Halifax City Hall was abuzz on Tuesday and Wednesday, as both proponents and opponents of a new vision for downtown Halifax discussed the latter’s merits and drawbacks in a public hearing. The new vision includes items like pedestrianized streets and new money to maintain heritage buildings. The most contentious issue, however, proved to be a proposed revamping of the approvals process for property developments in the downtown core. Proponents of the new approach said it would stimulate investment, promote economic development, and create career opportunities for young people; opponents countered that it would eliminate hard-won development regulations and give developers freer reign to transform the downtown as they please. The new rules and policies emerged from a nearly three year process of public consultations and negotiations called HRM by Design, and mayor Peter Kelly has asked City Council to approve them. The two-day hearing was therefore the last chance for Haligonians to have their voices heard, formally, before Council votes on the proposal on Tuesday, May 12. Though their evaluations differed widely, all speakers seemed to agree that much is at stake in the upcoming vote. Indeed, the outcome may shape the city’s future for decades to come.
The most significant issue, for most of the speakers at the hearing, was the proposed changes to the development approvals process. Presently, development is governed by a patchwork quilt of over 70 rules and policies that have been gradually added to the books over the last thirty-five years. Although developments of a certain (small) scale can be approved without any City Council review, most require a development agreement to be vetted and approved by Council. The present rules are difficult to interpret, some argue, and the approvals process can be lengthy – especially if citizens organize to oppose a particular project. Developers, and industry representatives like the Urban Development Institute of Nova Scotia, have long argued that the current unpredictable and lengthy approvals process can exact considerable costs and tends to dissuade property investments in the downtown core. It is partly – perhaps largely – this issue that HRM by Design seeks to address. While the idea of formulating a vision for the downtown had been percolating at City Hall since amalgamation in 1996, the notion that this should involve a major revamping of the approvals process came to be emphasized by City Council just before the launch of HRM by Design in the summer of 2006.
What emerged from the nearly three year HRM by Design process, therefore, is both a vision for the downtown core and a fundamentally new approach to development approvals. The vision stresses urban density, walkability, and vibrancy; the intention is to create a “24/7” downtown urban environment in which more people will choose to live, shop, and work. Practically, there are a few new measures in the plan to support this. Certain streets would be designated pedestrian focused, for example, and $3 million would be available over five years to upgrade and maintain buildings in the proposed Barrington Street Heritage District.
The new development approvals process, in turn, rests on two pillars: the quantitative aspects of proposed developments (e.g., building heights and lot setbacks) would be governed by set of ostensibly clear “form-based codes,” while more aesthetic features would be regulated by a detailed Design Manual, the interpretation of which would befall an appointed Design Review Committee composed of architects, planners, and other members of the local “design community.” Future developments adhering to the strictures of the form-based codes would simply require the consent of the Design Review Committee, and appeals of the latter’s judgement would be restricted to developer-applicants and nearby property owners. The combined effect of the new rules and policies, proponents argue, would be a clearer framework for downtown development and, thus, more investment and a generally more prosperous city-region.
For HRM by Design
Those speaking in favour of the proposed measures contrasted the economic costs of the current system with the potential benefits of the new one. The status quo, some claimed, has deterred up to $2 billion in investment in property development downtown. As a result, there have been no new Class A office buildings constructed in the last twenty years, Barrington Street is dilapidated, and some companies that would otherwise like to establish operations in Halifax have stayed away for lack of appropriate office space. Fred Morley of the Greater Halifax Partnership suggested that “complicated” and “vague” development rules have curtailed construction downtown and stymied the city’s overall growth. “Approvals take three times longer here than in other places in Atlantic Canada, and investors have learned to stay away,” he said. Although “companies want to come here and people want to meet here,” he concluded, there is presently no space for this to happen downtown.
With clearer rules and a more streamlined approvals process, many argued, a series of self-reinforcing benefits would accrue. More property development would be the first outcome. Much-needed office space would be created, along with new places to live, and more pleasant streetscapes to stroll. With more people living, strolling, and working downtown, shops and restaurants would do more business, and the historic buildings in which they reside could be operated profitably enough to be maintained. With a more intense, vibrant downtown, an increased number of young, educated people would have a good reason to choose Halifax as their lifelong home. With new office space and a talented workforce, the city would attract more of the high-growth, knowledge-based industries on which today’s prosperous urban economies are built. As earlier presentations by HRM by Design manager Andy Fillmore suggested, the proposed measures are about more than just new buildings and streetscapes. The intention is to create an upward spiral in which buildings, streets, employment opportunities, and cultural amenities are inter-dependently enhanced.
The sense that HRM by Design could be the foundation of the city’s long-term prosperity was expressed by nearly all of its proponents. For some, the issue was clearly personal. Several members of the young-professionals association, Fusion Halifax, spoke at the hearing. The group’s common message was that young, educated people are the backbone of the area’s economy, and that the city needs to work harder to retain the people for whom there are attractive opportunities elsewhere. “I’ve chosen to stay here,” said Fusion member Jonathan Lampier. “If the [career] opportunities don’t arrive, I might have to go somewhere else.” Fusion members expressed their support for HRM by Design on the grounds that it would help to stimulate investment, economic growth, and an expansion of career prospects for the city’s young professionals. Those who oppose the plan, some members suggested, have put other priorities ahead of the interests of the city’s future generations.
A Different View?
