The Right Tools for the Job

As members of the public, we’re often asked by Halifax city hall to review proposed developments. These developments break one or more by-laws; that’s why they’re being reviewed. Our job is to weigh the pros and cons: to decide whether these deficiencies are acceptable when balanced by benefits in other areas.

Unfortunately, our job has become bigger. When HRM Council accepts a Development Agreement application, it commits the Planning staff and the public to a multi-year review. In 2014 and 2015, there were more Development Agreement applications than ever before. Each application is reviewed at least twice by the public. We’re not being paid to do this; it’s pro bono. We probably have nothing to gain from it. Our motivation is largely defensive: to minimize damage to our neighbourhood.

Unfortunately, our job has become harder. Recent proposals are disregarding many by-laws, not just one or two. At Robie-Quinpool-Parker, for example, the Armco and Westwood proposals disregard by-laws for height, building massing (setbacks and step-backs), residential density, and landscaped open space. Westwood also disregards the by-laws for parking spaces and the prohibition of commercial uses on its Robie Street property.

Unfortunately, we’re not being given the right tools for the job. To make intelligent comments, the public needs a comprehensive set of drawings that describes the proposal, together with the criteria and standards for assessing it. In fact, the same materials are needed by all HRM committees that are responsible for making informed recommendations on proposed developments (Design Review Committee, Planning Advisory Committees, and Community Councils) and ultimately by HRM Council.

The drawings of the proposed development are liable to be insufficient. HRM’s Development Agreement application [broken HRM link] requires drawings of only the building and the property on which it sits. This may be sufficient for a house addition in a rural part of HRM, but more drawings and different types of drawings will be needed to understand a complex high-rise development on the Halifax peninsula or in downtown Dartmouth.

When reviewing the drawings, we’re expected to keep HRM’s criteria and standards in mind, rather than introducing our own. Unfortunately, this information is not provided to us in a user-friendly format. The initial HRM staff report lists the by-laws that the proposal contravenes. That’s a good start, but we also need to know the standards that are expected and by how much the proposed development fails to meet them. We also need to know the qualitative criteria that apply (e.g., neighbourhood compatibility). To find them, we have to search our community’s Municipal Planning Strategy.

To complicate our job, HRM Planning has been inventing new criteria. When the public was asked to review three preliminary development options for Quinpool 6067 (the former St. Pat’s High School site), the usual criteria were replaced by six new ones: porosity, human scale, open spaces, variety of real estate, neighbourhood character, and creativity in design. Some of them have equivalents in HRM by-laws; the rest don’t. This is discussed in our editorial, “Bullshit at 6067 Quinpool.”

HRM Planning also has been disregarding the rules on how the mass of a building is measured. The Land Use By-laws require attention to certain features of a proposed building: its height, setback from property lines, stepback or angular plane above the streetwall, and population density (persons per acre). Instead, we’re seeing attention to its general sculptural form (too big, too small, or just right?) and its Gross Floor Area Ratio (a calculation of the gross floor area of the building divided by the gross lot area).

Despite these basic problems, let’s move ahead. The following notes on architectural drawings and numbers – linked to criteria and standards in HRM documents – should help us recognize which tools we’re missing when city hall asks us to review a proposed development. This isn’t an exhaustive list but it does show how much public attention has become necessary during the past few years. Most of the examples refer to the two Robie-Quinpool-Parker proposals that the Willow Tree Group has been monitoring.

Criteria and Standards

First, we should be aware that all of the drawings were prepared by the developer. They may include only the minimum [broken HRM link]: a site plan of the property; floor plans of all levels in the building; and elevations of all sides of the building. The developer may include other images, including colourful architectural renderings (as discussed in our editorial, “Tricks of the Trade“).

We should recognize that we’re seeing only the proposed development. The drawings show no criteria or standards for comparison, even though they’re the reason for the whole exercise. Our job would be easier if HRM provided a chart that lists the problematic criteria and compares each maximum or minimum standard in the Land Use By-law to what the developer is proposing. Here’s a sample:


Drawings and graphics would make this information clearer and more vivid. Here are some examples:

Building height, setback, and step-back

The standards for building height and massing can be overlaid onto the developer’s elevations. Below is a pair of elevation drawings for the two Robie-Quinpool-Parker proposals, with the orange overlay indicating what is not permitted:


A perspective may be clearer than an elevation drawing if the property or the building is complex. In the perspective below, the yellow volumes are permitted while the higher translucent volumes are not.



