The Willow Tree: A Great Place for Height?

On Tuesday, HRM Council will hold a hearing on APL Properties’ proposal for a 20–29-storey building at Quinpool and Robie. During the long debate about this proposed high-rise, supporters have repeatedly made the claim that the location is “a great place for height.” But is the Willow Tree really a great place for height?

The APL site measures just 0.92 acre. The most recent architectural drawings call for 209 units. This translates to a population of 549 residents, or 588 persons per acre. To put this in perspective, the current maximum allowable population is 250 persons/acre in downtown Halifax and 125 persons/acre elsewhere on the peninsula. APL’s population density would be 4.7 times that maximum.

The APL property faces a large public space, which some liken to Central Park. Doesn’t that make it uniquely suited for height? Central Park is 29 times the size of the North Common. The North Common would fit several times over into the Central Park Lake alone. So such comparisons to Central Park are inappropriate.

According to the developer’s shadow study, a 20, 25, or 29-storey building would cast a shadow far into the Common, covering much of the Oval during mid-winter afternoons – prime skating season. At other times, the shadow impact would be less pronounced, but this does not change the fact that this building would result in less sun on the Common.

Another impact on the Common would be wind. Preliminary wind studies conducted for the Willow Tree Group suggest that APL’s proposal would generate gusty winds at Robie and Quinpool and across the Common year round. Why approve a project that will generate such negative impacts on one of Halifax’s most important public spaces?

Some suggest that the location at the intersection of two major streets makes it a “gateway” befitting a “landmark” building. But what exactly is the Willow Tree a gateway to? There are hospitals and universities to the south, low-rise residential neighbourhoods to the north, the North Common to the east, and a neighbourhood shopping district to the west. Quinpool and Robie are busy streets, but the intersection does not have any of the ceremonial or physical qualities that would qualify it as a gateway, befitting a landmark building. Even if it did, the building design APL proposes would hardly qualify as an architectural landmark. Rather than a gateway, it is a busy urban intersection where traffic routinely backs up, and where emergency vehicles on their way to the hospitals have difficulty getting through. Why would it make sense to add to these challenges by permitting APL to build almost five times the allowable density at this already busy intersection?

Wouldn’t APL’s proposal be good for businesses on Quinpool? Without a doubt, more people living and shopping on Quinpool would be good. But spot-rezoning for outsized developments such as APL’s can have negative impacts on local businesses like those that make Quinpool Road so successful. Spot-rezoning can dramatically drive up near-by commercial property values, which leads to higher property taxes. To pay for higher taxes, property owners may be forced to pass on costs to business operators through higher rents. We need look no further than Spring Garden Road to see the impact this phenomenon can have on small local businesses. Is that what we want for Quinpool?

In sum, the site is too small for the scale of the project, the building would shade and create gusty winds on the Common, it would add to the congestion at an already busy intersection, and spot-rezoning could have negative impacts on local businesses. So, is the Willow Tree really such a great place for APL’s proposal? There is a better alternative for getting more people living on Quinpool Road. Preliminary analyses by the Willow Tree Group estimate that mid-rise (five-storey) development along Quinpool Road would allow for 2,500–2,800 new bachelor, 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom residential units. This approach would enable Qunipool to benefit from a greater number of residents on the street, without the drawbacks associated with blockbusting high-rise projects like APL’s. It would also mean that a large chunk of development capacity isn’t centralized in one location, with one developer. Instead, more property owners/developers would be able to capitalize on the development potential of the street. APL could still benefit by converting its building to residential use. Now that’s a development strategy for Quinpool that everyone can really get behind.

Andrea Arbic / 11 Jan. 2018