Opponents of the new measures, as presently devised, would describe their position in quite different terms, however. Over the course of the two-day hearing, dozens of speakers pointed out problems with HRM by Design, and they were much more likely to call into question the underlying premises of the argument for new development rules and policies than to argue for a totally different set of priorities. Many speakers questioned the assumption that economic development and opportunities for young people require taller buildings. Charleston, Virginia, and Quebec City, some argued, demonstrate that a strong economy can coexist with the preservation of a city’s historic character. It is unnecessary, they said, to implement a set of new rules that would enable the demolition of Halifax’s heritage buildings and underwrite the construction of new, taller buildings that would obstruct the view from Citadel Hill. For Dartmouth resident Linda Forbes, the proposed changes “are a threat to the buildings we care about.” There is, she said, “no need for taller buildings.”
Whether the proposed measures would, in fact, increase allowable building heights was a contentious issue. The Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia showed an image simulating the view from Citadel Hill if the tallest buildings permitted under the new system were constructed. The view to the harbour was almost entirely blocked; a solid wall of buildings, the only view. HRM planners have maintained, in contrast, that the proposed measures would actually decrease maximum building heights. Andy Fillmore was repeatedly asked by city councillors to address the claim that heights would increase. Each time, he replied that they would not. He also said that he could not reproduce the Heritage Trust’s simulation with the HRM’s models, and presented his own “worst case scenario” in which views to the harbour were largely maintained.
Some of the dispute, it seemed, had to do with the difference between current “as of right” heights – heights that are allowed automatically – and the maximum heights that can be permitted with an approved development agreement. Maximum heights under the proposed measures would certainly be greater than those currently allowed, “as of right.” Whether or not they would exceed those allowed with a development agreement depends entirely on one’s interpretation of the current rules – and the major rationale for HRM by Design, of course, is that the current rules are very difficult to interpret. Fillmore said that his claim that maximum heights would be lowered is based on an analysis of proposed developments accepted and rejected in the past. The contrary position, however, is that any proposal for a building taller than the established “as of right” heights can be rejected under the current system, whereas the new system would vastly augment the heights automatically allowed. Peggy Cameron, of Friends of the Halifax Common, has called for more clarity on this issue before Council casts its vote on the proposed changes.
The most frequently expressed concern at the hearing had to do with the political process involved in, and proposed by, HRM by Design. More than a few speakers pointed out that a sustainability plan, a transportation plan, and a plan for affordable housing are still forthcoming; they urged Council to withhold their approval of the proposed changes until all relevant details are presented and can be evaluated. Other speakers noted that the proposed height “bonusing” system – whereby developers would make investments in public goods, like energy efficiency and affordable housing units, in exchange for permission to construct taller buildings – has not been precisely explained; without more details, they argued, it is impossible to judge the social and ecological merits of the proposed changes. Still others referred to important studies that seem to call into question the rationale for HRM by Design, but have not been a part of the discussion thus far. A report by Turner Drake Consultants, they suggested, refutes the notion that there is a shortage of quality office space downtown, while the Heseltine Report concludes that development approvals do not take longer in Halifax than in other cities, and that Nova Scotia has had the country’s lowest proportion of development rulings appealed by citizens over the last decade.
More generally, critics argued that the proposed measures would eliminate the public’s democratic role in shaping the city’s future. Presently, most developments are subject to a City Council hearing; the public therefore has a chance to speak as part of the approvals process, and can hold councillors accountable for their votes on proposed developments. In contrast, the new system would simply require that proposals meet a specified set of criteria (the form-based codes) and win the consent of an appointed (not elected) Design Review Committee. Furthermore, the rulings of the latter would be appealable to the Nova Scotia Utilities and Review Board (NSURB) only by developer-applicants and owners of property within the immediate vicinity of proposed projects. For Halifax resident Beverly Miller, the elimination of an ongoing role for the public, and publicly accountable officials, in the development approvals process would strike a major blow to democratic ideals. Over time, the new procedures “would create a new underclass [in Halifax], alienated from politics of any kind.”
While no one speaking at the hearing contended that ongoing public participation would not be reduced under the proposed changes, some speakers did question whether any harm to democracy would be done thereby. Paul MacKinnon, of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, pointed out that the ultimate decision on development proposals is increasing being made by the NSURB. Projects rejected by City Council after a lengthy review process are almost inevitably appealed by developers to the NSURB, where Council’s decisions are overturned. The new system, MacKinnon argued, would simply achieve the same end result more quickly. It would be, he said, “not the end of democracy, but democracy made more efficient.”
The HRM’s official position is that the public is being asked to participate now in the making of our collective future. By reaching an agreement now on acceptable building forms, design standards, and an overall vision for the downtown, the public’s desires will be transparent to developers, the approvals process will be streamlined, and the city can begin to take shape without uncertain and costly delays. Developers are meant to take guidance from the public; the public, in turn, is meant to provide its guidance, once and for all time (or at least for quite a long time). The new rules and policies, in other words, are supposed to be a compromise between the interests of developers and citizens. The question that Council is being asked to consider, then, is whether the compromise is an acceptable one – and, indeed, whether any present compromise that takes the place of all future negotiations could be acceptable. Council will be asked on Tuesday to approve the proposed rules and policies; it may also reject them, or ask for more time to evaluate them and/or modify them.
For Halifax resident Janet Morris, who opposes the proposed measures as currently devised, the outpouring of public involvement in the last three years has reaffirmed her belief in the democratic process. She urges Haligonians to read up on the issue – there is considerable information on the websites of HRM by Design and Friends of the Halifax Common – and tell their elected representatives what they think. Everyone at this week’s public hearing seemed to agree: it may be citizens’ last chance to have their voices heard.