District 7 Update – Centre Plan update and District 7 changes

In this issue

This issue is a special edition focused on the proposed Halifax Housing Accelerator Fund changes to land use planning in District 7, the regional centre, and all of urban HRM.

Proposed Urgent Changes to Halifax Planning

About two weeks ago staff released a draft proposal for changes to the Centre Plan. and suburban area plans triggered by the Housing Accelerator Fund proposals from the Federal government, and supported by my motion of July 2023, and direction from the provincial government,

In order to get this update to you today, I’m going to liberally borrow from Councillor Sam Austin’s excellent update to District 5 residents.  You can read the original post here: https://samaustin.ca/centre-plan-proposed-revisions/

Context
Since about 2016, HRM has entered into a period of rapid growth. Population growth over the last few years has exceeded even the most optimistic planning projections and has been really unprecedented in Nova Scotia’s history. Growth brings opportunity, but it has also brought challenges, particularly in the housing market.

HRM is currently short an estimated 20,000 units. This is a big problem for affordability and livability and, unfortunately, planning is only part of the picture. Interest rates, a lack of skilled labour, and supply chain issues are also having an impact and are preventing industry from meeting demand. Planning alone won’t fix this, but it’s part of the puzzle.

The federal government has been investing in housing directly through the Rapid Housing Program, which aims to create deeply affordable non-market housing. The feds also have an initative to boost market supply, the Housing Accelerator Program. Last year, HRM and the federal government reached an agreement in which the feds would provide funding to HRM through the Housing Accelerator Program to:

  • Streamline permitting process
  • Reduce upfront costs for permit applications
  • Facilitate non-residential conversions
  • Encourage development on transit corridors
  • Expedite development agreements for heritage properties
  • Program for small scale residential construction
  • Reduce permit fees for small scale residential
  • Pre-approved small scale residential building plans
  • Pre-approved small scale multiple unit residential building plans
  • Expand affordable housing grant program
  • Dedicate more surplus lands for affordable housing

The feds also asked HRM to consider planning bylaw changes to allow more density, such as allowing four units per lot. Rather than simply agree to the somewhat arbitrary federal asks, HRM promised to examine all the municipal planning bylaws to see if we could do even better in terms of making planning more permissive (my Council Update on the Housing Accelerator application here). On Wednesday, the results of staff’s examination were released online and it appears to be quite significant.

As Sam wrote, we have not had the chance to fully absorb everything that is being proposed, but here’s what I can see that is up for consideration in District 7.

The changes are significant and far-reaching.  As I wrote in an opinion piece in the Herald “The immediate work for all of us, now, is to go through the proposed land-use changes with a fine-tooth comb, to bring forward concerns, address and eliminate problems and help the proposal do what it’s intended to do: help ease Halifax’s spiralling housing crisis, and help set up the city to flourish.” – You can read my opinion piece  here: https://wayemason.ca/2024/01/29/housing-accelerator-fund-changes-will-be-difficult-but-are-needed/

A central goal of the proposed changes and especially the push by the Federal government is to enable more “missing middle” housing.  What is missing middle?

This video is a good starting point:

Part of what makes missing middle so attractive is that it is believed that it is quicker to build than complex tall concrete buildings, uses a different workforce (wood framing common for single-family suburban homes) and can be built at a variety of scales that fit into a variety of available lots.

 

So with that in mind, let’s dive into the proposed changes.

Established residential zones in D7

ER-3 Zoning

In the Centre Plan, the Established Residential Designation is divided into three zones: ER-1, ER-2, and ER-3. The main difference between the three right now is the number of units permitted, and that ER-3 allows for townhouse-style development and small-scale apartment buildings (4 units) whereas ER-1 and ER-2 do not. Under the proposed changes, all ER-1 and ER-2 zones that aren’t in a potential heritage district would be upzoned to ER-3.

HRM would also no longer control unit counts in the established residential zone, allowing the requirements around building form and the building code to set the limits of what a lot can support. This could really incentivize the construction of so-called missing middle housing.

Some changes of concern are the increase in lot coverage combined with the removal of bedroom and unit counts in ER3.

To be clear councillors have not seen the actual proposed land use bylaw.  The devil really is in the details!

I’ve already said to staff and colleagues I do not support removing the bedroom limits because we have known from the mid-00s (when the double cohort came through) that habitable room limits and a requirement to have common rooms (living rooms, dining rooms) are important.

In the past, we’ve seen proposals in some now gone overly permissive zones (R2A for example) for 1 kitchen, 12 bedroom student housing.  It did not seem like the kind of thing we should enable now.

We did not have these things and some of the renovations resulted in toxic, overstuffed apartments that were bad for the mostly students living there and the neighbourhoods they lived in.

We want missing middle, not warehousing of students.

