Why Are City Hall’s Ambitions So Low?

The first half of the draft Centre Plan for Halifax is ambitious. It was prepared in consultation with many citizens at lively workshop sessions during 2016. Its ambitions for the Halifax peninsula and central Dartmouth include:

  • recognition of diverse households (families, seniors, students, military, etc.)
  • affordable housing for all renters and owners
  • diverse housing types (houses, townhouses, duplexes/triplexes, apartments, etc.)
  • facilities for public activity
  • streets that are safe and comfortable at all hours

These ambitions for the centre of the city are diverse: social, economic, physical, and experiential. They offer some basic performance criteria for assessing proposed plans and developments. Deeper criteria could have been drawn from the Halifax Housing Needs Assessment report (2015) that city hall commissioned for the Centre Plan; it’s odd that this document has not been cited anywhere.

Unfortunately, the second half of the draft Centre Plan (April 2017, starting on page 87) abandons most of these ambitions. By simply resurrecting the development approach used in the 2012 “Corridor Plan” (Centre Plan Phase 1), it suggests that those 2016 Centre Plan workshops were unnecessary. The second half of the document is where one would expect a description of how the ambitions in the first half would be pursued and implemented. This might include a process that consults local experts in various fields. The second half also might draw from current best practices in planning and development elsewhere. This could include focused studies of certain parts of the city, starting with a thorough analysis of what’s there now: Who lives there? Does it have certain assets that should be protected? Does the area lack important things? What problems need to be addressed? What does it want to become?

These questions are multi-faceted. They involve citizens’ access to housing, health care, education, transportation, services, and recreation. Basically, they ask what would constitute healthy parts of a healthy city. Together, Halifax’s universities, institutions, government departments, and citizens have plenty of knowledge to help answer these questions in an intelligent, coordinated way. This would require more planning, not just a quick leap to development. Unfortunately, the draft Centre Plan indicates that this additional research and planning has not been done.

Instead, the second half of the draft Centre Plan is a one-liner. It’s all about physical form: where new buildings can be located and how high they can be. It’s about adding density, mainly in locations where it can be masked or excused, rather than where it can do some good. The five “centres” (shown in red below) are described like sales pitches for what they offer developers and their immediate customers, not for how they can benefit the neighbourhoods and the city as a whole.

Source: draft Centre Plan (March 2017), 94

The foundation of the second half is also shaky, as it shows no mathematical link between the (dubious) population projections for Halifax (p. 12) and the quantity of additional building that the Centre Plan would allow. This is a major gap in logic. More importantly, the second half is silent on all those earlier ambitions in the first half. Its basic motivation seems to be about municipal finances: hoping that erasing limits in the centre would distract developers from expanding the suburbs, where new municipal infrastructure would be more expensive to provide and maintain. This financial aim makes sense, of course, but it’s hardly enough as the basis for a plan. It shows a very low level of ambition from city hall.

In the Quinpool area, home to the Willow Tree Group, we are not NIMBYs. Most of us want development along Quinpool – but we expect it to be smart development that will strengthen Quinpool as a mid-rise main street and benefit people in the surrounding area. Unfortunately, the draft Centre Plan calls for a series of high-rise apartment blocks along the east half of Quinpool, turning it into a “density dump” rather than a proper main street.

Source: draft Centre Plan (March 2017), 107; with heights added by the Willow Tree Group

For more positive examples, think of other cities where continuous main streets are stitched into their residential surroundings: Danforth Avenue in Toronto, rue Saint-Denis in Montreal, and so many others in Europe and elsewhere. It can be done. The Quinpool neighbourhoods want it. Why should city hall give up on this ambition?

A developer who reads the draft Centre Plan can freely disregard the ambitions in the first half and go straight to the second half, where numbers start to appear and there are fewer constraints or ambitions. The biggest profits can be made in locations where 15–20-storey buildings are permitted, so they would be targeted first. The draft Centre Plan does not oblige a developer to incorporate anything else into a development that would benefit the city. It leaves almost all of the decisions up to the developer.

