District 7 Update – Revised Centre Plan update and District 7 changes

In this issue

This issue is a special edition focused on second draft of the proposed Halifax Housing Accelerator Fund changes that are going to Public Hearing, likely starting May 21, 2024.

Proposed Urgent Changes to Halifax Planning

I’ve prepared this special newsletter about the proposed important and wide-reaching land use bylaw changes that will come before Council at a Public Hearing in late May, probably Tuesday, May 21, 2024 (to be confirmed).  My regular May newsletter will follow in a few days.

While we are heading to a public hearing and I am keeping an open mind, it is important that residents hear about these proposed changes and what amendments were made at Council.

If you want to take part in the Public Hearing, HRM has a quick guide about how to participate.

You can find a lot of information about the proposed changes on the Halifax HAF website.

The most compelling document, which I refer to throughout this long newsletter, is the updated Regional Centre ER Zone Fact Sheets

I want to start by sharing that these changes are not easy, and I have been deeply concerned about what this could mean for our community.

While I support the need for unprecedented and fast change to help address the housing crisis, I am all too aware of how unintended consequences could be hugely damaging to our neighbourhoods and this city.

Then when the second draft came out, my first read of it was to be horrified.  Stomach aching, trouble sleeping.

But I dug in and I read the proposed changes, had multiple meetings with staff, and talked to my colleagues on Council. I have come to believe that the proposed amendments make sense for HRM and our neighbourhoods, which is why after a good debate and some amendments I voted for the first reading and to set the public hearing. I’ll unpack that here.

The current housing crisis is a result of many different issues, and one of the things the municipality can control is the supply of potential homes, which is what can be built and where. The HAF amendments are an unprecedented expansion of what the planning nerds call “the regulatory supply of housing” which means what kind of buildings can be built without further debate.

For those that are interested I wrote about the various reasons why these changes are needed in my post in February.

As I said in my opinion piece in the Herald back in the fall where I wrote “The status quo is not an option.”  I outlined my many concerns about the first draft, shared by many residents, in this long letter to staff.

After a lot of public feedback, Council adopted the second draft of the HAF proposal, with some amendments.  This document has a lot of big changes from the first draft.

I’m going to cover all the proposed changes, but I’ll focus on two main things that I am hearing concerns about – the proposed changes in the ER zones, and the proposed height increases on the corridors and in the centres.

In the Regional Centre, apart from the university areas and Fenwick CEN zone, the proposal is generally still true to what was proposed in the Centre Plan with the intensity dialled up with more height or units for more population.

The first draft included some major up-zoning to 8-10 stories around SMU and the south side of Dalhousie.  Much of this has been removed from the second draft and replaced with the ER3 proposal. The rezoning on Inglis north of SMU has been maintained.  Height of existing and remaining zones has been intensified to 7-9 stories.

The proposal by and large reads as an increase in development while still generally using the Centre Plan findings, mapping, zoning, and design guidelines.

The Centre Plan did the heavy lifting on where the roads, transit, water and sewer are located, and where intense development should and should not take place.

HRM has to work with the Province to ensure schools get built and investments in transit and other critical infrastructure are made.

I’m going to focus on the Centre Plan area but the proposal also is to increase suburban homes to 4 units and to expedite some lots on or near main streets to be redeveloped into apartments/mixed use.

While these are big changes and are concerning to think about, I voted to approve this for a public hearing because with the lot size controls, bedroom counts, and other built form and design controls, I think this is a reasonable and responsible approach to consider.  I encourage you to read this very long document and have alook at the various explainers I’ve linked to.

The changes that many residents are concerned about are changes to the residential neighbourhoods that were R1 and R2, or single-family homes and in the later, duplexes.

It is important to note that we have not had true R1 and R2 on the peninsula for over 70 years.  Since the 50s we’ve allowed internal conversions, and since the 70s in R1 you’ve been allowed to do duplexes and in R2 you’ve been allowed to turn a house into up to 6 units.

It is important to note the front, side, and back yard requirements already in place are maintained, so the buildings have to sit on their lot the same way houses do now.

