for one, one for all” attitude of the combined groups succeeded in assembling complementary skills, experience, and perseverance in maintaining local community relations and collaborating with all parties, including government.

Beginning with their initial feasibility study in 1994, it must be emphasized that the C/GDA’s experiment in urban infill has required countless committed citizens, consultants and professional groups. As a non-profit developer, the C/GDA’s common goal was to redevelop the urban block bounded by Cunard, Gottingen, Gerrish (renamed Buddy Daye) and Creighton Streets. The block has an old bank on the southeast corner of Cunard and Gottingen Streets, several buildings along the west side of Gottingen Street, and several existing houses along the east side of Creighton Street. Their strategic approach was twofold: home ownership–to produce dwellings of high quality that would be affordable to neighbourhood households;5 and affordability–integral to the first idea that the potential market was comprised of people who currently lived in the neighbourhood or would be anxious to return to the area. Whether renting or owning, the C/GDA’s desire was to provide affordability through mixed types of tenure, inclusion in the neighbourhood and buy-in from various community groups, creating a mixed-income model.

Before this could happen, several parcels of land had to be acquired in order to amass the roughly two-acre site within the urban block. Through a protracted and brilliant set of negotiations from 1994 through 2000, the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) was requested to deed two properties at $1.00 each, which they did.6 The C/GDA argued that rather than have the City sit on vacant land, once the sites were fully occupied, the City would collect several times more property tax. As well, the Provincial Department of Housing and Municipal Affairs approved an interest-free loan to facilitate the purchase of 1.5 acres of land along Gottingen Street that was owned by the Sobey Corporation.7 The site of the former grocery store, the first Sobey’s in Halifax, was a key acquisition to complete the master-planning strategy of filling in the “missing teeth” of the block. Eventually, all three levels of government became involved in the project: the City in donating deeds and providing tax relief, the Province in providing the interest-free loan, and finally, the CMHC’s Centre for Public Private Partnerships provided project development funding.

Once the C/GDA acquired the land, Savage Stewart Architecture was approached in 1999 to become the architects of a four-phase plan to redevelop the block. Niall Savage and the C/GDA were in agreement that the appropriate architectural strategy was to densify the block through infill, to anchor the corners of the block, to maintain a tight building edge to the street, and to continue the short Gerrish Lane through the block allowing interior access for parking and other services. These principles are all incorporated in the master plan of the block, a key design document that has guided both the C/GDA and Savage through the various phases of development.

While the design has evolved and been recalibrated according to unforeseen demolition by the HRM and a subtle rethinking of the final phase of the program along Gottingen Street, the master plan has allowed the spirit of the overall vision to remain intact.8 In stabilizing and densifying one urban block, the final plan includes a total of 85 new housing units, built over a decade, according to a staged design process.

Metro Non-Profit Housing Association–Phase 1: 19 single units

In Phases 1 and 3, the C/GDA acted as the developer and then turn-keyed the buildings to its owner members. The Metro Non-Profit Housing Association (MNPHA) non-profit rental project for low-income singles was fully funded by the HRD “SCPI Program” and opened in February 2002.9 The building consists of 19 single bachelor units (290 square feet), including a live-in supervisor. Although the project is rent-geared-to-income, all apartments have a full bathroom, full kitchen and rear balcony, in addition to radiant-floor heating while a built-in Murphy bed acts as a central hearth. Security issues influenced Savage’s design strategy to place the major entrance on Gottingen Street with another entrance on Buddy Daye Street. Both doors lead into a central courtyard and then on to balconi
es and into the units. Although the apartments are intended to be economical, one of the tenets of the architect is that dwellings under 300 square feet don’t have to feel small if they are dual-aspect, allowing cross views and ventilation. This attitude is consistent through all four projects of the master plan. Good design can be tight and well-lit, demonstrating that poor economic conditions do not suggest cheaply made housing. For instance, residents requested a full-sized fridge rather than settle for the half-fridge that is typically associated with social housing.

In subtle ways, the new MNPHA building refers to the material palette of the old building, Club 55, which was demolished by the City in 1999. A brick plinth is topped by two storeys of pre-finished cedar siding with a custom profile and capped by a large expressive cornice that announces the building on both streets. The overall massing reads as five volumes: two on Gottingen Street and three as the building turns west around the corner. These volumes are interspersed with entrances and stairwells, united by the broken cornice. At ground level, the building houses a drop-in centre and a housing support centre, a medical examination space, a shower and a collective kitchen. The apartment building is also home to the Shining Lights Choir, who are organized and sponsored by the MNPHA. It was a proud moment for everyone involved that this innovative and affordable housing project was awarded the Lieutenant Governor’s Medal for Excellence in Architecture in 2002.