We shouldn’t skip over the floor plans. Although they look technical and boring, they contain information about our prospective neighbour that we’ll want to know: for example,

  • How far is the building from the property lines?
  • Where is the parking entrance/exit? Which street would traffic use?
  • How many underground levels are there and how long would blasting take?
  • Does the path from the street to someone’s front door consist of an internal lobby, elevators, and an internal corridor; or are the communal spaces more generous?
  • Does the program of the building include any public facilities, recreation spaces, or workplaces, rather than just private apartments and shops?
  • Are the building’s exterior open spaces liable to be used?
  • Are there places for children to play in and around the building?
  • What is the mix of apartments (bachelor, 1-bedroom, 2-bedroom, 3-bedroom, etc.)?
  • How affordable would the apartments be? Who are the intended residents?
  • Are the plans symmetrical and repetitive; or do they respond differently to external conditions: south vs. north (sunlight or shade); front vs. back (street or backyards); low vs. high (street level or roof level)?
  • What would the view be like from each side of the building?
  • Would the building block views from neighbouring buildings?
  • Where would garbage and recycled materials be stored and picked up?

Population density, landscaped open space, parking, etc.

Some criteria are measured in quantities rather than forms. To make comparisons easier, these measurements could be shown graphically. In both diagrams below, the left half shows the by-law standard while the right half shows what the developer has proposed.

This diagram shows population. Exceeding the standard could lead to problems with traffic, noise, local property taxes, etc.:


Population density

This diagram shows landscaped open space. Failing to meet the standard could lead to problems with environment, amenity, recreation, etc.:


Landscaped open space

Other diagrams could show quantities for lot coverage, gross floor area, unit mix, parking spaces, bicycle parking, etc.


The Municipal Planning Strategy for Halifax includes a general statement that developments should not create adverse wind effects. This is discussed in our editorial, “Tempest in a Teapot? Not Bloody Likely.” If Halifax establishes numerical standards for wind speed, this is where they would be included. A site plan alone (left, below) tells us nothing about wind; everything is calm. Wind must be modeled and measured, either physically or digitally. A preliminary wind analysis of Robie-Quinpool-Parker (right, below) suggests that a 60 km/hr wind from the west (green) that squeezes through a row of four towers (two existing and two proposed, in gray), would cause substantial turbulence as it heads across Robie Street and the Halifax Common toward the Oval, with wind speeds ranging from 0 km/hr in some locations (blue) to 120 km/hr in others (red).

site_plan_without_wind   site_plan_with_wind

Sunlight and shadows

It’s easy for a developer’s architect to generate images of sunlight and shadows from a digital model. The typical sample times are the first days of winter, spring/fall, and summer, at 9:00, 12:00, 3:00, and 6:00. Halifax has no quantitative standards for sunlight, only a general statement that developments should not create adverse shadow effects. Spring/fall (below) may be described as an annual average.


March 21 and September 21, 3:00 pm (Armco)

We also need to consider whether loss of sunlight at other times of year and in particular locations would be unacceptable. For the Robie-Quinpool-Parker proposals, shadows would be cast across the Oval in the afternoon during the January–February skating season (below, right).


February 1, 4:00 pm (Willow Tree Group)

Qualitative Criteria

The “Overall Objective” section in the Municipal Planning Strategy for Halifax states that a new development must “strengthen the community function” of the area and must be “in keeping with the scale and character of the adjacent residential neighbourhoods.” This emphasis on community function and compatibility presumes that a new development is not just for a single property but is also a modification to the larger urban fabric. Unfortunately, HRM does not define community function or compatibility by specifying certain criteria or standards, so the public needs to describe the community function of the area and assess the impact of the proposed development. One example is our editorial, “Quinpool Businesses,” which describes the qualities of Quinpool Road as an urban shopping street and refutes the developers’ claims that their developments would strengthen its community function.

