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The Centre Plan is the Gentrification Plan

by Shaun Bartone

KJIPUKTIK (Halifax)—Halifax launched its Centre Plan public consultation process at Alderney Landing on Monday, March 21. This was the first of several large public consultation events scheduled across HRM. The Centre Plan is the city’s effort to develop a cohesive set of development guidelines for future growth in HRM.

Jacob Ritchie, City Planner, said there would be smaller events in local neighbourhoods, but they haven’t set those up yet. A public consultation event will be scheduled for the North Central neighbourhood, which comprises Maynard, Creighton, Gottingen, Maitland, Brunswick, and Barrington Streets, bordered by Cogswell and North at either end, Agricola and Robie to the west, and the North Commons. Residents of North Central can stay informed on the public consultation events by checking the Shape Your City/Centre Plan website.

Jacob Ritchie introduced the Centre Plan by saying that they were not going to be looking at zoning by-laws during this consultation process, just the design issues: walking and cycling, transportation, parks, heritage, facades, etc. I spoke with Ritchie after his presentation, and asked why the zoning by-laws were not being presented to the public. Ritchie said that the zoning by-laws would be amended in a separate process, after the Centre Plan was adopted.

My response was that the land-use by-laws are the most critical part of the whole plan. The land-use by-laws are the law of zoning and development. The first thing a developer has to contend with is “what can I legally build here?” It’s the land-use by-law that determines whether a neighbourhood is zoned for high-rise condominiums, or low-rise mixed residential. The land-use by-laws have the greatest impact on the general land value of the neighbourhood.

In terms of gentrification, the only thing that matters is the price per square foot. Gentrification is not caf├ęs and galleries. Gentrification is a steep rise in the neighbourhood’s average price per square foot. Gentrification occurs when properties in the neighbourhood have doubled or tripled in value. If the properties are worth more the city can extract more property taxes from the neighbourhood. So of course, the city wants property values to go up so it can collect more taxes. If property taxes go up, landlords have to charge more rent. If the rents go up, the working class and the poor are displaced from the neighbourhood. Typically, and especially in the North Central neighbourhood, the working class and the poor are Black and Indigenous families who have lived in the neighbourhood for generations. They are also low-income seniors and disabled people. Property taxes are then shifted from lower-income neighbourhoods to fund more development in upper class and suburban neighbourhoods.

I discussed these issues with Ritchie and other planning consultants at the Launch. Ritchie acknowledge that residents of North Central are concerned about displacement. His response was that “we [the city] can’t stop property values from going up.” But since it’s rising property values that cause rents to go up and displace people, then what he is saying is we can’t do anything about displacement. In fact, what Ritchie actually said to me was, “The city doesn’t want to do anything that would force people to leave. But people could leave voluntarily.” So the city is not going to force you out. It’s just going to politely ask you to leave, in a nice way.

I addressed these issues to another planner whose focus is housing. Her response was, “We can’t stop capitalism; we have to work within a market system.” I also discussed these issues with Councillor Jennifer Watts. I told her that I had heard rumours that Nova Scotia was going to sell Uniacke Square. She said that no, she hadn’t heard that. But she was concerned that she was hearing things like, “We shouldn’t have all poor people living in one place. There should be a mix of incomes in residential areas.” All of these comments are indications that the city’s main goal with the Centre Plan is not just to “improve neighbourhoods” but also raise property values, and thereby, raise property taxes. The unfortunate by-product of this process is that thousands of low-income, Black, Indigenous, senior and disabled people could be forced out of North Central.

It seems to me that the real reason for the sale of St. Patrick’s-Alexandra School was to collect property taxes. So long as it remained a public building, it paid no property taxes. Now that it is being converted to private use, the owner has to pay property taxes. The situation is the same for the public housing in the North Central. There is a high concentration of public housing in the neighbourhood, and all of it could potentially be converted to private ownership. The planners state that the province, not the city, owns and operates public housing, but we all know who plays golf together on the weekends. Officials from the city and the province could cut a deal to convert the public housing to private ownership, and thus allow the city to extract more property taxes from the neighbourhood.

I also raised the issue of condo conversions, which has already happened in North Central. Harbour City Homes, a non-profit owner of houses on Brunswick Street, sold off several of its properties which are now being converted into condominiums. Addressing this issue to Ritchie, he said that the Centre Plan could limit condo conversions through the design guidelines. But another planning consultant acknowledged that that developers can and do regularly ignore design guidelines. Once adopted, it’s up to the city, and ultimately the people, to enforce the plan and the by-laws.

The Centre Plan consultation process will go on for another six to nine months, after which the Centre plan will be adopted by the city. Then, in a separate process, the land-use by-laws will be amended and passed by City Council. Once the new zoning laws are passed, developers will be able to build whatever they want, wherever they want, so long as it’s within the law. And no one will be able to stop them because they will have a right to build. I spoke to several planning consultants about this issue. I told them that the public consultation process should also include public consultation about the land-use by-laws. The amendment process should be just as public and transparent as the rest of the plan. The planners’ response was that the land-use by-laws are all very technical and people don’t understand them.

Ritchie said that once the Centre Plan is adopted, the land-use by-laws will be changed to reflect the plan. For example, parts of the neighbourhood that are already zoned “general residential” will keep the same zoning designation, but the definition of “general residential” could be changed. “General residential” has historically meant “low-rise, low-density residential.” Amendments to the land-use by-laws could change it to allow “mid-rise, high density” residential. That could allow conversion of lower-rent housing to high-end condominiums.

In January, ACORN held a forum on gentrification for residents of North Central on Brunswick Street. The Brunswick Street. Tenants Association shared their anger about losing their homes. Many residents voiced their concerns about being displaced from the neighbourhood. The Centre Plan is HRM’s plan to raise property values and taxes in the North End and the whole city.

As residents of North Central, we have to inform ourselves about all the development issues affected by the Centre Plan. Then we have to come up with our own plan for our neighbourhood. We can zone out the developers, high-rise condominiums, condo conversions, and conversions of public housing to private housing. We can zone out commercial spaces that are too large and expensive for small shop owners, and only affordable by large retail chains.

North Central is a cultural mosaic of Black Nova Scotians, Mi’kmaqi and Indigenous peoples, gay residents and businesses, seniors, low-income and disabled residents. We have to protect cultural spaces and services that support this cultural mosaic, including the North End Community Health Centre, the Preston Centre for Excellence, the Mi’kmaq Native Friendship Centre, the Company House and Menz Bar, Hope Blooms, Direction 180, the YMCA, Salvation Army, food banks and soup kitchens, the Bus Stop Theatre and Halifax Music Co-op. These and many other small cultural and service organizations are critical supports for all the cultural diversity in the neighbourhood, but are also threatened with displacement if they are not protected under the Plan.

We have to come up with our own plan for the future of our neighbourhood, and then we have to get the City to adopt our plan. We can only do that if we work together to claim North Central as our neighbourhood. Keep in touch with ACORN Nova Scotia for updates on the movement against gentrification in North Central.

Shaun Bartone is an independent journalist in Halifax.

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