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Old Posted Apr 7, 2008, 11:28 PM
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HRM by Design

I think we should have a thread where everyones opinion on HRM by Design can be together. For anyone unfamiliar with HRM by Design it is a committee that has put together what they think downtown Halifax should look like in the future. This includes the area bordered by Upper Water St., Cogswell, Citadel Hill, South Park St, Morris, Barrington (minus DalTech), Barrington Superstore, and Pier 21. There is a draft up on their website (www.hrmbydesign.ca):

Downtown Halifax of the future
Final draft of HRM By Design report to be released today
By MICHAEL LIGHTSTONE Staff Reporter
Mon. Apr 7 - 5:34 AM

THIS IS A CITY in which residents still refer to one of two spans across Halifax Harbour, a structure that opened 38 years ago, as "the new bridge."

It’s a place some folks have said, perhaps facetiously, should adopt the following motto: Halifax — Progress Without Change.

Old habits die hard here, but the first decade of the 21st century is going to bring a shift in the way urban planners and developers do things downtown.

As a result, if all goes well, Halifax’s central core will evolve into a lively, people-friendly place with downtown residents, workers, business owners and tourists living in harmony.

Heritage properties and new highrise buildings will coexist in the Halifax Regional Municipality of the future. Affordable housing will be available, and public transit upgraded.

The cost? So far, that’s unknown.

But many costs associated with the renewal effort are to be handled by the private sector, developers who’ll likely be improving existing properties and paying to build more esthetically pleasing new ones.

Plans for downtown’s refurbishment come from the city’s HRM by Design study, an urban revitalization plan in the works for about 20 months. A 17-member task force assigned to the $405,400 project envisions a downtown that’s livable, distinct and vibrant.

Planners want 16,000 people to move downtown within the next 15 years, Halifax regional council heard at a city hall meeting in February. They’d also like to see a million square feet of new office space downtown in the next decade or so.

On Monday, the municipality’s final draft of the downtown plan is to be released. Public review of the proposal is to continue until April 23. Copies of the plan will be available electronically and in print.

City hall is encouraging people to review the draft and submit comments to the HRM by Design gurus. An open house will be held April 16 at the World Trade and Convention Centre in Halifax.

The proposed downtown vision, guided by consultants from Toronto, would manage growth and development in the central core over the next 25 years.

Coun. Dawn Sloane (Halifax Downtown), a task force member, said recently that a renaissance for the downtown, parts of which have been neglected for years, is long overdue. She urged residents, workers, employers, visitors and property owners to contribute to the planning process by commenting on the consultants’ final draft.

"We’re hoping that by June, we’ll be bringing the full contents of the (final) report to regional council forward," Ms. Sloane said.

A public hearing on the study will probably be held before July.

According to the city’s consultants, a new-and-improved downtown should include:

•"Defined and distinct . . . precincts."

•A protected and "vibrant historic heart."

•Various open spaces and "streets that support . . . walking."

•A downtown that’s transit-oriented.

•A central core that reinforces civic pride.

Project manager Andy Fill-more, a city hall staffer, said the precinct idea is relatively simple. Planners are proposing nine downtown neighbourhoods be designated.

Mr. Fillmore said "a clear mission statement" for each district — areas that share a common geography but have distinct elements — would be established.

"The policy for each precinct is developed around acknowledging, protecting and perpetuating those . . . characteristics." Not everyone agrees with the HRM by Design concept, of course, and the consultants have received candid criticism from opponents.

Haligonian Janet Morris is worried the city’s historic structures will suffer under the proposed revitalization scheme. Tall buildings near heritage properties, she feels, should be verboten.

"Halifax is known as the City of Trees," she said last year in comments posted on a local website. "This is a clue — the height of our buildings in the historic core should not exceed the tree canopy. Let there be light and air for everyone."

A summary of feedback provided to the municipality’s design team at a public forum in November shows the perennially contentious issue of height is not in danger of being knocked down soon.

"Height is fine," an observer wrote, "in the right spot."

Another warned about tall buildings affecting such heritage sites as Halifax city hall, Province House and Government House.

One person noted there are unattractive low-rise buildings downtown and was concerned they could be joined by taller mistakes. "Ugly short buildings may be bad," the commenter wrote, "but ugly, tall, overpowering buildings are even worse."

Said a tall-building supporter: "I would like to see more height in the Cogswell area. I am also concerned about the height restriction in a lot of the downtown area."

Planners are recommending a height limit of about six storeys for part of downtown, the "vibrant historic heart," Mr. Fillmore said. He said that district would include Historic Properties and parts of Barrington Street.

Outside of that zone, "a balance" will have to be struck between heritage preservation and allowing for modern architecture, Mr. Fillmore said.

When it comes to reviewing, approving and appealing future developments, downtown planners want municipal politicians to have the final say, on appeal, instead of the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board. Mr. Fillmore said proposals would be considered and authorized by a "site plan review" group of municipal staff and a design-review committee made up of citizens.

