With both developers and city hall flaunting the rules for development throughout HRM, we have left behind the Land Use By-law Era and entered the Development Agreement Era. Exceptions have become the new rule.
When the Halifax Land Use By-law was written and refined, the earlier tall buildings near Robie and Quinpool – Quinpool Apartments (12 storeys), Welsford Apartments (19 storeys), and Atlantica Hotel (15 storeys) – were understood to be urban errors. Everyone recognized that a tower block with elevators and corridors contributes very little to its neighbourhood. There are better architectural, urban, and social ways to increase density and strengthen neighbourhoods. When refining the Municipal Planning Strategy for Halifax, our earlier representatives at city hall stated explicitly that the height limit along Robie Street (where Westwood is proposing a 25-storey development) must remain low to ensure that this wouldn’t happen again (Section XI, 1.4.2).
With HRM now promoting density on the peninsula, the Municipal Planning Strategy and the Land Use By-law for Halifax are routinely being circumvented. Big developers have been taking advantage of this loophole by submitting a flood of development agreement applications that disdain both the spirit and the letter of the law. The Armco and Westwood applications at Robie-Quinpool-Parker want to break many by-laws: on height, massing, population density, setbacks, on-site parking, landscaped green space, etc. One would expect these applications to be doomed from the beginning – but no. Instead, city hall opened the door and invited them into the development agreement process. This committed city hall and the public to a 12-step review process that has taken two years so far.
With city hall relinquishing its job as gatekeeper, the public is now expected to review and resist egregious proposals, pro bono. Within city hall, Planning and Development staff sometimes resist them but are often overruled by HRM Council. That can’t be healthy.
City hall’s approach to densifying the peninsula has been opportunistic. It waits for developers to submit outlandish proposals for properties they own, then tries to tame them with piecemeal adjustments, rather than the accumulated wisdom of the Land Use By-law. This is an odd way to do urban planning.
City hall knows that the public will vehemently oppose projects that stand out ridiculously: for example, the nine-storey apartment block that Mythos Developments proposed at North and Oxford (below). The surrounding neighbourhood in all directions consists largely of two-storey houses, so Mythos’s get-rich-quick scheme was opposed unanimously by the Districts 7 and 8 Planning Advisory Committee. But why did city hall accept Mythos’s development agreement application in the first place?
Smarter developers know that a large building outside downtown is possible only in a place of urban discontinuity, where one or more tall buildings have already disrupted the low-rise and mid-rise urban fabric. Robie and Quinpool, Wellington Street, Coburg and Seymour, and Robie and Spring Garden have been prime targets. New buildings in these locations can pretend they are fitting into the neighbourhood. City hall goes along with this pretense, using “densify the peninsula” as an excuse. The errors of older buildings are being treated as precedents, then used as crutches to support new ones.
Dino Capital’s approved project for 1034–1056 Wellington Street, next to Gorsebrook Park, is a prime example. It uses the two adjacent apartment towers (12 and 15 storeys) as crutches for a new 8–10-storey building. Those towers are anomalies – urbanistically, architecturally, and socially – on Wellington Street, which consists primarily of two-storey houses (although you wouldn’t know that from the rendering below). Without those towers serving as an excuse, Dino’s project probably would have been rejected by HRM Council.
Another project recently approved by HRM Council (below) does the same at Coburg and Seymour. It uses the height of Dalhousie’s Mona Campbell building (on the right) as a crutch to swing a six-storey mass around the corner and down Seymour Street, replacing a row of houses.
This opportunistic approach to densification pretends (retroactively) that this was the plan all along. At Robie and Quinpool we hear both city planners and developers describe this location as a “gateway” to the city that should be marked with tall buildings. WTF? Using several old, tall buildings near Robie and Quinpool as an excuse for building more tall buildings is hardly a plan. It seems more like camouflage.
Now that the Centre Plan discussions are under way, let’s leave behind the Development Agreement Era by shutting down the Armco and Westwood proposals for Robie and Quinpool, not just reducing their number of storeys so they don’t stand out quite so much (as HRM’s Districts 7 and 8 Planning Advisory Committee recommended). There’s still time to close the barn door at Robie and Quinpool. Let’s also resist the 12-, 13-, and/or 18-storey buildings that HRM Planning and Development wants to include on the St. Pat’s High School site (now called Quinpool 6067). Let’s keep an eye on the 12-storey development that Dexel wants to erect at Robie and Pepperell, next to the Atlantica Hotel. Let’s do the same for the 11-storey block that Westwood Developments is proposing for the Ben’s Bakery site at Quinpool and Preston. Let’s keep another eye on 6324 Quinpool (currently the site of McDonald’s), where Dexel has another commission.
A basic principle of urban design is that the collective design of the neighbourhood and the street (building heights, setbacks, step-backs, land uses, sidewalks, parking, etc.) takes precedence over individual buildings. The existing Municipal Planning Strategy and Land Use By-law currently provide the only street-scale guidelines for what kind of public places Robie Street and Quinpool Road should become. There is no other official plan for the area. The future of Robie and Quinpool may become a topic during the Centre Plan discussions. In the meantime, it’s premature for city hall to consider spot-rezoning individual properties to permit large developments, using the development agreement process as a loophole.
All of this is happening at a time when city hall can award many millions of dollars of extra development rights to developers, but cannot yet ask for anything in return (money for affordable housing, family-sized dwellings, public amenities, parkland, heritage preservation, support for arts and culture, etc.). This is an enormous missed opportunity for the city – but it can be regained if the current development agreement applications (at least, in the Centre Plan area) are postponed so that developers have to participate in the proposed density bonusing arrangements that are expected to become part of the Centre Plan. Otherwise, with interest rates low and developer profits high, the current wave of development could exhaust our residential needs for the next ten or twenty years, with no money or public benefits left for the city to regain from future developments.
If city hall hopes to enter the Centre Plan Era with some public confidence, it needs to stand on its own two feet now – and throw away its crutches.
Steve Parcell / 7 April 2016