The Creightons–Phase 2: six “freehold” semi-detached houses

Interwoven within the fabric of the residential street to the west of Gottingen Street, the Creightons were subsidized through the federal/provincial Affordable Housing Program, which provided a Capital Reduction grant. The sod-turning ceremony for the six Creighton townhouses was in December of 2003 and they were all completed by October of 2004. These brightly coloured paired townhouses are built to the street edge, detailed with Hardie Board siding, and have a front stoop reminiscent of Halifax porches in the area. Situated on a deep 95-foot lot, each house occupies roughly 1,000 square feet over two storeys (outside dimensions are 20 x 31 feet). Each house has large front windows on the street, drawing light into the continuous living/dining space on the ground floor, further emphasizing the openness of the dual-aspect plan. Designed as three-bedroom townhouses, units may be reconfigured as two-bedroom units by removing a partition wall. All townhouses have an unfinished plumbed basement, with a separate entrance from the street as well as being connected by an internal stair to provide the possibility for a “granny flat” that could generate income. Alternatively, the basement level can also become a workshop or office. All houses have a deck and a rear yard, in addition to access to parking at the rear of the property.

Each house is a different colour–a characteristic prevalent in the neighbourhood–and individual owners express their identities through window coverings, outdoor planting, and finishing details both on the exterior and in the interior. In the spirit of Lucien Kroll and Aldo van Eyck, such variety within unity is a mark of good urbanism, making the row of semi-detached houses look as if they have always belonged on Creighton Street.

Harbour City Homes–Phase 3: 12 rental units

Completed in 2008 and managed by the C/GDA’s Harbour City Homes (HCH), this rental property was also funded through a Capital Reduction grant. The HCH building follows the footprint of the former Newman building that was unexpectedly demolished by the HRM in 2007. The C/GDA intended to renovate the earlier building as owner housing but instead ended up with an invoice from the City for the removal of the building. As a result, 12 new dual-aspect units each have different plans, and three units even have French balconies. The architect notes that the design of the stepping volumes is a variation on the Halifax side-hall house that takes into account the sloping site. The duplex apartments are arranged around four clusters of common entrances protected and well-lit at street level, once more taking advantage of building a tight street edge. In total, five colourful volumes of staggered Hardie Panel siding set horizontally in galvalume flashing with vertical reveals step up to anchor the corner with a double-height apartment situated above a ground-floor unit at the intersection of Creighton and Buddy Daye Streets. The faade material is simply detailed and applied directly to the coloured faades of each volume. As in the first two projects, perhaps the massing could have included finer-scale detailing, not only to fit in with the residential character of the street, but to further play with light and surface texture. The building would have also benefited by lining the court with a set of internal surfaces (balconies, stairs, overhangs), akin to the courtyard life of the MNPHA building. Addressing the corner, the L-shaped courtyard typology provides a common and secure court that is completed by a collective storage and electrical shed to the rear off Gerrish Lane.

Gottingen Terrace–Phase 4: 48 condominiums

Not yet built, Gottingen Terrace is comprised of 16 brick-and-metal four-storey townhouses with a frontage of 350 feet on Gottingen Street. This includes 16 two-bedroom units (560 to 615 square feet) on grade; 16 one-bedroom units (525 to 556 square feet) on the second floor, and 16 three-bedroom units (1,165 to 1,220 square feet) over two floors on the third and fourth levels. The design establishes a rhythm of eight paired four-storey terraced houses with common central stairs and side entrances. Entry porches and a variety of front balconies will animate Gottingen Street while brick screens will provide further relief to the large number of windows that enable all units to remain dual-aspect. All ground units have front and rear terraces, with landscaping, bicycle sheds and a play area in the rear, in addition to on-site parking accessible from Gerrish Lane. The creation of a laneway internal to the block takes parking off the street while the slope of the site assists in creating a series of continuous layers from the street to the inner block from both Gottingen and Creighton Streets. Urban design moves such as these also provide clues for the future development of the empty site behind the bank on Cunard Street. Although Gottingen Terrace is not taking advantage of any formal programs for funding, offsets have been created by the C/GDA in assembling a variety of other sources of benefit that have allowed the condominiums to be priced well under market value.

