Thoughts on the HRM Centre Plan: Slowing the Pace to Human Scale

“The Day It Changed” by Ann Ter-Pogossian

I recently attended a public meeting hosted by Halifax Regional Municipality to consider a developer’s proposal for a mixed use development along Spring Garden Road, Robie Street and Carlton Street. After the meeting, I wrote to HRM to outline some of my concerns about the pace of development. The following is a redacted version of my correspondence. For the purposes of this post, the identity of the developer and the case number were not included.

“I attended the meeting held last night with respect to D’s proposal for a mixed use development along Spring Garden Road, Robie Street and Carleton Street. I am impressed by D’s willingness to solicit and take account of community input into the plan and find certain aspects of the proposed development (heated sidewalks, generous outdoor canopies, street plantings and atrium) appealing.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that HRM should currently permit any major deviations from the new Centre Plan. This statement is not a reflection on the D’s proposal, but is an acknowledgement that the new Centre Plan articulates a broad consensus of acceptable parameters for development of the Centre.

The Centre Plan should be adhered to strictly as it reflects a “recently negotiated” agreement of HRM residents and other stakeholders. Any new development within HRM should fit within the density limits set by the Centre Plan, at least until HRM has the chance to see if the limits set in the plan are working correctly.  Accordingly, I do not believe that the tower proposed by D fits within the scope of the Centre Plan.

Apart from the compliance of Case #### with the terms of the Centre Plan, I have several other comments:

I am very concerned that in our rush to develop the Centre, we are unwittingly destroying what makes Halifax unique and the very reasons that people would choose to live in the Centre. A couple of the people commenting last night referred to their concerns about not re-using or upgrading some of the other older buildings on Robie and Spring Garden because they felt that the new structure, however beautiful, removed some of HRM’s and the neighbourhood’s character.

I appreciate that D is planning to restore the historic homes on Carlton.  But Carlton is a tiny street that is not on the regular walking route of most people. In the end, the preservation of a few historic houses will be a hidden jewel in Halifax, not visible to visitors or even to most Haligonians.

The visual landscape of Robie and Spring Garden will lose its historic aspect with this new development. Many of the neighbourhood’s existing residents and the pedestrians who choose to walk along Robie and Spring Garden, do so because of the unique historic character. The individual buildings may not be “historically significant”, but together they create a unique streetscape that evidences HRM’s history and age.

Perhaps for those developments that contemplate the destruction of older buildings in neighbourhoods filled with older residences, there should be some attempt to at the very least retain the facades or the character of the facades. Halifax is one of the oldest cities in Canada. It would be a shame to lose the feeling of history and the diversity of culture in our rush to create significant architecture and density.  Some of the commentators last night suggested that reuse or repurposing of older buildings would be preferable both from a resource perspective and a historical perspective.

I realize that HRM adopted construction mitigation guidelines and provides for development agreements.  But, neither of these alone, or in concert, are sufficient to preserve the character, livability and walkability of neighbourhoods during construction.

Admittedly, a construction project will cause some disruption; but too many construction or redevelopment projects occurring  at the same time will be  detrimental to the neighbourhood and its residents  in terms of noise, dust, rodents, walking, the  economic viability of local businesses and the tax base. Since construction projects take a number of years, these effects can ultimately wreck the existing neighbourhood, and in the end, undermine the developer’s very reason for selecting the neighbourhood.

HRM should schedule development projects to minimize the damage to the existing neighbourhoods. Perhaps, HRM should require the completion of one project in a neighbourhood before authorizing the commencement of a second, especially if the project abuts a largely residential neighbourhood.

By limiting the number of  development projects in a neighbourhood, the displaced small businesses have a greater chance of finding new locations in the area close to their existing customer base. (For many neighbourhoods in the Centre, most people commute by walking, cycling or mass transit and therefore are more dependent on local neighbourhood businesses.)

Even businesses which are not displaced by the development will ultimately experience a loss in their customer base and lose money during the construction period. People avoid walking into businesses where there is too much noise, dust or where the route is adjacent to a construction site.

Staggering the development schedule in a given neighbourhood gives HRM a chance to assess the actual impact the development has on the neighbourhood.  A development plan is “context-sensitive” if the businesses and the residents of the existing neighbourhood feel comfortable enough to remain in place.  Slowing the pace of development has a number of benefits :

  • It minimizes the overall noise, dust and disruption in the neighbourhood to something that might be manageable to residents.
  • It retains some of the existing tax base by keeping more businesses and residents in place.
  • It slows the pace of changing the local streetscapes, which ensures that the remaining buildings and cultural places of significance to the existing neighbourhood may remain intact, and perhaps benefit from a development project.

Neighbourhoods are more than buildings, plantings,  roads and transit routes. It is impossible to know how a neighbourhood will be affected by a development project until the project  is built.  If one aspect of a particular project has a negative impact, HRM may want to suggest that any subsequent project in the same neighbourhood not incorporate the negative  aspect ( or vice versa, if the impact is beneficial).

  • Last night a  number of people  suggested that the two contiguous  development projects be considered together. This approach makes sense,  since the only way to determine if a project is “context-sensitive” is to evaluate how the projects fits in the existing neighbourhood, and with future developments in the same neighbourhood.
  • Staggering development favours those developers who have a long-term commitment to HRM, because the developer must  hold and use the property until its place in the development queue comes up.
  • A delay in development affords a savvy developer more of a chance to get to know the neighbourhood better so that it can tailor its project to mesh into the existing neighbourhood.

To protect its current economic and tax base, HRM needs to help displaced small businesses and residents  to relocate within the same area. It makes no sense to lose existing taxpayers and to depress the economic viability of an existing neighbourhood in anticipation of revenue that might be generated by the new development.

  • Any  solution to displacement will be site specific and should be negotiated with the developer.
  • HRM should solicit local neighbourhood input as to the economic and cultural characteristics that need to be protected and preserved.
  • The neighbourhood  individuals or businesses may be best equipped to offer affordable and practical solutions for preserving the economic viability of their neighbourhood.
  • HRM should encourage temporary and flexible approaches to retaining existing businesses located on or adjacent to a parcel that is scheduled for redevelopment.
  • Businesses which continue to operate and serve their neighbourhood customers, during construction are potentially ready-made commercial tenants in the new mixed use development .”

Ultimately, creating a vibrant and livable city requires that the pace of development be like a leisurely stroll, where one periodically stops and looks back to see how one is doing. The pace should be measured and considered. If the path recently traveled was rocky or caused injury, the pace should permit time to reflect and change direction to find a better way. We must tread carefully lest we inadvertently  destroy something that is important and irreplaceable to the character of the city.