Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics – Don Mills on the radio again

Don Mills kills me. Don is a pollster, so you would think that he would live by facts and figures. Two days ago he was speaking on CBC Mainstreet (Halifax edition) and his thesis was that Halifax lagged far behind every other city of size in Canada in growth in the 2000s because we didn’t approve new buildings fast enough.

His primary example was what we like to call Twisty Towers or Twisted Sisters, the United Gulf development proposed for the old Texpark property between Hollis and Granville.

This very large, $150 million dollar project will (would have) be (been?) a real landmark, entirely unlike anything else downtown. It was a really polarizing project, as heritage and small city people where vehemently against it, and pro-developers were willing to die on that hill. A lot of people in the middle, who actually look at each site and project on its merits, were confused. (I was for it, it was really well designed and would have been an asset.) Building a modern landmark on an old parking lot, with high quality architecture, no harm no foul.

Go to New York, walk around, plenty of life in those streets, on streets surrounded by fifty story buildings. It can be done, the trick is in the planning, make sure you end up with the first four floors fitting into the urban fabric. This is now mandated by HRM by Design, so we are hopefully okay in this regard.

So Twisted Sisters was approved five years ago and Don said that our labyrinthine planning process delayed the project enough that it may never be built. That the bureaucracy stopped commerce and the free market.

Say what? The planning process added at most two years to the life of this project. More like twelve months. If that is all it will take to knock a $150 million project off the rails than I would say the underlying economics of the project were shaky at best. With the changes in the economy now, I suspect if they had started building three years ago that they would be looking to slow down construction or stop it now, since the money is gone regardless.

At best we would have a half built building that when completed would have no tenants, it seems. If the demand for the building is gone now, it would have been gone no matter how fast the planning process had moved.

This is all patently silly. Only the most uninformed would buy the idea that our planning process drives away business like this. During the debate over the new development in/adjacent to Historic Properties (I was against it, I think it will damage our tiny Historic Property site, and is something we will come to regret in short order), Mayor Kelly rightfully pointed out that there were one million square feet of class A business space approved and undeveloped right now. One million square feet. That is a lot of office space!

If there is this huge demand exists, there are sufficient approved projects to meet the demand, but look around our skyline and there is a remarkable absence of construction cranes building new office towers. Why? If the money was there, the business case was sound, developers would be building on the approved lots, but they are not, and that sends us a message. The message is there is no business case at this time, and connecting that fact to the planning process speed is at best a tenuous link, and really more likely absurd.

Why the pro-business at all cost lobby feels regular people are too dumb to see through these weak arguments remains a question.