Background buildings that promote strong urban principles while forming part of the urban fabric have always been the hallmark of good design. The four designs by Niall Savage do exactly that–they pick up on street edges, balcony rhythms, housing typologies, and courtyard spaces. Instead of the classic commercial/ residential mix found in most mixed-use projects, the C/GDA has developed a model that provides mixed-income and mixed-tenure housing types through well-designed architecture, each project responding to a different urban condition and a different clientele. The resulting “quiet urbanism” of the overall master-planning strategy may go unnoticed as passersby walk along Gottingen or Creighton Streets. Although the Creighton/ Gerrish Development Association’s incredible input and modest outcome causes this author to lament the great impoverishment brought about by homogeneous gentrification and myopic urban renewal in our North American cities, the lessons offered in the Creighton/Gerrish initiative underscore how much can be accomplished with a clear vision and an unswerving commitment to the process of housing. CA

1 One of the key studies on urban renewal in
Halifax’s North End is the Master’s thesis of Bruktawit Melles, entitled “The Relationship Between Policy, Planning and Neighbourhood Change: The Case of the Gottingen Street Neighbourhood, 1950-2000,” Dalhousie University, 2003.

2 The Gordon Stephenson Report was called “A Redevelopment Study of Halifax, Nova Scotia,” University of Toronto Press, 1957. Following urban renewal, a transitional agreement between the CMHC and the City of Halifax led to numerous smaller social housing projects.

3 A professor of housing theory at the Dalhousie School of Architecture, in the early 1980s Wanzel founded and presided over a non-profit housing resource group called the Neighbourhood Housing Association, which delivered several hundred non-profit housing units in Metropolitan Halifax. He is a Past-President of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association and was the founder of the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia.

4 The BCWG eventually folded and was replaced by the Black Business Initiative (BBI), the fourth member organization of the C/GDA.

5 As part of their needs assessment, the C/DGA researched that 87% of the people in the neighbourhood rented, and that 45% of this population lived in government-assisted housing. Therefore, C/DGA’s strategy was to increase the options of tenure, not to replace socially assisted housing.

6 The Club 55 property was the site for Phase 1 and the Newman property became the site for Phase 3.

7 Before Wanzel approached the Sobey Corporation, he got the City to agree that if the C/DGA acquired the Sobey’s land, the City would deed the other two parcels of land. And when Sobey’s agreed to sell its property to the C/DGA, Wanzel convinced the Province to provide an interest-free loan for the purchase of the Sobey’s property–contingent upon the City deeding the other two properties.

8 In parallel, the C/GDA was involved in advocating their position to the HRM while the City developed the “Peninsula North Detailed Area Plan.” The HRM plan stipulates that all new commercial activity would be allowed south of the C/GDA block, while existing commercial properties within the block would be grandfathered in.

9 SCPI stands for Supporting Communities Partnership Initiative.

Terrance Galvin, MRAIC, is the Director of the Dalhousie School of Architecture. He is currently teaching a graduate-level course on the history and theory of cities and a design studio on urban housing.

Project Metro Non-Profit Housing, Gottingen and Buddy Daye Streets
Architect Savage Stewart Architecture
Client CGDA/Metro Non-Profit Housing Association
Architect Team Niall Savage, Jennifer Stewart, Audrey Archambault with Grant Wanzel consulting
Structural Campbell Comeau Engineeering
Contractor Rideau Construction
Area 10,000 ft2
Budget $1 M
Completion January 2002
Photos Ken Kam, James Steeves

Project The Creightons, Creighton Street
Architect Niall Savage Architecture
Client CGDA/six purchasers
Architect Team Niall Savage, Johneen Manning with Grant Wanzel consulting
Structural Campbell Comeau Engineeering
Contractor Black Diamond Builders
Area 6,000 ft2 + 2,500 ft2 unfinished basement
Budget $750,000
Completion September 2004
Photos James Steeves

Project Harbour City, Creighton and Buddy Daye Streets
Architect Niall Savage Architecture
Client CGDA/Harbour City Homes
Architect Team Niall Savage, Rayleen Hill, Emanuel Jannasch with Grant Wanzel consulting
Structural Campbell Comeau Engineeering
Contractor Black Diamond Builders
Area 7,800 ft2
Budget $750,000
Completion July 2008
Photos James Steeves

Project Gottingen Terrace, Gottingen Street
Architect Niall Savage Architecture
Client C/GDA
Architect Team Niall Savage, Rayleen Hill, Tom Evans with Grant Wanzel consulting
Structural Campbell Comeau Engineeering
Contractor Bird Rideau
Area 44,000 ft2
Budget $5.5 M
Completion July 2011