Towers in the Background

As described in our editorials “Follow the Rules” and “Where Do Tall Buildings Belong?,” spot re-zoning by the HRM government is permitting apartment towers to shoot up in odd locations throughout Halifax.

Buildings over 15 meters (5 storeys) that are proposed, approved, under construction, or recently completed; adapted from Halifax Developments,

Buildings over 15 meters (5 storeys) that are proposed, approved, under construction, or recently completed; adapted from Halifax Developments,

Along with their quantifiable economic and environmental impacts, these towers also have perceptual impacts that are evident from ground level but not in aerial photographs, survey plans, or developers’ renderings. Although these perceptions are harder to describe, they shouldn’t be ignored. What irritates us about these towers in these locations?

  • Some of us point to the shadows that they cast, blocking sunlight at certain times of the day and the year.
  • Some of us point to the portion of sky that they block, reducing the amount of blue (or gray) that is visible from the ground.
  • Some of us point to their ominous elevated mass, as if they might topple onto smaller buildings and people.
  • Some of us point to the voyeurs in the apartments above, spying on gardeners and nude sunbathers below.
  • Some of us point to the antisocial anonymity of apartments that are too far from the ground to recognize faces or hear voices.
  • Some of us point to the elevated zone they inhabit with other privileged towers, making local neighbourhoods at ground level seem more like basements.
  • Some of us point to their ubiquitous presence throughout the city, which diminishes Halifax’s historical depth and neutralizes its diversity.

Let’s consider this last point. Unlike most North American cities, the Halifax peninsula has developed gradually into a compact mosaic of different districts: military fortifications, urban neighbourhoods, English gardens, downtown towers, dockyards, south-end mansions, university campuses, commercial streets, waterfront attractions, naval yards, forest, etc. Walking five minutes takes us into a different district. As the foreground scenery changes, we can imagine ourselves in a somewhat different place and time, playing a somewhat different role. This gives Halifax quasi-theatrical qualities with authentic roots in the historical layers of the city. At their best, these qualities are like the short stories in Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities, which magnifies and expresses subtle qualities of Venice.

Now imagine an ordinary apartment tower hovering in the background of every Haligonian district. Contradicting the foreground scenery, it would tell us that we live only in the here-and-now, on the edge of the bland, anonymous city in Jacques Tati’s satirical film Playtime. A municipal government that does not recognize the perceptual impacts of towers or the subtle theatrical qualities of districts could quickly neutralize Halifax’s urban mosaic for both residents and visitors.

If spot re-zoning continues to spread towers indiscriminately, could this become the future of Halifax?

Assuming that we want more people to live on the peninsula rather than in outlying suburbs, does this mean approving apartment towers wherever developers happen to own land? Of course not. There are smarter alternatives.

First, let’s consider location. Towers in the right place can be a good thing. In a district where height makes sense, towers can strengthen their surroundings. In Halifax the downtown core is the obvious place. Plenty of vacant land downtown is calling out for development. Developers with an insatiable urge to erect a tower should be sent there. But what about citizens who want a panoramic view of the city and the ocean from an elevated apartment on the coast and are willing to pay for it? Go on vacation. Go to the movies. Go to a psychiatrist. Just don’t expect our city to satisfy this urge. The rest of us shouldn’t have to deal with your emperor complex.

Second, let’s consider height. Ordinary residential buildings needn’t be twenty or thirty storeys high. The same floor area can be distributed in lower volumes that strengthen their surroundings rather than demeaning them. Along commercial streets such as Spring Garden Road and Quinpool Road, five-to-seven-storey buildings would provide a good background for street activity. From the seven-storey buildings throughout Paris, one can still recognize people and faces. The key here is to focus on the street, the district, and the urban fabric more than individual buildings. That’s a basic principle of urban design. Halifax is a ground-based city for walking, not a city in the air or a podium for sculptural masses. As noted in the 2013 Stantec Report, the projected population growth in Halifax can be accommodated on land that is currently vacant, within building volumes that don’t exceed the current height limits.

So, how can we say no to spot re-zoning and arbitrarily located towers – and yes to smarter alternatives? Municipal resistance would be a good start. If HRM simply enforces the current height limits and suspends extraordinary development agreements until a new Centre Plan is approved, that would curtail the frenzied tower proposals from developers and the angry opposition from citizens. HRM’s relaxed gatekeeping has led to a colossal waste of time and patience for everyone else. Fixing the gate and rounding up the wild elephants would be a step toward regaining one another’s trust and devising a Centre Plan with a well-rounded vision of what the Halifax peninsula should become. One challenge will be how to express subtle but important qualities such as our perception of buildings and the mosaic of urban districts in Halifax. That part of the Centre Plan may need a writer of urban fiction (comparable to Italo Calvino), not just the usual statisticians and lawyers.

Steve Parcell / 3 Sept. 2015