Triage is NOT Planning

… but triage is what we’re doing. However, under the circumstances, it’s about all we can do. If you don’t believe me, just have a look at the HRM Active Planning Applications website. And if you’re still in doubt, consider this: For months and months now, we – all of us, HRM Council and planning staff, communities, businesses, and so on – have been inundated by sustained waves of Development Agreement applications. In the industry, depending on your particular interest or point of view, you might refer to these “events” as “cascades,” “avalanches,” “tsunamis,” or “stampedes.” Some observers actually see the phenomenon as thoughtless, herd behaviour. Still others appreciate that it’s a deliberate and carefully concerted process intended to confuse, destabilize and overwhelm … “shock and awe.” Perhaps it’s a bit of both. And perhaps what it’s called and what’s behind it are not as important as its impacts and what’s to be done about them.

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

We like to think we’re unique. And so we are – but we are not alone. Development “cascades” are happening simultaneously all over the world: in Vancouver, Burnaby, Toronto, across the USA, Australia, Europe, and Asia. The list goes on.

However, in one respect we are different from most. We appear to be without defences. As such, we are a sitting duck for the “shock and awe” treatment. How so? Even though we have a Land Use By-law and Municipal Planning Strategy, HRM staff and Council have, over the months, taken to more or less suspending them when it comes to the evaluation of development proposals seeking exceptional status. The primary and now much abused mechanism in this process is a negotiated Development Agreement, or DA. Advice from other jurisdictions is that DA’s can be a useful tool – but they should be used sparingly, always to the demonstrable benefit of the “common good,” and ALWAYS in conjunction with a comprehensive land use plan and by-laws. In other words, not as the rule, but as exceptions to the rule; and then and only then. Unfortunately, here in Halifax, DA’s have become a “back door” by which excessive development proposals are sanctioned. The exceptions have become the rule. And sadly, it’s a perilous addiction.

We do have a plan and by-laws. But in opening the floodgates to DA’s, we’ve as good as suspended them. Meanwhile, many of us (HRM staff and Councillors, citizens, and members of our business and development communities) have been beavering away on the City’s new Centre Plan. Regrettably, it seems that HRM staff has been diverted from the Centre Plan to “handle” the DA deluge. At the same time, specific elements of the Deluge are being deployed proactively, as if to pre-determine the outcome of our Centre Plan deliberations. Cynical or what?

Beyond the above, I have a particular concern. I don’t skate anymore. And how tall something is or isn’t doesn’t get me very excited. As for wind gusts, I’ve already lost my footing several times this winter walking along Quinpool to Robie in the presence of 10-, 12- and 18-storey buildings. In my view, density is the issue. My overriding concern is the destabilizing impact that heavy, over-bearing real estate speculation, disguised as residential and commercial development, will have on the Quinpool neighbourhoods in particular, and the City in general. In effect, DA’s enable spot rezonings. When the changes in the allowable land use, floor area ratio, and population density result in quantum increases, there is absolutely no way of restricting collateral impacts on property assessments, taxes, and the “peaceful enjoyment” of private homes and small, local businesses. Walk along Pepperell Street, Yale, or Creighton. What you’ll experience are streets which have been gap-toothed by properties extended inward from Quinpool Road and Gottingen Street. And if you still doubt what I’m saying, you have only to walk around the proud new campus of Colonial Honda, which has swallowed most of a neighbourhood, all by itself. We believe in property lines. In some respects, they have meaning and purpose and are inviolable. In others, they are largely symbolic, offering scant protection against the invisible, inflationary threats from high-intensity real estate nearby. Unwittingly, in allowing these concessions, we have put at risk hundreds of units of affordable rental housing, to which the City’s older established neighbourhoods, including those on either side of Quinpool, are home.

With respect to my opening remarks regarding “development cascades” and “spot-rezoning,” I will now admit that I see the former as a strategy and the latter as a tactic. As intended, development frenzies precipitate fear and confusion. Planning as a methodical, thoughtful process of city-wide discussion of what was, is, and will be, is impossible under this pressure. At best, our planners are limited to triage. At worst, they are reduced to apologising and dissembling for opportunistic hucksters bent on profit at all cost.

We’re exhausted. Our Planning staff and Councillors are at their limits. The absence of certainty hangs as a threat over the City as a whole. We have a Land Use By-law and Municipal Planning Strategy. Please apply them and close the “swinging door” to development proposals that will have few benefits beyond the private interests behind them. And most importantly, let’s get on with the Centre Plan.

J. Grant Wanzel / 20 March 2017