Progress without change?

Not in the scenario shaped by the HRM by Design team.

Mr. Fillmore said changes are definitely in the offing, such as the approval and appeal processes for development proposals. But he acknowledged several are subject to amendments to provincial legislation. He said the city is making progress on that front.

On Monday, to obtain a free copy of the final draft of the downtown plan, a five-volume report, go to www.hrmbydesign.ca or go to the planners’ office at the Halifax ferry terminal on George Street.

( mlightstone@herald.ca)
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Old Posted Apr 7, 2008, 11:46 PM
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I like most of what I see in HRM by Design but I'm not going to get excited about it until after it's actually accepted by council and some money is devoted to projects like the Barrington Street historic district. Until those things happen it's all talk and just like dozens of other studies in the city that never amounted to anything.

Predictably many of the comments in the article are terrible. No buildings above the tree canopy? I swear most people have no clue when it comes to the actual realities of planning and development. Other comments like "height is fine in the right spot" are totally meaningless.
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  #3  
Old Posted Apr 8, 2008, 3:30 AM
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Don't forget, this plan is not just for downtown Halifax, it includes the entire penninsula, and Dartmouth within the circumferential.

I have very mixed feelings for HRMByDesign. The fact that its happening, and people are talking is great! But some of the principles I have a problem with. Its almost like too much order is put in place in some instances. For example, they say that the ratio between a buildings height and the width of the street should be 1. Meaning equal, and that this makes a great street. I would certainly beg to differ.....I can think of many tight little streets with no sunlight that are amazing!
My other beef stems from a discussion in class last week. We were looking at Spring Garden Road. And we came to the conclusion that the most interesting, and exciting part of that street lies at the corner of South Park and Spring. Where Dairy Queen and Mexicali Rosa's are located. This tiny stretch is so jam packed with stores, restaurants, and bars, the signs are overwhelming.....and its GREAT! HRM by Design would kill the opportunity for this to exist or be learned from.
These are two flaws that I see, there are probably more. but I'm still only half way through the first document

Sorry for the rant...these thoughts have been in my head for the past 2 weeks.
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Old Posted Apr 8, 2008, 4:18 AM
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I get off my bus at SGR & South Park and even at 830 in the morning you can feel the vibrancy of the street and how urban and energetic it feels. All the people walking to work, the sounds of buses whizzing by, the beautiful buildings, Victoria and Public Gardens, the newspaper people offering the Metro to passerbyers, ect. Hopefully HRM by Design will consider this into their vision and encourage the growth of this wonderful area. One thing i would love to see happen is the proposal for the corner of Brenton Pl. and judging by the report HRMBY supports the proposal!
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Old Posted Apr 8, 2008, 6:18 AM
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Well many of the suggested building heights don't adhere to the 1:1 width/height ratio. Ultimately I think those will win out over any guidelines in the report.

I like the guidelines for about 2/3 of new buildings. I think the downtown area needs a large number of small or medium scale infill projects with good urban design that serves more or less just to reinforce what's already there. They give some good examples of buildings like this on Barrington such as an addition above the Sam the Record Man buildings and new buildings for the Birks site.

For Barrington specifically I don't have much of a problem with strict design requirements since the plan is to put incentives in place to go along with them. For other areas it's a bit murkier, and there should also be room for some novel projects and landmark buildings like United Gulf, especially around the waterfront. It would be a mistake to try to turn the whole downtown area into some weird 1910s era Paris/Boston clone, though in practice I doubt this is going to happen when developers are actually putting forward proposals under HRM by Design.
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Old Posted Apr 8, 2008, 10:22 AM
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I saw Fillmore interviewed on the news Monday and his comments seemed pretty naive. He was saying once the proposal was accepted that developers would be able to get approvals quickly as there would be "no negotiation" on the requirements. Presumably a proposal one storey taller or otherwise marginally outside the guidelines would be summarily rejected. That kind of approach totally ignores realities like economics, especially as the years go by, and would limit possibilities. I think that kind of dogmatic approach is wrong, but is typical of what one often finds in planning theory.

I also disagree with the maximum height for any building being limited to 21 storeys. Why would we do that? Is 21 storeys all that much different from 27 or 32 storeys? That seems ridiculous. Why would be limit ourselves in such an arbitrary way?

I suspect the thing will go off the rails fairly quickly.
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Old Posted Apr 8, 2008, 1:19 PM
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I also disagree with the maximum height for any building being limited to 21 storeys. Why would we do that? Is 21 storeys all that much different from 27 or 32 storeys? That seems ridiculous. Why would be limit ourselves in such an arbitrary way?
I can agree with this. These arbitrary limits work in certain areas around viewplanes and whatnot but it seems silly to limit building heights at 21 stories no matter where it is.

No one is expecting 100m + towers to be built (let alone approved, ) in Halifax anytime in the near or even distant future, but I don't agree with negating the possibility entirely.
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Old Posted Apr 8, 2008, 4:10 PM
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Yah... 21 stories is relatively short... hardly a "tall building". That's ridiculous.
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Old Posted Apr 8, 2008, 11:48 PM
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I think HRM by Design did a great job, if you consider the impossible situation they were faced with. How do create a framework that can realistically move forward in a city like Halifax, where there are two strongly opposing viewpoints on developments, was an impressive feat. I know it has not been approved yet, by I am quite confident that council will approve it.

I like every aspect of the proposal - the Barrington Street Heritage district, the renovated Cornwallis Park area, the Cogswell redevelopment, the clear description of where height is allowed and to what degree. THe only point I don't like is the 21 story height limit even in the "height friendly" zones. Hopefully this can be something that is negotiated out of the final version. I think a few pockets of downtown (notably Cogswell) should be free to go even taller, as long as the design and qualitative aspects of the proposals are good.
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Old Posted Apr 9, 2008, 2:39 AM
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Height limits should never be an "across the board" approach, especially in a city like Halifax, and especially when the "limit" is shorter than buildings which already exist in the city. Let's face it, is a 32, 36, or even 40 storey building on the Cogswell lands going to be visible from the Citadel courtyard? I would sincerely doubt it. I haven't read the plan personally, but based on the summary replies given here, the rest of it sounds good.
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Old Posted Apr 9, 2008, 3:19 PM
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Funny that the one great place for height and development (Cogswell) under HRM by Design is the one place that isn't developable anytime in the near future.
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Old Posted Apr 9, 2008, 4:24 PM
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Height limits should never be an "across the board" approach, especially in a city like Halifax, and especially when the "limit" is shorter than buildings which already exist in the city. Let's face it, is a 32, 36, or even 40 storey building on the Cogswell lands going to be visible from the Citadel courtyard? I would sincerely doubt it. I haven't read the plan personally, but based on the summary replies given here, the rest of it sounds good.
Yes... a 32 story building would be clearly visible from the Citadel courtyard... but that is not a protected view of "historic" significance.

Personally... I would rather see height downtown than on Cogswell. Not on Barrington Street... and not right up beside the hill (like the Midtown proposal)... but anything below Barrington should be fair game. And there really aren't many historic buildings below Barrington. I can think of Bedford Row and the northern ends of Granville / Hollis... and the Brewery of course... but for the most part there are very few historic buildings below Barrington.
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Old Posted Apr 10, 2008, 3:38 AM
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^Yeah, you're right. I wanted to get an idea so I did some very rough trig calculations based on over-simplified assumptions (all I could go on really), and my result was a limit of 62.5m on Cogswell, or roughly 21 storeys at 3.05m(10ft)/storey, based on the Citadel couryard rule. If you're wondering, I used/interpreted data off a topo map provided here and assumed an eye-level of roughly 3m below the top of the courtyard wall for a person standing at the opposite wall in a straight line (like I said, oversimplified). My raw data is probably also off, but I knew that initially and just wanted to get a rough idea.

Don't quote me on these figures though, like I said, it was horribly over-simplified and based on measurements off a map which is a cardinal sin!
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Old Posted Apr 10, 2008, 4:16 AM
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I've been slowly reading all the documents....I'm about half way through. They are monstrous! But after reading so much, first off I want to point out that there isn't a blanket height limit. I don't know where that idea has come from, but if you open up the second document on the page and look at the maps. There is a lot of variation in height limits. The cogswell lands are somewhat ambiguous in that they have just said that they must abide by the ramparts bylaw. But the rest of downtown is all cut up into different pieces of varying height limits.

Also, after reading the draft plan, one thing i can really appreciate is that there is a true sense of place in this plan. If all these things were realized we would have a very cohesive downtown. We all talk about the citadel, and its looming presence over the downtown, and it makes it feel like it doesn't belong. One thing this plan seems to do very well is relate the rest of the downtown to the citadel. Having one unified area, as oppose to a downtown, and a historic fort. These linkages, if established would do wonders for the identity of downtown Halifax.
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Old Posted Apr 10, 2008, 4:31 AM
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I'm about halfway through them myself J, and it's very much changed my view of the plan. Funny how being informed stops flying off the handle half-cocked... heh... heh. To be honest it was Jono's points in other threads that made me want to read it, he/she seems to hit a lot of topics on the head, and well recipes tire my addled brain.

The plan even simplifies the appeal process, and even puts a limit on time and number of appeals someone (be it heritage, or nimbys) can make. It's doesn't knock the legs out from them, but it does check the pull, they have development wise.

As for towers DT, a broken up and spread out highrise district would probably help with the flow of the city. It would more than likely help stem the "doughnut effect" that's happened(ing) in fair amount of North American cities, and somewhat in ours. