Let’s review the convention centre saga so far, from my point of view anyway!
Council voted in 2009 to approve the Downtown Halifax Secondary Municipal Planning Strategy which includes the design of the Nova Centre at the blocks bounded by Market, Argyle, Sackville, and Prince. This land use has been debated and passed by Council.
Council voted on summer 2012 to sign the contract to partner with the Province on funding and participating in the Nova Centre, the new convention centre complex.
Whether you supported it or not, the Nova Centre is going ahead. That is no longer the issue.
The motion discussed today was not about stopping the convention centre, or approving the convention centre, it is about the process of amending the plan so that the centre we get is the centre the public ask for during the consultation.
It was an error council voted to pass an overhead view, or map, of the proposed convention centre in 2009, the fabled Appendix B of the Downtown Halifax Land Use Bylaw.
A more flexible description of the intent of the convention centre development, rather than a detailed map would have meant that an MPS amendment was not required now. Council should have required this from staff. This overly specific map now creates difficulty in considering the input from public consultation.
An MPS amendment is required because the extensive public consultation resulted in significant design changes to the project.
The two biggest are moving the ballroom out of the basement and into the sky, from Market, above Grafton, to Argyle, and the essential move of the parking garage entrance from Argyle to Grafton, to protect the Argyle entertainment district.
There is little doubt that the convention centre is going to be built. If these changes were not being made then the applicant could have submitted months ago, there would be no further public input and construction could start as soon as excavation is complete. That has already been approved.
FOCUS OF THE PUBLIC HEARING:
The MPS amendment process, and the public hearing process, will be focused on affirming or denying the changes that are proposed because of public consultation.
The public hearing will not be another forum for debating whether or not to go ahead with the convention centre project.
On way or the other, the centre is being built, the only questions are, do we want the new plan, or the old plan? At most, a negative outcome at the public hearing would result is a delay in the project.
ROLE OF DESIGN REVIEW:
Because of DHLUB, the product of HRM by Design, already having the approval for the Nova Centre built into the bylaw, the Design Review Committee is NOT reviewing anything but the qualitative elements of the proposed centre.
To be clear, crystal clear, the parking structure is NOT a qualitative element. DRC would not debate or recommend on the sub-grade component of this building.
The Downtown Halifax design manual states that qualitative elements include for example architectural design, streetscape presence, public realm contribution, and sustainability. The DRC is guided by the design manual and can consider allow variances where the project meets the intent of the plan.
WHAT IS PROPOSED:
Argyle Developments have requested alternatives to the regular approval process that would see construction continue while the rest of the process is completed. The proposed Interim Planning Area Order, passed by the Province, which will allow construction of the subgrade components to go ahead while the remaining process plays out. Interim orders, or equivalents by other names, are used (sparingly) in Boston, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, basically big cities with big projects.
Argyle Developments has proposed to be allowed to proceed is construction 15 feet below grade, two levels of parking, and one level of underground convention centre space. What is proposed would be the same whether the old design or new design was built.
Argyle Developments has agreed to hold all the liability from this unusual request. The municipality will not be on the hook should any changes be required.
If you accept my premise that the convention centre is being built at some point regardless of the rest of this process, than you also need to accept that these three floors would be built this way pretty much regardless of what the rest of the design looks like on top.
I do not feel this prejudices the work of the DRC, or the MPS amendment process and public hearing, given the very narrow scope of decision making that both of those process will in fact have.
There is a very real risk that the MPS amendments may be appealed to the UARB.
Argyle Developments also faces some risk that the DRC may some of the substantive variances that may be requested.
Argyle Developments has agreed that they will follow the process from this point, and regardless of future potential for delays.
The convention centre is being built.
The MPS amendment is a result of public consultation.
The Interim planning order is a reasonable accommodation for the developer given that the MPS amendment is required primarily to accommodate the public convention centre component of the proposed design.
This MPS amendment and design review process will consider elements of what the convention centre will look like, but will not consider whether or not it is going ahead.
Argyle Developments Inc will has committed to following the process as outlined, the MPS amendment and the DRC. This process will take 8-12 months.