Zoning with a (Caribbean) Twist – A tragedy in Four Acts.

ACT 1 – Setting the Stage

Despite the usual mid-summer media doldrums there was still a lot of coverage of HRM By-Law trying to shut down Caribbean Twist.

The new, black owned, busy and delicious Caribbean Twist restaurant at 3081 Gottingen Street had been told that they had to close because the building was “not zoned for a restaurant.”

This is how it was presented by media but being a nerd, I know there is no specific restaurant zoning, so I started digging.  What is the real technical problem here?  Surely this building has always been commercial?  There is no difference in Commercial zoning, if you have it you can be a restaurant.  What gives?

A few weeks ago I went on Explore HRM, the website that HRM runs that lets you look up property information, such as zoning and property ID numbers.

Carribean Twist is in the old Toulany’s building facing the triangle of parkland in front of the famous  Young Street Hydrostone commercial strip.  This “british high street” was created after the 1917 Halifax Explosion leveled the North End.    This side of the park is zoned C2A, which means light commercial use.  We will get back to that in a bit.

On the other side of the park, on Kaye Street has had a mix of commercial and residential, much of which is being redeveloped right now, including the corner of Kaye and Isleville where the new glittery Starbucks has appeared in the bottom of a condo development.  This side of the trangle is zoned C2, also commercial.

Gottingen Street, between Kaye and Young, the final side of the triangle, has two buildings.  One is clearly residential, on the north side, and to the south, is the old Toulany’s building, looks like what you would expect from a 1920s commercial space.  Door on the corner, big glass windows all along the street, just like a hundred other similar buildings in Nova Scotia.

Thing is, this bit of street is zoned residential, R2, for multiple dwelling units in a small building.

So, I wondered, what the hell?

ACT II – The Twists and Turns of History (or – what was old is new, again).

The building was around 1920, the design indicates it was intended to be a store of some kind, so questions start to occur: was it commercial, if so what type of commercial was it,  and when was it zoned to residential?  What was the intention when it was built?  Well, it looked like this:

Current Caribbean Twist building looking very much like a storefront in 1921 - Gottingen and Russell Streets at Kaye Street, ca 1921 (PANS)

So first I went to the Public Archives.

PANS is great, but hard to navigate if you are not a regular. The card catalog is organized by areas of interest and other intuitive groupings that start to make sense the longer you are there.  For me, I have not been there for 15 years, so I was cursing (quietly) a provincial government that has not yet spent the money to put the damn catalog in a searchable database yet.

With staff help I made it to the microfilm, and did two things.  First I looked up the property on the earliest Insurance Survey I could find.  The 1922-1948 map looks like this:

1948 Insurance Map showing Caribbean Twist site as a restaurant. (PANS)

Yep, that’s right.  1948, and 523 (later renumbered to 905 and later renumbered to 3081 Gottingen) is noted as a “rest.”, which I suspected was short for, you guessed it, restaurant.

But business info is not what I was looking for from the map, all I wanted from the map was the old address, so I could look up the address in the old MacAlpine City Directory.

What is cool about the directory is that it said who or what was at each address, organized by street.  Today this would never get past the Privacy Commissioner but for historical research it sure comes in handy.

So I start with 1920.  Nothing.  1921.  Nothing.   1922 – bingo!  The building was two addresses, the south end where the door is now, and the north end.  In 1922 the north end of the building is listed as a “Grocery.”

Was the south end of the building empty, or was it part of the grocery?  I couldn’t tell, but I suspect that, due to the economic crash in Halifax after World War 1, that it took some time to fill all the commercial spots being built in the North End by the reconstruction efforts.

So, I started looking every 10 years, to see what changed. 1932 – grocery store still there.  By 1942 south end of the building is home to, wait for it, the Rex Café. A restaurant!  I have a sneaking suspicion the Rex was a predecessor to Garden View in Dartmouth, but that is another story.  Grocery store was still there.  By 1952 the whole building appears to be the Orchid’s Grill. In the 1960s the building has become Toulany’s  Grocery.

In 1972, the property, part of Joseph Kaye’s grant of 1866, is sold by the Fineberg family to Hanna (John) Toulany, who owns the property to this day.

ACT III – In Which We Learn About Non-Conforming Use.

I need to talk to someone at HRM about how zoning is designated how it changes, so I called around and emailed some councilors and ended up talking to MacKenzie Stonehocker, a Planner for HRM Community Development.

Ms. Stonehocker was very helpful, but couldn’t get too detailed on the specific property because her whole office was in the middle of moving, so the files in question were in a two cubic foot box, ready for transport.

Despite that, the generalities of the area give us a good picture.  According to Ms. Stonehocker, the land use bylaws for Halifax were finalized in 1978, but were basically re-approval of 1950s zoning.  Probably the building was still zoned commercial, but without the detailed files it is hard to be sure.

In the late 80s or early 90s, the old City of Halifax had a city wide planning process, which said that the city should come up with specific zones and regulations, secondary plans, for the city’s neighbourhoods.

The Peninsula North Secondary Planning Area goes to Young Street, so one side of the triangle (Starbucks) is in it, the other side (Hydrostone) is not.  The planning area was cut into eight small sub areas.  3081 Gottingen is in Peninsula North Area Four, which is from Gottingen to Young to Barrington to North.

Current zoning and land use was approved in 1993, so that is likely when the property became zoned for residential.

Ms Stonehocker said that the process was pretty open, much like HRM by Design, so there would have been ads in the paper and notices sent to residents by Alderman.

What I gathered was that, like today, it would have been incumbent on John Toulany as owner of the property, to go to the meetings or write city staff and try and get or maintain a C2 zoning on the property.

I asked Ms Stonehocker about zoning, specifically how Toulany could operate there if it was residential.  She explained that his business was grandfathered, but that such “non-conforming use” agreements are very very specific, so the only business you are allowed, under the rules, to operate there is a grocery store.

To be a restaurant, the property needs to be zoned commercial, any of C2A C2 or C1 designations would do, or the property can get a very specific “non conforming use” agreement approved by HRM Council, something that is not uncommon.

Finally I asked Ms. Stonehocker if it is possible that someone simply made a mistake, that the property designation was transcribed incorrectly in 1950, or 1976, or 1993, or when HRM migrated from paper maps to computer based GIS systems.  She laughed and said that yes, sometimes mistakes happen, but it probably didn’t happen in this case.

ACT IV – Dénouement

The last Toulany business on this site, Toulany's Lunchbox, a, gasp, restaurant and corner store. (Google Street View)

So, the bottom line is that  it seems that sometime after young John Toulany bought the building in 1972, the City of Halifax rezoned the street, and it was decided that the Gottingen Street side of the triangle would no longer be a commercial one.

It is hard to know if Mr Toulany, who last month was in Lebanon and unavailable, knew about the change in status of his property.

It is hard to imaging a commercial property, that has always been a restaurant or grocery since it was built for those purposes, being rezone to residential.

It is easier to imagine the hard working, self employed Toulany missing the importance of the City of Halifax notices in the paper, and having it slip by without comment.

Maybe we have learned a lesson here.

Maybe zoning and neighbourhood plans need to have borders that end one lot BEFORE a street, rather than in the middle of a street.

It cannot make good sense for the commercial area around that park to exist in three totally separate planning areas.

There is a lot of rapid re-development of that neighbourhood and a lot of excitement around Caribbean Twist.  Hopefully, rather than seeing it as undermining the planning in zone 4, peninsula north, it will be easier for HRM Council to swallow the idea of ‘restoring’ the right to have a restaurant there, just like the good old Rex Café.

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