Finding the balance – development, district 7, and HRM

libraryHalifax’s economy is beginning to accelerate rapidly as the effects of the ships contract and the offshore gas exploration start to be felt. It is time to have an honest conversation about development.

HRM manages development, where and how and what things are built, through plans and directives. The hope is that this will make sure we get development that helps make the city the kind of exciting and livable place we want it to be.

A lot of people fear that rules are holding Halifax back. I think this is wrong. Others fear that development will kill what makes Halifax special. I don’t think this is the case, either.

vancouver viewconesThere are rules governing development everywhere. You can’t build higher than 120-150 feet in Tribeca in New York on Manhattan Island, one of the most expensive and high-density cities in the world. There are viewplanes all over Vancouver (see the graphic to left), a city often held up as having the kind of development we want to see in Halifax. They have even more viewplane and viewcone restrictions than we do! Yet these cities are building and growing.

One thing that is uniquely Halifax is that we have such a narrow definition of downtown. How is it going to kill the city if Barrington Street is a heritage district and we protect its historic character? I don’t think it will.

We don’t have to put office towers on Barrington or Argyle streets. Other cities have a historic  district AND a separate financial core. Some examples are Bay Street vs. Queen West in Toronto, Whyte Ave vs. 101 St NW in Edmonton and St Laurent vs. Rene Levesque in Montreal.

Luckily for us, there is a site right downtown that allows 25-30-story towers. It is the Cogswell interchange. We can build business and residential towers without tearing down architectural heritage, or violating viewplanes. If we did this, we could enforce the highest standards for public space and street level integration. You would be able to walk from City Hall to the North End on living, active city streets.

We can and should protect heritage through designated heritage districts with strong development controls and through tax and grant incentives for qualifying buildings inside and outside of those districts. Barrington Street was a good start, but Schmidtville must be protected next.

For residents of District 7, the most important tool to managing development over the next 25 years is the Centre Plan. This plan is going to focus development on corridors – main streets like Quinpool and the north end of Robie.

Actually, I think the Centre Plan should go farther. There are areas along Kempt Road, Bayne Street, and along Barrington between the bridges that are crying for development. A mix of well-designed medium and high rise buildings could replace car dealerships and fast food establishments along Kempt Rd. We should use Centre Plan as a visioning tool to start long-term urban renewal rather than just responding to current developer interest.

Allowing medium to high-rise buildings in these designated areas has to be balanced against strong protection of housing stock in the rest of the peninsula. Not that residential homes can’t be renewed or replaced, but the low-rise residential character of these neighbourhoods must be preserved. Low-rise density, through row houses, should be encouraged where appropriate to provide new housing that will attract families.

None of this means rules can’t be changed or reviewed, but those reviews need to happen through the same open and engaged processes that created our plans in the first place, as a part of comprehensive reviews every five years. We need development by plan and design, not development by exception to the rules.

If citizens of District 7 knew that Centre Plan included stronger protection for the style and character of most residential neighbourhoods, then they could enthusiastically support the it. The trade off for higher density in the proposed areas is protection of other residential areas for the life of this plan.

The time to plan for development, and to defend those plans, is now.

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