To help frame the discussion of compatibility, the surrounding area could be defined in different ways:

  • neighbourhood compatibility (one block in all directions)
  • street compatibility (several blocks in each direction)
  • civic compatibility (significant urban features, such as axes and views)

Neighbourhood compatibility

Every development proposal in HRM must include a site plan; however, it needs to show only the property on which it sits. This is useless for assessing neighbourhood compatibility. We need to see a site plan that includes the neighbouring properties and buildings.

We also need to see elevation drawings that include the neighbouring properties and buildings. Below, the left drawing is the north elevation of Westwood’s proposal on Robie Street. It shows us only the proposed building. The drawing on the right adds the neighbouring house and its backyard on Parker Street. Now it’s possible to assess neighbourhood compatibility.

westwood_north_elevation    robie-to-parker

For large developments, we also need to see perspectives from all sides. Developers tend to favour one side of the project. They also tend to favour bird’s-eye views. The left drawing below shows how the developers at Robie-Quinpool-Parker visualized their projects, with the Common in the foreground. The drawing on the right (prepared by the Willow Tree Group) rotates the scene 180 degrees to show the hidden side: the two-storey houses along Parker Street with the 25- and 29-storey towers directly behind them. (This is discussed in our editorial, “The Parker-Welsford Neighbourhood Exists.”) Now it’s possible to assess neighbourhood compatibility.


Street compatibility

Individual developments should be compatible with the street on which they are located. To assess this, we need to see drawings of the street, including the existing buildings for several blocks in each direction. If building height is the main issue, a simple massing diagram may be sufficient. The massing diagram below shows the north side of Quinpool Road from Oxford Street to Robie Street, with the 29-storey Armco development on the far right.


Note: To fit the whole street segment into the drawing, the horizontal scale has been compressed.

Ideally, a street elevation should show the forms and features of the buildings, not just their massing:


UNUM Partnership, project on Kensington High Street, London

A street for citizens is a collective urban space, framed by the buildings on both sides. The street thus takes precedence over individual buildings. A cross-section through the street can begin to show this collective space. At a mid-rise height of six storeys, one can still recognize faces and hear voices. This is a reasonable model for future development along Quinpool Road, unlike Quinpool Towers (12 storeys), which contributes nothing to the street. Next door, HRM is planning to permit 12–13-storey towers along the Quinpool edge of the St. Pat’s High School site.


A perspective drawing with facades along both sides can show the collective urban space of the street even more clearly. A proposed building that is incompatible in height and/or mass would become obvious.


A typical boulevard in Paris

Civic compatibility

The city has certain civic orders that extend beyond a local neighbourhood. Downtown Halifax has view planes [broken HRM link] from Citadel Hill to ensure that new developments don’t intrude on significant views of the harbour. Halifax Central Library’s view of Citadel Hill is a similar civic feature that has not yet been protected by legislation.

Other parts of the city could be affected by a tall development nearby, as discussed in our editorial “Towers in the Background.” To anticipate such conflicts, city hall could create a digital model of the topography and buildings on the peninsula, similar to London’s interactive 3D model (below). This would enable a developer’s digital model to be inserted, then viewed from different directions by everyone.

London’s interactive 3D model.

Until then, photomontage is an option – but prone to dispute.


Why Should By-laws Be Broken?

When the public is presented with a proposed development and a list of by-laws that would be broken, it’s also reasonable for us to ask why these by-laws should be waived: who would benefit and by how much.

To weigh the pros and cons of a development, we need to know what the city would gain in return. At Robie-Quinpool-Parker, the developers’ applications mentioned only three possible benefits:

  • increasing residential density on the Halifax peninsula rather than expanding the suburbs (an HRM policy)
  • strengthening the community function of the Quinpool Road area (a policy in the Halifax Municipal Planning Strategy)
  • supporting local businesses by bringing more people to the area

The initial staff report mentioned no other benefits for the city. On the contrary, it added a caution: “Amendments to an MPS are generally not considered unless it can be shown that circumstances have changed since the document was adopted to the extent that the original land use policy is no longer appropriate. Site specific MPS amendments, in particular, require significant justification to be considered.”

