On Monday, May 9, at Olympic Centre on Cunard Street, an HRM Public Information Meeting was hosted by the Districts 7 and 8 Planning Advisory Committee. The aim was to discuss HRM’s proposed guidelines for developing the former St. Patrick’s High School site (now called Quinpool 6067). The site plan and the 129-page final report by the planning consultants (WSP in Dartmouth) can be downloaded from the HRM website. You needn’t read the whole report; the final recommendations are on pages 123–127. The rest of the report is mainly a description of WSP’s process.
At the start of the meeting, HRM Planning handed out an addendum to WSP’s report. It summarized quantitative items for a new RC-5 zone in the Halifax Land Use By-law that would apply only to this site. Many of the items in the addendum – building height, streetwall setback, streetwall height, streetwall step-back, floor plate area, building depth, parking, and unit types – supersede what’s described in WSP’s report. (Yes, this last-minute switch wasn’t fair to the public. It also raises doubts about WSP’s report.) HRM’s addendum is not yet posted on the Quinpool 6067 website, but it appears on the last page of the staff report for the May 30 meeting of the Districts 7 and 8 Planning Advisory Committee.
After reviewing the WSP report (all 129 pages), the Willow Tree Group raised the following questions about the municipal ground rules, the process, and the product. (These questions refer to WSP’s report, not HRM’s last-minute changes.) Other audience members raised similar questions, as well as other significant topics. Decisions on this property could influence everything else in the Robie-Quinpool area, so it’s important to get this right, with the future in mind.
1. Height, massing, and population density
- This development doesn’t respect the 45-foot height limit or the 125-person/acre population density limit in Halifax’s Land Use By-law. WSP’s report acknowledges that the public doesn’t want high-rises of 12–18 storeys here (pp. 96, 108). HRM’s regional policy to increase population on the peninsula rather than in the suburbs is unspecific and open-ended, with no target numbers or dates attached, so how were the height, massing, and population density of this development generated?
- The Floor Area Ratio (gross floor area divided by gross site area) for this development is 3.32. How does this number compare to best practices for similar districts elsewhere? Why is FAR being used as the primary measure for development when the Land Use By-law uses different criteria (height, population density, etc.) and includes specific standards for those criteria?
- WSP’s report (p. 51) notes that this site is not included in the downtown “Schedule A” density zone (250 persons per acre), but says, “This density  is considered appropriate [as a] comparator due to the proximity of the site to the boundary of Schedule A at Robie Street.” Why is the “Schedule A” boundary being stretched to include this site? [At the meeting, HRM Planning said that the boundary is not being stretched; the Quinpool 6067 proposal is testing the downtown standard on this site as part of a density experiment.]
- A consultant’s report (p. 117) says there will be 420 units (although this isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the report). At an average of 2.25 persons/unit (p. 51), the residential population would be 945 persons. The site area is 3.47 acres (noted in the margin of the site plan), so the population density on this site would be 272 persons per acre. This is more than twice what’s permitted in this part of the city (125 persons per acre). It’s even greater than what is permitted downtown (250 persons per acre). The average density on the whole peninsula is 12 persons per acre. North and south of Quinpool, the average is 25. On what basis was a building mass generated that would result in a 272-person/acre population density?
2. Regulations and precedents
- If the Centre Plan eventually decides that the maximum height of new buildings along Quinpool Road should be mid-rise (6 storeys), would that retroactively reduce the heights that are being set for this site; or would a decision now prevent the Centre Plan from considering it again later?
- With basic criteria and standards in Halifax’s Land Use By-law being disregarded, and without a larger plan for the Quinpool Road district in place, what are the ground rules for making decisions on this site? Is HRM Planning and Development relying on its own private intentions for this area? Has HRM Council provided any instructions other than its four general points about disposing of surplus real property (Administrative Order 50, p. 7)?
- Why should the eventual developer be given so much freedom to make decisions on population density, residential unit mix, residential unit sizes, total number of residential units, residential affordability, building heights, and the buildings’ impact on wind speed? Most of these items are not covered by the report’s form-based approach, which emphasizes urban massing over everything else.
- Would decisions on this site set a precedent for the five other projects that are being proposed in the Robie-Quinpool area? [At the public meeting, HRM Planning said that it would not set a precedent.]
