The triangular park northwest of Robie and Quinpool is bordered on two sides by twenty Victorian-era houses and a church. The third side of the park used to face St. Pat’s High School auditorium, which will soon become mid-rise residential buildings along Windsor Street as part of the city’s Quinpool 6067 development. The coloured portion of the map below (from www.bing.com/maps) shows the triangular park and the residences that surround it.
Together, the park and its residential buildings form the Parker-Welsford neighbourhood (not to be confused with the Welsford-Parker Monument on Barrington Street). In urban design terms, this is a typical European urban square: a continuous row of residences facing a green space. The city’s planning regulations – in particular, the Quinpool Road Commercial Area Plan in the Municipal Planning Strategy for Halifax – state that any new development in this area must “strengthen the community function of the Quinpool Road area” and must be “in keeping with the scale and character of the adjacent residential neighbourhoods” (207).
The 29- and 25-storey towers proposed by Armco and Westwood are located right next to the Parker-Welsford neighbourhood, but you’d never know this from the developers’ drawings. All of their renderings show only the Robie and Quinpool sides, with the main streets and the Halifax Common in the foreground. The adjacent neighbourhood is completely hidden. Unfortunately, city hall has been considering only the developers’ side when it evaluates these two proposals. On January 25, when the Planning and Development department made a presentation to the Districts 7 and 8 Planning Advisory Committee (now called the Halifax Peninsula Planning Advisory Committee), only the Robie and Quinpool sides were shown. The committee raised questions about the developments’ impact on the Parker-Welsford neighbourhood but there were no images of the other side for them to see. Consequently, the committee remained focused on the Robie-Quinpool side and merely recommended that the number of storeys be reduced so that these developments would not stand out from the Welsford Apartments to the north and the Atlantica Hotel to the south.
As astute consumers, we know that advertisers try to generate public desire for their products by glamorizing certain features and hiding the rest. In a similar way, the Parker-Welsford neighbourhood has become a blind spot for both the developers and city hall. To help balance the discussion, let’s rotate the perspective and consider these developments from the other side: the Parker-Welsford neighbourhood. In fact, let’s mend this blind spot by renaming this location in a more well-rounded way, so that “Robie-Quinpool” becomes “Robie-Quinpool-Parker.”
Seen from the neighbourhood, the two towers are obviously incompatible, due to their height, massing, population density, social isolation, traffic impact, shadows, etc. While their fronts face Quinpool and Robie, their backsides moon the neighbourhood. Let’s not kid ourselves that four-storey podiums at the bottom can camouflage what’s hovering above. As trophy-buildings that treat the neighbourhood below as a trophy base, their remoteness and urban domination are obvious. These are not neighbourly buildings, and they’re certainly not “in keeping with the scale and character of the adjacent residential neighbourhoods.”
Let’s have a closer look at Westwood’s project, as it’s located directly behind the houses on Parker Street. The image below, Westwood’s drawing of the north side of its proposal, could be anywhere with a flat ground surface: in a desert, on an island, or on the moon.
By simply extending this drawing to include one of the existing houses on Parker Street, Westwood’s drawing suddenly acquires a scale and a location, and tells a very different story about its surroundings. Would you want this development behind your house and your backyard fence? Would Westwood’s president, Danny Chedrawe, want this 25-storey tower thirty feet from the house where he lives?
Unfortunately, HRM’s development agreement applications [broken HRM link] don’t require developers to submit drawings that show how a proposed building would fit into its neighbourhood. Without seeing this extended drawing above, the Districts 7 and 8 Planning Advisory Committee (renamed the Halifax Peninsula Planning Advisory Committee) had to imagine the impact of Westwood’s building on the Parker Street neighbourhood. If they had seen this drawing, they probably wouldn’t have recommended trying to soften the impact of the tower by setting it back a little more from the shared property line or by planting vegetation at the bottom to hide it.
Four houses on Parker Street (2027, 2033, 2037, and 2043, highlighted in red below) are at risk of being acquired and demolished to provide vehicular access for Westwood’s development via Parker Street. Robie Street access to and from the property is limited by the central median, which prevents left turns. Westwood’s project also needs more land for parking, as it includes 80 hotel rooms but provides no parking spaces for them. By opening up a rear access, the vehicular bowels of the building would evacuate onto Parker Street, introducing rear service functions into the front-facing urban square of the Parker-Welsford neighbourhood. Of course, that would be wrong. In both dining and urban design, combining front and back is a cultural taboo.
As pedestrians – and even drivers – we know how wind speed increases around tall buildings. With the prospect of a row of four towers along one block of Robie Street, shouldn’t the onus be on the developers to pay for an independent wind consultant to determine if wind will be a problem in the Parker-Welsford neighbourhood, as well as on Robie Street, the Halifax Common, and the Oval? Surprisingly, the Planning department’s position is that wind speed would be considered later, if and when these towers are approved. Of course, that would be too late. Unlike other cities, Halifax has no policy for assessing wind impact and no standards for wind speed at ground level, so common sense is currently the only argument against this position.
At Robie-Quinpool-Parker, the Planning department is already siding with Armco by saying that it wants tall buildings at Robie and Quinpool to serve as a “gateway” to Quinpool Road. This sculptural idea contradicts the Land Use By-law and has never been discussed publicly. The Halifax Municipal Planning Strategy (Section XI, 1.4.2) states explicitly that the height limit for the Robie-Quinpool-Parker-Welsford block (except for Armco’s property) is 35 feet “to maintain low rise development and to ensure that there is compatibility with the character of the surrounding neighbourhood.” If HRM is thinking about making big changes to the entire block, that should be an open topic for the upcoming Centre Plan debates. In the meantime, using the development agreement process as a loophole to permit Armco and Westwood to erode the neighbourhood would be unfair to everyone in the surrounding area.
Because developers have their own priorities, we have come to expect self-interested projects from them. Whose job is it to provide a broader, more balanced view with the public in mind? (Think of Consumer Reports as a model.) Normally the Land Use By-law would represent the public good, but developers are routinely exceeding its limits as they seek development agreements that break the rules while offering nothing in return to the city. City hall’s response to these projects has been to invite the elephant into the room, commit everyone to a multi-year development agreement process, and then nibble away at the number of storeys. For Westwood’s project – seven times higher than what is permitted – city hall should have said no at the beginning and sent it back to the drawing board. HRM Council and HRM’s Planning department have lost the trust of communities across HRM by responding uncritically to the flood of development agreement applications during the past few years. Meanwhile, the Willow Tree Group has tried to fill this critical gap, volunteering its time, knowledge, and skills to shadow these two Robie-Quinpool-Parker developments and raise questions about HRM’s development agreement process and its passive, uncritical approach to developing the city.
Is city hall listening to the Willow Tree Group and other citizens north and south of Quinpool? Our survey at HRM’s last Public Information Meeting showed unanimous opposition to the Westwood and Armco developments for Robie-Quinpool-Parker. Everyone agrees that more density on the peninsula makes sense, but not at any cost. If public resistance eventually becomes futile and these two developments are approved by HRM Council, this would show that city hall’s expedient, developer-driven approach to densifying the peninsula has trumped citizens’ other values, as well as the city’s own regulations about preserving and strengthening neighbourhoods such as Parker-Welsford.
Steve Parcell / 16 March 2016