To help us weigh the pros and cons, a simple chart would be useful. For the Robie-Quinpool-Parker proposals, the right side of the chart below looks rather skimpy. The first point is too open-ended. It can be achieved with much smaller buildings that respect the standards for population density in the Land Use By-law, as noted in “Exceeding Limits.” The second and third points can be refuted easily, as discussed in our editorials “What’s Up With Trophy-Buildings?” and “Quinpool Businesses.”


Developer profit

To be candid, it’s likely that developer profit is the primary motive for the proposal we’re reviewing. It’s not a coincidence that most residential buildings proposed for the Halifax peninsula are towers on a podium. Unfortunately, this is a very limited repertoire to apply throughout a city where neighbourhoods and streets have such diverse qualities. It’s also a very limited repertoire to offer citizens who want a broader range of housing options, not just a detached house on a street or an apartment in a high-rise.

For the public to respond intelligently to a proposal, some financial information is needed:

  • If the by-laws were followed, could this generate a reasonable profit over time for the developer? If so, why is the public being pressured to approve a much larger building?
  • Does the peninsula need to become denser so quickly that high-rise buildings are the only option? Wouldn’t mid-rise buildings over a longer period enable neighbourhoods and streets to be developed in a more compatible way?
  • If HRM increases the development rights on a property, how much would the property value increase? (In real estate terminology, this is called “the lift.”)
  • What financial impact would “the lift” have on nearby property assessments, taxes, and rents? Would less affluent residents and businesses be forced out to the suburbs?

Below is a template for considering “lift.” It compares increases in the value of a property when HRM awards different development rights. For simplicity, it uses building height as the sole variable, with Westwood’s proposal on Robie Street as the example.


Unfortunately, HRM cannot reclaim part of “the lift” to help pay for other urban initiatives such as affordable housing. A density bonusing study commissioned by HRM has considered options for redistributing “the lift,” but HRM and the provincial government have not yet legislated anything for areas outside downtown Halifax. In the meantime, the entire “lift” continues to be a one-way gift from HRM to the developer. This first profit is gained before the building is even built. The developer’s second profit, from selling condos or leasing apartments, comes later.

Private HRM visions

The public also should listen for preconceptions held by HRM departments and committees – especially preconceptions that disregard by-laws and imply a private vision that is not part of an official plan. Because HRM departments and committees make recommendations to HRM Council, they can influence whether developments are approved, regardless of missing information and public opinion. To ensure that the ground rules for everyone are clear and explicit, we should flag private visions.

For example, at Robie-Quinpool-Parker, the Planning staff have echoed the developers’ vision that this intersection is a “gateway” to the city that should be marked by very tall buildings. (Does Calgary come to mind?) The Districts 7 and 8 Planning Advisory Committee voiced a similar idea about surrounding the North Common with tall buildings, comparable to Central Park in New York, then recommended approval of the Armco and Westwood proposals with heights of 18 and 16 storeys. This would install a series of four tall buildings along the west side of the Common (the Central Park model). Both of these visions disregard public opinion, including all of the research, analysis, and commentary on the Willow Tree Group website, plus the public survey conducted at the last HRM Public Information Meeting that showed unanimous opposition to both developments.

HRM Council’s recent record of approving developments that were opposed by both the Planning staff and the public (for example, on Wellington Street) also calls out for attention. With all of the work that the public is being asked to do, it’s discouraging to suspect that careful analysis is being trumped by quick decisions, and that public responses are being ignored. It’s also frustrating to learn that the city’s community plans (the Land Use By-laws and Municipal Planning Strategies) are being sidestepped, not only by developers but also by city hall. If we could trust HRM departments, committees, and councillors to look out for our best interests, we wouldn’t feel compelled to learn so much about development tools: land use by-laws, development agreements, density bonusing, and the rest. That shouldn’t be our job. With the Centre Plan discussions now in progress and the municipal election coming up in October, this is a good time to raise development issues with our local candidates for HRM Council.

Steve Parcell / 28 April 2016