Summary of new rules:

For all ER-3 buildings

  • 11 metre max. height, with a 3-metre exemption for a pitched roof or attic unit
  • No minimum parking is required for any residential development
  • Maximum bedroom counts

3-4 units:

  • 1.2m garbage screening

For multi-unit dwellings (5+ units):

  • Maximum building depth 30 metres Maximum building width 20 metres.
  • If provided, parking must not be located in the front yard.
  • Parking screening is required from neighbouring properties.
  • Window minimums and articulation standards for walls facing the street.
  • The garbage area with a 1.8-metre-high screening must be located in the back or rear yard only.
  • Street-oriented unit entrances.
  • No ground floor balconies.

Building size, lot coverage and units
The lot coverage is proposed to increase from a 40% maximum to 50%, and 60% coverage for the smallest lots.

The height of a building is proposed to increase from 11m to 11m plus a pitched roof. The area in the roof would be able to be used as living space (habitable).

The number of units is determined by the lot size.  Different areas of HRM have different average lot sizes, but the general rule is the older the neighbourhood or street, the smaller the lot.

This means lots in Schmidtville are generally under 275 square meters or 3000 square feet, where lots around LMST range from 325-560 sm or 3500-6000 sf, and the farther South End depends on the street, but the older streets like Grant are quite small, and the newer postwar lots can be up to 835 sm / 9000 sf with some on the older mansion areas and along the arm going much higher.

The bigger the lot, the bigger the building and the more units are allowed.

Unit counts by lot size

Bedroom Counts per unit included
Council supported my amendment to maintain bedroom limits per unit. We know from experience going back to the double cohort in the mid-2000s that some landlords will jam a building full of students with no common space, and no common sense, and those students will end up in the streets to socialize.  We don’t want student ghettos like Kingston. We do want students living in amongst a mix of neighbours, as we have in most of the district north of South Street.

Bedroom counts by number of units.

Built Form Controls and Design Requirements
Minimum setback requirements will still be enforced. The maximum height will be 11 metres (the typical height max. in current ER-2 and ER-3 zones) with a 3-metre exemption for pitched roofs. In the proposed ER-3 zone, multiunit dwellings will have maximum building dimensions to promote development at a compatible scale with the neighbourhood.

Like built-form controls, design requirements encourage pedestrian-friendly environments that are welcoming and street-oriented. Design requirements also ensure that new development complements the neighbourhood scale and local design style. The proposed ER-3 regulations will introduce design requirements for multi-unit dwellings (buildings with 5 or more dwelling units).   These are illustrated in the HAF handout. 

Proposed Heritage Areas Expanded

The proposed heritage eras have been expanded to include some additional areas with clusters of registered heritage and homes or buildings that are highly likely to qualify to be registered.  More info below.

Family Friendly Neighbourhoods
I live on Vernon in an over and under we own, we live in the upstairs unit.  We raised our kids here, and a lot of families live in units like this in the south end area, so I am not convinced that allowing conversions or multis is anti-family, my direct life experience and 30 years living in this neighbourhood contradicts that.

Cut Out the South End and Limit it to 2-3-4 Units.
Some folks have asked for some areas to be exempted.  I am not comfortable looking at a map and saying, “Let’s exempt some neighbourhoods” and starting drawing red lines on that map! Is it income-based?  Is it the deep South End?  What about the Tree Streets?  What about Crichton Park in Dartmouth?   What is the criteria?

I support a blanket approach because I think it is fair and equitable.  We know we can mix apartments and townhouses and single-family homes successfully, most of the central area of the peninsula was purpose-built this way 120 years ago.  The proposed design controls will moderate the changes that come and make sure our neighbourhoods are still delightful, livable, family-friendly communities.

The land cost in the wealthy neighbourhoods makes it unlikely that we will see a lot of conversions or replacements at any kind of rapid rate.  None of these changes will happen over night.

Existing areas are largely reduced to the lots that were already up-zoned in the Centre Plan, though a few lots were added and heights increased to 9 stories along Robie and Coburg. More on HR zones here and COR zones here.