Good developers aim for more than company profit. They have a broader, more benevolent vision for the city that recognizes certain assets, needs, and ambitions, beyond just providing a place for their customers to live and perhaps park a car. Their buildings are conceived and designed to add extra value to the city: by framing a public space, by preserving an important civic view, by including facilities that will benefit nearby residents, by accommodating people who otherwise would be excluded, by retaining a heritage building, or by strengthening the urban pattern of surrounding buildings. As we witnessed with the Halifax Central Library – the result of an architectural competition and public consultation to arrive at the best possible project – citizens can hardly wait for such buildings to be finished.

Not-so-good developers, on the other hand, aim to maximize company profit at the expense of everything else. Whatever is selling best becomes the program: typically high-end apartments for singles and couples, parking spaces, and perhaps ground-level retail. The most profitable building type is a tower block, so that’s the default concept. Then they push city hall to approve more building volume than the by-laws permit. Understandably, these developers face resistance from local residents who recognize that the proposed building has nothing positive to offer the neighbourhood and will diminish the assets they currently have. In downtown Halifax, city hall meekly tries to negotiate something positive by offering the developer the right to build extra storeys in exchange for a token donation: usually a public-art sculpture next to the building’s entrance, which again benefits the developer more than the public.

Lately there has been a veritable gold rush by developers in Halifax. The avalanche of building proposals in 2016 and 2017 buried the Planning and Development department. This was the result of a perfect storm: city hall hoping to discourage suburban development; Regional Council instructing the Planning and Development department to disregard municipal by-laws and the development agreement process; low interest rates and offshore investors; and developers sensing big profits to be made by acting quickly.

Unfortunately, we can’t rely on developers to consider more than just themselves and their immediate customers. That’s where city hall needs to play a much more active role: to harness and ride energetic developers toward a collective finish line, rather than allowing them to run wild in the city. City hall needs to keep in mind those higher civic ambitions and find intelligent ways to achieve them. Contrary to the second half of the Centre Plan, this can’t be done in a passive way, simply by designating certain parts of the city as “centres” and “corridors” for development.

Over the summer we have seen Regional Council become even less ambitious than the second half of the draft Centre Plan. The Planning and Development department dutifully applied its own draft Centre Plan limits to the latest avalanche of 22 proposals, then prepared a staff report that identified fourteen for further consideration and eight for discontinuation. On August 1, Regional Council instead voted to proceed with all 22: a slap in the face to the Planning and Development department, including chief planner Bob Bjerke. Council effectively pulled the rug out from under the draft Centre Plan: not to do more good for the city, but to make life easier for the developers who caused the avalanche in the first place. It also placed citizens in the path of the avalanche with no solid by-laws for protection, expecting us to do city hall’s work by reviewing and criticizing each proposal throughout its long twelve-step process.

In assessing these 22 projects, on what grounds did members of Regional Council believe they knew better than the Planning staff? Their decision certainly wasn’t based on a greater knowledge of architecture and urban planning or a closer examination of the 22 projects, so what trumped logic? Were they flattered that wealthy developers would seek their approval to build so much? Did they assume that these developers had done the necessary homework to determine that this would be a viable plan, with no lost opportunities or negative impacts? Was it a return to the old Maritime insecurity, that only others can save us? Do our councillors believe that any development is good development – at least, if it’s not being opposed by voters in their own district? What caused them to turn against the citizens of Districts 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 who participated in the Centre Plan workshops, as well as the Planning and Development staff who were caught in the middle? Did Council’s decision on these 22 projects embolden Halifax’s chief administrative officer (Jacques Dubé) to fire chief planner Bob Bjerke three weeks later?

Alas, the avalanche of building proposals continues, but now it’s accompanied by an avalanche of disbelief and dismay by citizens: that the level of civic ambition at city hall has sunk so low. But tears are not enough. We want to know what our elected representatives at city hall will do to fix this problem they have created.

Steve Parcell / 13 Sept. 2017