Random Acts of Violence

There’s no obvious pattern to the City’s over-heated development scene. It feels like bits and pieces dropped at random from a great height. But a closer look is worth the effort. In Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks,[1] former MLA Howard Epstein suggests that our current development frenzy bears the fingerprints of several not-so-hidden hands. Epstein, a Dalhousie-educated lawyer with expertise in planning law, sees the present situation as arising from a well orchestrated convergence of interests involving our local real estate and development industry, City of Halifax Council and staff, and the Government of Nova Scotia.

To begin, consider these words of encouragement from the Greater Halifax Partnership:

 Halifax’s planning approval times do not generally compare well with jurisdictions across the country and the city’s long average turn-around times generally miss policy targets. …

Part of the issue appears to be Halifax’s heavy reliance on site-specific development agreements, which require time-consuming public consultation and council review. … Development approval timelines have seen considerable improvements following the implementation of HRM by Design, and recent amendments to the HRM Charter allow for a more streamlined approval process throughout the rest of the Regional Centre. A critical review of the rest of the city’s planning infrastructure could further identify means of allowing for more time-efficient, as-of-right Development.[2]

Ultimately, this convergence of interests resulted in three Legislative Bills [3] and took place under the agency of two provincial governments: the Conservative government that preceded his own and the NDP government of which Epstein was a part. With respect to the latter, he refers to Premier Dexter’s enthusiasm for Bill 160, which expanded the reach of the Tory Bills. All told, these Bills supported substantial increases to as-of-right height, density, and other by-law limits, thereby privileging high-rise construction. Most critically, they imposed a drastic reduction on public participation in the land-use process. Dexter’s main contribution was to expand the ambit of these changes to include the whole of the Regional Centre area.

Blue, red, or orange, you have to be gobsmacked with the very thought of such uncharacteristic legislation coming from a majority NDP government. Here’s how Epstein explains it: From the outset of their first term in office, Premier Dexter and his inner group were preoccupied with getting re-elected – not just once, but at least twice. They believed that to make it three in a row, Nova Scotians had to see their government as both capable managers and friendly to business – big business. As it turned out, effective management wasn’t really their thing and Nova Scotians didn’t buy their “Big Business” schtick.

Meanwhile, they’re gone and we’re left with their mess. As it now stands, Halifax mega-projects such as that proposed by the team of APL Properties Limited and Westwood Construction Limited for the Quinpool/Robie intersection can count on broadly expanded as-of-right limits, favourable development agreement negotiations, fast-track approval processes, and sharply curtailed opportunities for public input. To make matters worse:

The lack of a Plan means we haven’t developed, or even considered developing, the public systems like open space, transit, or a vision for Quinpool [much less the capacity of the waste water infrastructure] that would support such intense development. In the end, a Plan isn’t just a license to build more and bigger buildings. The form and density of development is linked to, and contingent on, the provision of public services and amenities which would justify the increased development while protecting and improving the neighbourhood.[4]

But you needn’t worry. In January 2014 City Staff advised Council [5] that the peninsula’s waste water system was close to capacity and, as recently as March 2015, funding was approved to study the ever-increasing burden of our new, bigger, and “bolder” buildings. As for the financial burden, all growth-related costs apparently will be recovered through development charges.

Like it or not, big things are being built. Big things that will have big, unplanned impacts. Thoughtlessly located, they will disrupt stable residential neighbourhoods. They will put upward pressure on assessment rates. In turn, this will lead to the loss of affordable private-sector rental housing through rent increases, upgrades, and condominium conversion, as well as demolition, land assembly, and even bigger projects. With all of that, established income-diverse neighbourhoods will lose their diversity, as less affluent households are driven into outer suburbia.

With proposals for development coming from all directions, informed city-wide discussion has become very difficult. We are small groups of concerned citizens. We live in ever more isolated neighbourhoods. Our communities are no longer our own. Ours are solitary voices and our City refuses to listen. Whereas medical practitioners strive to do no harm, planners are said to seek the greatest good for the greatest number. How so? What about our present approval and development process? Is it feckless or reckless, its consequences intended or unintended? We’d say all of the above, but does it really matter? Either way, a hell-for-leather development process that’s driven by blind ambition – whether for power, profit, or both – is unlikely to have much patience for consequences, intended or not. Under no circumstances will that process hear us, not when it doesn’t want to know and won’t even listen.

 

Notes

1. Howard Epstein, Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks (Halifax: Empty Mirrors Press, 2015).

2. Greater Halifax Partnership, The Halifax Index 2014, 30.

3. Bills 179 and 181, under the Conservatives, and Bill 160, which had the effect of expanding the ambit of Bill 181 to the whole of the Regional Centre area.

4. E-mail courtesy of Prof. Frank Palermo, Faculty of Architecture and Planning, Dalhousie University, to the author (Grant Wanzel), 2 April 2015.

5. Item No. 11.1.1, Halifax Regional Council, March 10, 2015.

J. Grant Wanzel / 7 April 2015

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