Nova Scotia’s Municipal Government Act grants our City Council the right, under certain conditions, to suspend elements of the City’s Municipal Planning Strategy (MPS) and Land Use By-Law (LUB). This power can be exercised under circumstances of need or opportunity when significant benefits otherwise might be lost. Used with care and when appropriate to do so, a Development Agreement and its processes of negotiation and public consultation can be a powerful planning tool for good.
Arguably, a Development Agreement process is most effective when it has a firm backstop against which its particulars can be measured. Normally this role is played by the City’s MPS and LUB. But the times are far from “normal.” From where we stand, it appears that our MPS and LUB have been benched, awaiting the arrival of a new Centre Plan at least a year and a half from now. Previously there were agreed principles and measures, but now everything is a matter of opinion. Without the framework of intentions normally provided by the LUB and MPS, neither our planners nor our developers have a firm pivot around which to shape their positions, conduct negotiations, and … make concessions.
It appears that our Development Agreement process has “gone soft.” Applications under the as-of-right provisions of the LUB and MPS have paled, compared to the far greater opportunities now available. Sensing an opening, our property developers bolted for the gate. One project at a time, our neighbourhoods are now being spot-rezoned in favour of block-busting development projects. Over 5,000 apartment units are in various stages of the City’s approval processes. Real estate people refer to such an event as a “cascade.” Others might use the term “gold rush.” The point is this: The ground rules under which tenants, home owners, planners and property developers play have been nudged aside in favour of a looser process.
As a case in point, we offer the grossly overweight duo of projects that are now in a Development Agreement negotiation for properties just across from the North Common, at the northwest corner of the Robie/Quinpool intersection. If built as proposed, the smaller tower would be 25 storeys tall, seven times what is allowed under the Land Use By-Law. The taller tower, at 29 storeys, would be two to seven times what is allowed. These developments would have a total gross floor area of 628,000 square feet and would accommodate a total of 849 permanent residents at a density of 541 persons per gross acre. That’s 4.3 times what the Land Use By-Law would allow, were it applied. It’s in stark contrast to the residential densities of the neighbourhoods immediately adjacent to Quinpool Road, which are respectively 20.2 persons per gross acre to the south and 28.9 to the north. And it’s three times as dense as Manila, the densest city in the world.*
Both the Land Use By-Law and Municipal Planning Strategy place a high value on the quality of the City’s established residential neighbourhoods. They prescribe compatability when considering new developments.
The City should permit the redevelopment of portions of existing neighbourhoods only at a scale compatible with those neighbourhoods. The City should attempt to preclude massive redevelopment of neighbourhood housing stock and dislocations of residents by encouraging infill housing and rehabilitation. The City should prevent large and socially unjustifiable neighbourhood dislocations and should ensure change processes that are manageable and acceptable to the residents …
– MPS, Section II, Sub-section 2.7, p. 8
For the purposes of this Plan, the concept of compatibility shall be deemed to require that infill housing projects are compatible with and enhance the existing development context of a neighbourhood. The City shall use as a guideline in considering rezonings, zoning amendments or contract agreements the key principle of not significantly changing the character of an area when reviewing infill housing proposals.
– MPS, Section VI, Sub-section 1.1.4, p. 87
In light of what we know and appreciate about Quinpool Road and the residential neighbourhoods it serves, we can’t imagine how the overbearing developments proposed by the team of APL Properties Limited / W.M. Fares Group and Westwood Construction Limited could ever meet the test of compatibility envisaged by our regulating documents … unless, of course, the principles are overlooked or applied so loosely that they give way to opportunity. While these proposed projects are hugely overblown and brutally dull, we do have a deeper concern: Their approval, at or about their present size, would be precedent-setting for the now-“surplus” St. Pat’s School site** and other privately owned properties close by. Is that the bigger plan? If so, then those of us who own small businesses on Quinpool Road, or live in the adjacent neighbourhoods it serves, have a whole lot more to be worried about.
* Manila’s population of 1,652,171 lives in an area of 9,548 acres. That’s a population density of 173 persons per gross acre.
** This is a direct reference to paragraph 2 of the June 10, 2014 staff report, Item No. 11.1.12, Re Cases 18966 & 19281: MPS and LUB Amendments, Quinpool Road & Robie Street, to Mayor Savage and the Members of Halifax Regional Council.
J. Grant Wanzel / 29 March 2015; updated to reflect revised development proposals