- At the meeting, HRM Planning admitted that Quinpool 6067 is an experiment in maximizing density on a peninsula site. The proposal intentionally loaded the site with too much building mass; the public was expected to provide resistance (which we did); then the building mass will be reduced a little to address some of our form-based objections. Isn’t this a poor approach to developing a neighbourhood and a cynical way to engage the public?
3. Neighbourhood compatibility
- Quinpool Towers is 12 storeys high and is incompatible with Quinpool Road and the surrounding neighbourhoods. Why would it be a good idea to continue that incompatibility on this site? Is Quinpool Towers being used as a crutch to support an even higher and denser development here?
- As an alternative, why would a six-storey height limit for all buildings on the St. Pat’s site be unacceptable? Which criteria would this not satisfy: for example, HRM’s profit from the sale of the land and the development rights; developer profit; a particular density target for the peninsula that HRM Council hasn’t announced publicly; or a private vision about urban massing in the Planning department?
- A major increase in density here would raise property values and assessments along Quinpool Road and in the surrounding residential areas, leading to higher property taxes and higher rents. Less affluent residents and businesses would be forced out. Why was this development’s economic impact on the surrounding area not considered in WSP’s report?
- Those of us who walk and cycle around the 12-storey Quinpool Towers know how strong the wind can be. Why should that be increased by building 12–18-storey buildings next door?
- The preliminary wind report (p. 48) says, “If wind conditions along Quinpool and Windsor are of importance, the proposed tower(s) should not be placed along these streets.” Wind is important, so why would the proposal allow 12–13-storey buildings along Quinpool and Windsor?
- Unlike other cities, the Halifax peninsula doesn’t have wind speed standards for pedestrian safety and comfort, so on what basis can wind decisions be made?
- The wind consultant’s report (p. 48) presents only general principles, without modeling wind for this particular site and its surroundings. It shows a small image of wind squeezing between tall buildings and speeding up. This canyon effect would occur between Quinpool Towers and Quinpool 6067, and between St. Vincent’s Nursing Home and Quinpool 6067, so why wasn’t this mentioned in the analysis?
5. Open space
- No one knows what that central open space would be like, surrounded by 7–18-storey walls. The report’s sample images of comparable courtyard spaces (pp. 100, 101) are misleading because they are wider and are bounded by walls that are only four storeys high. The total heights of the 7–18-storey buildings would be obvious to people inside that central space. [At the public meeting, HRM Planning said that the upper storeys would be hidden by the 3-metre stepback; however, that masking trick doesn’t work inside a courtyard.]
- Would the open space in the centre of the site be owned and operated by the city as a public park; or would it be owned and operated by the developer as a private space (like a shopping mall) that can exclude certain people and prohibit certain activities? [This question was answered at the meeting: It’s option #2.]
6. Conflict of interest
- Is HRM not in a conflict of interest by setting the development conditions for a property it plans to sell for profit?
7. Financial feasibility
- The report says, “The factors that will influence the final density for the site are architectural and urban design guidelines as well as the financial feasibility of the project based on Administrative Order 50 requirements” (p. 51). How is financial feasibility being determined? Is it only about HRM’s profit from the sale of the property and the development rights; or are other financial factors involved?
- The traffic consultant’s report (p. 120) is inconclusive. Does HRM have any standards to assess whether the increased traffic volume is acceptable? How would traffic on New Street and its west extension across the Quinpool Centre parking lot be compatible with the 18-wheeler truck deliveries for Shoppers Drug Mart and Atlantic Superstore that regularly block vehicular access to Quinpool Centre?
- The wastewater consultant’s report (p. 121) is inconclusive. Has HRM determined whether the sewers can handle the extra load?
10. Other proposed developments
- Why does the report from RWDI Engineering (p. 48) say that there will be two future towers on Robie Street (i.e., Armco and Westwood)? Is this is a foregone conclusion by city hall, despite public opposition?
- Two more developments are shown in the report (p. 65): one set of buildings on the St. Vincent’s Nursing Home parking lot and another series of buildings along the north side of the Quinpool Centre parking lot. What is their status and why are they included in this report? Why is the Quinpool district being planned in such a piecemeal way?
Steve Parcell / 9 May 2016, last modified 27 May 2016
> See our other editorial on St. Pat’s: “Saddened, Disappointed, Frustrated, and Annoyed.”