The detail of what changes may or may not have been made to ER-3 will determine what level of comfort I have with removing unit counts.  In the past HRM and the old City of Halifax gave more units if the original building was preserved.

If you look at the graphic above showing the missing middle, my feeling is that ER3 may not be the tool to do Duplex to townhouse on the left of that continuum, and ALSO do Multiplex Medium, triplex and livework.   I am not against the latter.

I am thinking of having an ER4 zone on the remaining arterials and corridors that is very deliberate and intentional about enabling “Montreal style” shotgun apartments and small 3-4 story multiunits, and keeping ER3 closer to how it is written now will get us better results.

While this may be a bit of an academic exercise in District 7 where the lot sizes and grid means in most areas it won’t make all that much difference,  I think we need to have a much deeper dive into ER3 where the lots are larger and the grid breaks down in the post-war suburbs (Connaught/ West End / North Dartmouth / Crichton Park / Manor Park / Penhorn Mall / Southdale etc)

Higher Density Zones

The Established Residential areas are the Centre Plan’s lowest-density zones. Medium and higher density zoning are provided via Corridor Zones (COR) (mid-rise, main street type development), Higher Order Residential Zones (HR) (larger apartment buildings outside of commercial areas like the ones around Mic Mac Mall), Centre Zones (CEN) (high-density redevelopment sites like Wyse Road) and Downtown Zones (mixed areas like Downtown Dartmouth (DD) and Downtown Halifax (DH) where some properties can support high densities). There are some changes to all of these zones as well.

Let’s pause here to look at the types of buildings different zones enable.

All high-intensity zones require a 3 story street wall, and then a step back to create a podium.  This creates a more human-scale interface on the sidewalk for folks walking by.

The HR1 zone allows towers of 12 stories, the HR2 zone allows midrise to 8 stories.  COR or Corridor allowed up to 6 stories, but is being proposed to allow 9 stories.  CEN or Centre and DD or Downtown Dartmouth allow towers on a 3-story podium but are controlled more by floor area ratio or FAR than a height limit.   DT Halifax has a different set of rules adopted during HRM by Design in 2007.

Corridor and Higher Order Residential (HR) are very similar, but COR requires street-level shops to be enabled, and HR does not.   Both design forms can scale pretty easily from 3 stories to 9 stories.

 

HR can fit on various size lots, but there is a maximum 64 meter length for the base of a building.  There is a 6 m setback or space required between these higher intensity zones and the transition to ER zones.

Heights Measured in Storeys

In the Centre Plan, density is controlled in the most intensive zones (Centres and Downtowns) by floor area ratio, which provides for the most flexibility. In the Corridors and Higher Order Residential, density is largely controlled by set height limits. HRM is now proposing to measure height in these zones in stories instead.

For developers, this will provide more flexibility. Instead of an invisible box, floor heights will be set by what makes sense for the building’s design and systems. So, for example, a Corridor zone that had a height of 20 metres (approximately 7 storeys) will now have a height limit of seven storeys. This change would provide more flexibility to the Corridor and Higher Order zones and, in many ways, could provide more clarity for the public since most people would have no idea how many stories fits into 20 metres. It could also support wood and mass timber construction, which tends to require more space per storey.

Increases in Height in Centre, Corridor and Higher Order Residential

In converting height limits from metres to storeys, staff are proposing to upzone a few areas to allow for more density than is permitted now. I’ll summarize each change.

University Adjacent Zoning

Saint Mary’s University Zone

Dalhousie University Zone

One of the biggest changes, and the most startling, is the proposal for a significant upzone on what amounts to all blocks around the two big university sites, except where there is a proposed Heritage Conservation District.

This a huge change from seven decades of “containment” of the universities on their campuses and I know a lot of residents are upset and angry.

I understand that reaction, but I feel we need to look at the goals of these changes, the reality of the housing crisis, and think about if not this, then what?  Our neighbourhoods need to evolve and change, but is this the right way to evolve our community?  If not this, what should we do?

Centre Plan had already upzoned some of these lots, primarily along Coburg, but the height allowances were lower (3-6 stories), zoning was HR2 (lower rise apartment buildings) and the upzoning was as deep as the lot facing the street.  Most but not all of the homes facing the universities were already multiunit rental conversions.

The proposal now is to upzone the entire block back to the next street away from campus.  It is also to allow significant heights, in the 7-9 story range, and the taller blocks are zoned HR1 which allows towers.

On the one hand, in these expensive neighbourhoods with high-priced homes, if the goal is to create an incentive to have things change quickly, it makes sense to provide a lot of rights in terms of height and zoning.  On the other, 7-9 story zones aren’t going to get fast wood framed missing middle!

I am confident that if approved the zone requirements I described above mean when the construction is over the new buildings would fit into the neighbourhoods with less friction than those built in the 70s or 80s.

I had expected an ER3 or ER4 designation on the lots facing the university, but I can see the merit of this proposal to create change, possibly quickly though the labour and interest rate issues mean I don’t see this happening with great speed.

