Halifax: Downtown Development?

Sometimes change is a good thing, but a recent modification in the downtown Halifax development approvals process evokes uncertainty. Prior to the city’s amalgamation in 1996, all of council dealt with the issue of building developments and approvals–although a planning advisory committee provided advice. With the amalgamation came the idea that there would be area councils, whose responsibility it would be to look at and approve or disapprove development proposals. Until recently, the process involved the submittal of an application, followed by reviews by planning staff to ensure the proposal abides by the rules of the existing regional plan, outlined in 1978. A formal application was prepared by the planning staff and was submitted to the four councillors of the Peninsula Community Council (PCC) for final review.

According to Frank Palermo, Professor at Dalhousie University’s School of Architecture and Planning, concern arose from inconsistencies in the choices made by the PCC, so pressure was exerted to make downtown development a region-wide concern. Two recent major issues marked a turning point for such changes: the Brewery Market and the Midtown Tavern developments. After public concern arose on the decision to approve the Midtown project and dismiss the Brewery project, it became clear that the downtown development was too important to leave the decision-making to such a small group of people. What happens in the centre of the city inevitably affects the entire region. The eventuality of this idea was that all of council was to take part in the decision-making of downtown development–23 regional councillors and the mayor. Palermo states that this change has resulted in several people being involved who have very little connection to the downtown core. “Many of these people represent small communities and rural areas. Now they make decisions for the well-being of the downtown core, when their contact and knowledge is likely minimal. It is a questionable move. To what degree should a politician decide on this issue?”

Jim Donovan and Angus Schaffenburg, senior planners for the Halifax Regional Municipality, suggest that the change is a positive one. Donovan maintains that council’s commitment to downtown economic development is good for the whole region. Schaffenburg clarifies that regardless of whether it is the community council or the regional councils who make decisions concerning development agreements, they still must do so according to planning strategy as well as consulting with the Heritage Advisory Committee and the District 12 Planning Advisory Committee, which includes Spring Garden Road, the Central Business District and waterfront areas. According to Donovan and Schaffenburg, the flashpoint on the Brewery Market was the 27-storey high-rise element which dwarfed the adjacent heritage properties. “We thought it was out of scale. The council decided to uphold the staff recommendation, and refuse to hold a public hearing. They have a right to do that. The applicants objected, of course. How can a significant project like this not even get a public hearing? Secondly, why would a community council get to decide on such an important matter?” Apparently, the same thing happened with the Midtown Tavern project. “We had concerns of a similar nature; the building was out of scale with the surrounding area and out of sync with the existing plan. Council decided to hold a public hearing on that project, since it caught a lot of criticism on the brewery project. It ended up being a public hearing where they heard a lot of positive feedback on the project. As a result they chose to approve the project.”

The most controversial news in potential downtown developments is Hariri Pontarini Architects’ “twisting” multi-use proposal on the site of the old Tex-Park. Although the city didn’t give the final verdict on the project’s approval, it seems as though the developers and architects have gracefully dodged enough bullets. Donovan explains: “It’s not in the same context. It’s in the middle of the Central Business District, and the nearest heritage building is across the street. The site doesn’t have the same sensitivities. The building is not in a view plane, which allows for its height to matter less. It is more a concern with street-level development. What impact will it create in terms of wind and shadows? We at the planning department don’t necessarily take a look at aesthetics. The glass towers or whatever it might be, is not something that we comment strongly on. It is more a subjective thing.”

In 1972, Halifax City Council approved the City’s three major planning objectives: to preserve and enhance the historic character of downtown Halifax; to enhance vistas and to preserve views from the Citadel Hill to the waterfront; and to stimulate the maximum intensity of use and development of the central area of Halifax.

In 1974, the City adopted the concept of view planes followed by the municipal plan in 1978, which contained detailed objectives for the central business district (CBD) and the waterfront area. In 1986, the City implemented building height restrictions in the area of the Citadel and Parade Square, which require that clear and unimpeded panoramic view planes be maintained from the perspective of an average-height person. The objective is to keep the view free of any new building development in order to preserve the skyline just as it was in years past. The next thing that was adopted was a plan for the Spring Garden Road area in 1987.

The ’60s produced urban renewal schemes such as Scotia Square, one of the first of many megastructures which attempted to draw life into the downtown core by providing an enormous influx of corporate, retail and commercial space in a sheltered indoor environment. In the late ’70s came the Maritime Centre, a classic folly which proved to be a catalyst for more stringent control and rules on downtown development. According to Donovan, the building was all about economics and placing the building on the site, given restraints such as view planes. However, it didn’t take into consideration its urban impact. The ’70s also gave the city the Historic Properties which almost single-handedly revitalized the Lower Water Street area. As longtime tenants of the Historic Properties, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design is often credited with the renewal of the downtown core. Of course, the ’70s also gave birth to the bank towers, which made Halifax the corporate centre of Atlantic Canada. With the towers came retail growth and increased density.

The evolving harbour and its ability to accommodate the super panamax-sized container ships have played fundamental roles in the development of the downtown core. Halifax is constantly faced with competing demands with respect to land on the harbourfront. Its attractive mixed-use working harbour full of shipping, ferry and recreational activities instills a sense of pride in Haligonians. Consequently, there is a lot of demand for harbour land to construct mixed-use developments. The City claims that it is in the middle of developing land-use policies for the waterfront to ensure that all competing interests are satisfied.

The focus right now is on the Waterfront Development Corporation land in downtown Halifax. There is interest in working with them and the Port Authority on Piers 21 and 22. The Port Authority has an interest in the industrial activities of the city, but also has some lands which are surplus to those needs. According to Donovan, the WDC are looking to the cruise-line industry and other portals for tourism which could complement commercial and residential development.

Ultimately, it seems, Halifax’s progression is weighed down by its conservative decision-makers. Luckily, it was the developers who gained enough confidence to put a project like the Tex-Park proposal forward, even if only to test the conservative waters. Both Schaffenburg and Donovan state that they hope to see some of Halifax’s local talent like Niall Savage and Talbot Sweetapple make a big
ger mark on the downtown core. The real issue is not having any clear and simple vision for the city. Perhaps the view-plane diagram is the vision. At least, that is the only thing that is presently clear apart from the simplistic refrain of “we want development, it has to be appropriate, it has to be nice, and it should reinforce the quality and the heritage of the city.”

Omar Gandhi is a recent graduate of Dalhousie University’s School of Architecture.