The proposed height limit is to increase from 30 to 40 stories in CEN zones (and only in CEN zones)  CEN zones on the peninsula are Spring Garden and Robie, Quinpool, Gottingen, and Robie/Young.  The proposal is to add one in the Fenwick area, around the Vuze/Fenwick Towers to the Workers Comp Building, and some other lots like the Sobeys property.

A lot of concern has been raised about the 40-story “limit”.  I had a resident email me about a lot on his street.

Zoning is indeed proposed to change there that would allow a larger building, but the 40-story limit (or the previous 30-story limit) is not the main control.  A limit is not an ALLOWANCE.

The CEN zone has three controls – design standards, floor area ratio or FAR, and height maximums – that control what a building could look like.

  • Floor Area Ration (FAR) – FAR is a way to determine how much floor space the development can have.  You multiply the size of the lot by the ratio.  The way I describe this is “How many lego blocks do you get to work with”.  The site is proposed to have a FAR of 6.5
  • Design controls – there are several requirements for a podium, set back, and step back, but the key ones for a site like this are it must be set back 6 meters from a lot line with a zone change, so a 6 m/ 24’ yard is required at the back and side of the property.
    The podium then has a max height of 3 stories. A step back of 4.5m/18’ between the start of the podium before they get to a tower/height.  Any substantial height must start 10m/30’ from the property line to the south and east of the properties.  More on those rules here:  Proposed Centre Plan Documents – Fact Sheet – Centre Zone (167 KB) (pdf)
  • Height maximums – the height of 40 stories is a limit, not an allowance, it is a maximum if all the other requirements I listed above are met and the FAR provides adequate volume.

EDIT a lot of interest in the transition policy to from high rise to ER zones.

You can read the fact sheet here:  https://www.shapeyourcityhalifax.ca/1041/widgets/67845/documents/91659

So with an FAR of 6.5, on the lot the resident asked about, the building would probably end up 10 stories.  There are a variety of different rules if you are a mid-rise building (26m or less) that would allow a thicker tower with less height, but when you calculate it out, it’s not a 40-story building, it works out to 10 stories at most, but probably more like 8 if they decide to keep it under 26m.

This is still a huge change from 3 stories, but the most important number in a CEN zone is the FAR, not the “height”.  The design controls are critical to having a modern and successful interface with adjacent low-height zoning.

To extend protection of current and potential heritage districts and properties, the draft proposes maintaining lower zoning and height on registered heritage properties, approved Heritage Conservation Districts (HCDs), and proposed HCD Study Areas, and expanding some proposed HCDs.

Heritage conservation districts, proposed and current, and registered heritage buildings.

Current and Proposed Heritage conservation districts, and current registered heritage.

The Centre Plan policy framework provides for less development on registered heritage properties and proposed heritage conservation districts but supports internal conversions and rear yard additions.

The following changes are proposed to extend protection to current and potential heritage:

  • The heritage development agreement process allows sensitive and appropriate redevelopments (Elmwood, etc)
  • Change zoning from ER-1 to ER-2 on registered heritage properties and in proposed heritage conservation districts, allowing an increase from one unit to two units per lot plus a secondary suite and a backyard suite.
  • Allowing heritage development agreement policy to the Downtown Halifax (DH) Zone;
  • Moving Spring Garden/Robie towers under the heritage development agreement policy
  • Expanding the proposed new Heritage Conservation Districts (HCDs):
    • Boundary expansion: Downtown Dartmouth, Five Corners, and Oakland Road
    • New proposed HCDs: Flower Streets and Ropeworks, Dartmouth and Jubilee Road in Halifax.

Centre Plan identified several future growth nodes, from Robie/Young/Almon to Strawberry Hill to Penhorn Mall.  These will continue to be evaluated in a separate process.  These sites as industrial or strip mall commercial require a deeper dive into planning for all new roads, water and sewer infrastructure, as well as setting aside land for parks, recreation, schools, fire stations and all the stuff dense new communities will require.

Council has requested the Province grant HRM the power to impose an empty lot tax.

Changes to the M200 and Noise Bylaw are coming this summer to create additional rules to help manage student housing and potential street parties.

Council approved hiring more bylaw enforcement staff in this year’s budget.