This is one resident’s frustrated response to HRM’s first 6067 Quinpool survey in August 2015 about the former St. Patrick’s High School site, which asked the public to evaluate three urban massing proposals – the Square, the Grid, and the Plaza – according to six design principles: porosity, human scale, open spaces, variety of real estate, neighbourhood character, and creativity in design.
Considering light, air, and views is a worthy objective; however, the plans and perspectives of the three options don’t describe shadows at different times of day or year, nor do they indicate the impact of wind. The Grid option suggests that the buildings would be very close to one another, with close-up views into neighbours’ apartments. The maze of open spaces inside the Grid would be dangerous at night; no one would want to walk there. These abstract, anonymous open spaces – especially in the Grid – recall the urban design errors of public housing in the mid-twentieth century. Did they not teach you about this in planning school? If you had really studied the six neighbourhood examples that were mentioned in your presentation at the open house, you wouldn’t be using an abstract concept such as “porosity.”
Human scale is a reasonable objective, but you’re not giving us anything to respond to. In the urban massing perspectives, how big is a human? All we see are blocks of buildings with no scale. All of the images are distant, wide-angle views, so it’s hard to imagine walking through or alongside them. These masses could be three storeys or twelve storeys tall. The massing of an urban block can’t convey human scale, so this is a disingenuous question.
As for how these urban masses fit into their surroundings, where are the surroundings? The images are cropped much too tightly, focusing on their own forms, rather than the larger neighbourhood. How can anyone tell that the surrounding neighbourhood consists largely of two-storey houses?
As for sizes, proportions, and details, how can one tell? These ice-like urban masses are scaleless, with no detail, despite the slight setbacks in the plan of the Square option.
By claiming that it’s possible to detect “human scale” in these images, you’re encouraging citizens to pretend to see something that’s not there. Why would you do that?
Open spaces need to be meaningful, not just open. Because the urban masses in all three schemes have no front and no back, their social properties are ambiguous, so they are liable to be under-used or poorly used. The masses are also rendered in a uniform way, so we can’t distinguish the Quinpool side from the three other sides. We have to read the captions to find out which side we’re looking at.
We can recognize the perimeter streets as public, but what kind of open space is inside the block? Is it public, private, or ambiguous? Do the building entrances face the outside or the inside of the block? Can you point to some good examples elsewhere in the world where this pattern of perimeter streets, through-routes, and interior open space works well, both spatially and socially? It’s not the same as European squares (where public streets expand into public squares), nor is it the same as back gardens inside an urban block (where laundry is hung on clotheslines). Is it a quasi-public (but really private) space like a shopping mall, which closes at the end of the day and can eject unwanted people? How can you ask us to compare the three schemes by looking for “playgrounds, fountains, art, bicycle racks, and seating areas”? All you’re showing us is urban masses. If Jon Stewart had attended the open house and heard the pumped-up descriptions of farmers’ markets, open-air concerts, and other imaginary events, he would have called bullshit on you.
Variety of Real Estate
How can we tell if any of the schemes would be more appropriate for “people from all walks of life”? What does “all walks of life” mean: age, ethnicity, family size, social groups, rich, poor, live-work, etc.? What kinds of research would be needed to understand this? Where are the different residential types that are mentioned in the design principle? All we see are blocks with a uniform depth, suggesting apartments and perhaps shops. The shallow depth of the buildings suggests that there are no social facilities here, so everything is private. Can this “variety of real estate” principle be reduced to apartments with different numbers of bedrooms? You’re not giving us anything else to consider, so again, this design principle is remote from the proposals. It would have been more honest to say that you’re presenting us with three different urban massing schemes, rather than trying to inflate them with “design principles” that encourage a cloud of pretensions and do a disservice to real urban design.
Really? Did you even visit the neighbourhood and walk around, north and south of Quinpool? What you’re showing us in the urban massing schemes has absolutely nothing to do with the neighbourhood. The perspectives could be anywhere: Brasilia, Russia, or Sketchup. Try placing some of these images in photographs of the neighbourhood and you’ll see how incongruous they appear. Considering “character” is a worthy ambition but this attempt is either pretentious or naive. The six neighbourhoods from Copenhagen, Brooklyn, Montreal, etc. that you showed briefly at the open house were encouraging at first, but the three urban massing schemes show that nothing has been learned from them. Precedents need to be analyzed and understood before they can contribute to a new project. Otherwise, to claim that they have provided insights is pretentious and misleading. There is too much at stake on this site to let bullshit pass by without raising a red flag.
The background report includes superficial descriptions and no hard analysis of the neighbourhood. The factual errors and omissions in the report (height limits, density, etc.) show insufficient research. You’ll need to do much better than this if you’re going to make an intelligent contribution to cities.
Creativity in Design
The Halifax Central Library is a thoughtful design with good bones: the plaza in front, the central atrium, the interior route, the perimeter offices, the different types of interior spaces, the varied program elements, and the awareness of distant views from the building. Its basic massing, however, is conventional. Its shifted horizontal envelope is a relatively minor feature and it came later, not at the beginning. “Creativity in design” (or even better, thoughtfulness in design) is a worthy ambition, but we shouldn’t expect to see that at this stage, in the urban massing. Projects that try to be unconventional in their basic massing (especially your Grid scheme) are bound to fail, seeking novelty for its own sake.
Building a Project on Quicksand
By now, you’ve probably gathered that I’m appalled at both the process and the product. Perhaps HRM’s Planning department did a poor job of framing the RFP. Unfortunately, there is no opportunity to call them to task on this, so our deeper concerns have to be conveyed through this survey.
The background report is not only disappointing but dangerous, as it provides a quicksand foundation for what’s to come. We deserve better than this.
Where do the six design principles come from? What gives them authority as a basis for urban design?
How can the three massing proposals possibly manifest those six design principles? Asking citizens to evaluate them by projecting their own fantasies onto them seems silly – but also dangerous. It also does a disservice to real analysis and criticism.
How can we evaluate proposals that are presented only in impressionistic perspectives? Why not also give us some facts to accompany the massing diagrams, such as building heights, population density, floor areas, and plan dimensions of buildings and outdoor spaces?
Why has the program for this block been limited to residential and retail, which are both private enterprises? Can no one imagine a more creative type of mixed use that includes public or social programs?
Is HRM not in a conflict-of-interest position by setting the parameters for a site that it plans to sell for profit?
What is the rush to sell this property, when HRM is already overbuilt and facing a housing bubble?
The Land Use By-law doesn’t permit buildings with this apparent height to be built on this property, so on what basis were these three proposals generated? Is it all about the look or the feel? Is HRM pretending that the proposed 29-storey and 25-storey towers at Robie and Quinpool already exist and provide an excuse for exceeding the legislated height limit and site coverage at 6067 Quinpool?
Why is this public consultation being done quickly, in the middle of the summer, when many residents are away?
Those of us who live here care about this neighbourhood. We would be happy to support a process and a project that demonstrate an understanding of the neighbourhood and contribute something substantial to it. HRM’s initial intention to consult the public before selling the property was commendable. Unfortunately, neither the process nor the product are living up to the promise.
Steve Parcell / 10 Aug. 2015