The May 9 Public Information Meeting for Quinpool 6067 (the St Patrick’s High School site) was not a conversation. How could it be? It was all one-way. It reminded me of a ping pong demonstration that pits an utterly confident professional (played by a member of the HRM Planning staff) against a parade of absolutely earnest amateurs, including some who are quite talented but amateurs nonetheless. The pro – diffident, unresponsive, bored even – turns away shot after shot, almost without looking – volley/lob, volley/lob, volley/lob – until he puts an end to it. Every volley/lob is an isolated event. There is a sequence but it has no meaning. We’re listening, but what are we listening to?
On the sidelines are the members of the Districts 7 and 8 Planning Advisory Committee: bored stiff, emotionless, mute, and unresponsive. Were they listening? It was hard to tell. If they were, what did they hear? There was nary a reaction, comment, or question, except from the chair who opened and closed the meeting. They seemed to be there under duress or to meet a formal obligation. At one point, this row of shadowy figures seemed like a carefully staged tableau. Seriously, I was reminded of Leonardo’s Last Supper.
About fifty citizens attended this two-hour meeting. What a spectacular waste of time, energy, and intelligence. What a wasted opportunity. At what cost? $xxx/hour x 50 people x 2 hours = $xx,xxx.
A Summary of the Pitch
< This is a form-based experiment. We’re presenting you with a proposal for a three-dimensional form in the shape of a donut. In all likelihood, it’s too much donut: taller and bulkier than you’d feel comfortable with. We’re offering this particular three-dimensional donut to see how much you’ll accept. How much is too much? How much is enough? We want to know how big a donut you would settle for. We want to hear from you. >
My Reactions to the Pitch
This is both disingenuous and empty-headed. It’s also insulting to the collective intelligence of everyone in attendance.
Disingenuous? It’s like asking “How long is a piece of string?” Without criteria, boundaries, or constraints, such a question is impossible to answer. Come on, give us a hint. Aside from the labels, what does this 3D donut mean? How are we to interpret it? How can we understand its implications when we can’t even figure out what it is? This is why the questions from the audience were so basic: Housing? How much housing? For how many people? What kind of housing? At what cost? Who will live there? Who can afford to live there? What about those who can’t afford to live there? Will there be “affordable” housing? What about the storefronts on Quinpool? Will the courtyard be visible and accessible to the public? What about the transport trucks that service Canadian Tire and the Superstore? What about traffic, parking, and access? What is the market value of the St Pat’s property? How much does HRM expect to sell it for? How much residential and commercial development would be needed to pay for the property and give its developer a reasonable return?
To make matters worse, the donut has no context. It is totally unaware of where it is. It has neither content nor context. How are we to judge its impact on the surroundings? The neighbourhoods north and south of Quinpool are home to thousands of households at a density of 25 to 30 persons per acre. 50–60% of these households are renters. The residents are diverse in age, household composition, occupation, and income. There was no reference to this. Why not? Are these neighbourhoods in jeopardy? Is anything broken? Does something need fixing? These are not trivial matters, but the respondents at the meeting kept asking, “What research did you do?” “Did the planning consultants even visit the site?” “What’s the factual basis for the size of the donut?” We have to conclude that the size of the donut was a guess, nothing more than a feckless stab in the dark. Or even worse: What if the donut was a diversion to deflect us from the hard questions? Form without content is empty-headed, unthinking. “How much is too much?” is a fool’s game.
Why was I so disappointed? It’s not just the donut per se. What’s disappointing is that all of this has happened before on two other surplus school sites: St. Pat’s-Alexandra and Bloomfield. As former school sites, all three of these properties occupied locations of significance in their respective communities: both physically (at their geographic centre) and symbolically (for generations, the very heart of the hopes, dreams, and memories of thousands of families, including parents and kids). The buildings are gone but the “charge” carried by each location remains. Surely these are occasions to pause and reflect? But no. The St Pat’s site apparently has no value other than its availability as a “development opportunity.”
I guess the “surplus” designation on the St Pat’s property means “Here’s a vacuum to be filled as fast as possible, for as much money as possible, and with as much density as possible.” What a missed opportunity: simply opportunistic, simply short-sighted. On Monday evening, members of the audience tendered many ideas about how the St Pat’s property might be leveraged to the benefit of its immediate neighbours and the community as a whole. By all means, let there be residential and commercial here. By all means, increase the height and density beyond what is currently mandated – but do so in a way that is mindful of the context, its history, and its economic and cultural values as a dense, diverse, multi-faceted, and fragile repository of relatively affordable privately owned homes and rental housing, as well as small and convenient local businesses. Why must the conditions of this proposed RC-5 zone for the Halifax Land Use By-law be so utterly banal? Where are the qualitative intentions that would be included in its companion document, the Halifax Municipal Planning Strategy? Where are the performance criteria and standards to guide the eventual developer? The slide presentation and the page of by-law numbers were just bare facts, with no hint of anything more. There was not a word about the significance of the site or what it might become. Unlike the recent Centre Plan workshops, there was absolutely no enthusiasm or anticipation.
St Pat’s High School has now been demolished. The bulldozers have left and the site is flat. Instead of proceeding with HRM’s barren proposal to add a densifying donut, the site should remain dormant until there is a fertile vision for what it can become and how it can contribute to the larger Quinpool community.
J. Grant Wanzel / 12 May 2016
> See our other editorial on St. Pat’s: “Questions About Quinpool 6067.”