I am most worried that unless we have an empty lot tax or demolition controls the biggest risk is the usual suspects (Tsmilkilis and others) come in and tear down housing and we end up with empty lots and a short or even medium-term net loss of needed shelter!  We will need to press the Province to give us powers to manage this transition if it is to go ahead.

CEN or Centre Zones

The first thing that has gotten a lot of attention has been the proposal to raise the height limit to 40 stories in CEN zones from 30.  The proposal is to increase the FAR or floor area ratio in some CEN zones.

FAR is the primary development control in a CEN zone.  It’s a multiplier applied to the size of the lot to determine how big the building can be.  Some ratios are low, 1.75 gets you to 2-3 stories, 3 gets you a 5-8 story building.  10 FAR is big, and can be 40 stories easily.  The idea is the design controls (podium, street wall, tower seperation, tower floor plate size) will mitigate wind and sun impacts.

Personally, I think the height limit in the CEN1 zone is not needed.  It’s belt and suspenders approach based on Halifax’s long-standing love/hate relationship with height.

FAR and design controls are all we need.  If the market says “I want to build a 2 unit per floor 80 story tower)” like the narrow, silly and very expensive towers we see on Manhattan Island then go ahead.    We need to control FAR and make sure FAR is a realistic control based on technical study (transit, roads, parks, water, sewer).  My feeling is a well-designed, well-spaced narrow tower is what matters.

Proposed New Fenwick Growth Centre (CEN) zone.

This is a proposal to create a new CEN zone which is the highest density area with tallest buildings.  Housing pressure has meant that owners of all the large lots in this area have started to enquire about possible redevelopment.  This area is home to the recently renovated Fenwick Tower (now the Vuze) and the several smaller but substantial apartment buildings around it.  I think this approach makes sense and support applying the CEN zone.

Spring Garden Robie

The FAR here does not change, just the blanket height provision does.  I am not comfortable at all with the 33 strory on CEN2, and it seems silly given the FAR there is 1.75.  If CEN2 is going to be a meaningful interface zone between lower-density zones and towers the height should be 3 stories, aiming ot have a similar look and feel to HR 3-4 stories.

Quinpool


Quinpool sees modest increases in FAR in the CEN zone, most noticeable change is on the former St Pats site and the Quingate Place shopping mall.  I have strong support for housing above a new shopping podium, rather than the 1970s strip mall and Canadian Tire.

Gottingen

Gottingen sees increases in FAR in the CEN zone, most noticeable change is on the Staples site and the next two blocks north.   This will enable taller buildings.  When we did Centre Plan there was a lot of concern that the orientation and narrow, 3-lane nature of Gottingen meant it could turn into a very dark, very cold corridor if done wrong.  I am concerned about added FAR here between Falkland and Cunard, but need more info.

Corridors (COR and HR zone)

Robie Street

The acquisition of homes and small apartments on Robie and Coburg that were subsequently levelled and left empty, adding to our housing crisis, is something I am always thinking about, and something that has made a lot of residents very upset.  Justifiably!

As I said above, if we don’t have an empty lot tax or demolition control, that behaviour could in the short and medium term be encouraged by providing even more development rights.

Is 9 stories too high there north of Jubilee?  I don’t think so, it’s a 6-lane road, and the hospital across from it will be 14.  There may be an argument to allow the two blocks adjacent to Quinpool to go into the CEN zone.  I am told there is a worry though about flight paths for the Lifeflight Helicopter landing at the hospital.

South of Jubilee drops to 5 stories, which is perfect for mass timber or wood frame, and could allow faster construction of buildings that would look more like the Velo on Gottingen in terms of size.

Inglis/Victoria

I am pretty excited to see the upzone here.  There is so much empty space, derelict strip malls, surface parking, the old closed Berkley, and the former drycleaners space.  I think this area could become a denser, better-serviced village when it gets redeveloped.  The not-for-profit coops and social housing for seniors already in place help to ensure the space maintains mixed income.  I think this is fine too.

Heritage 

Centre Plan’s existing potential heritage districts in purple and proposed additional districts in brown.  These areas continue to be downzoned to protect the existing buildings until an HCD can be adopted.   Heritage zones, where adopted, have become popular with some of Halifax’ developers, who value the old buildings, and like the challenge of building new housing that incorporates the old.

I hope some of the HAF money can be used to get more staff working to get the HCDs done faster.  We need to knock off the top 9 HCDs in the next four years, to set clear expectations for residents and folks that want to invest in these zones.

THAT IS IT FOR NOW!

There is a lot here and even while ruthlessly borrowing from Councillor Austin’s post I know I may have missed some, but I did try my best,

You can check out the mapping for yourself on HRM’s website here and provide feedback to the Planning Department via haf@halifax.ca up until February 16.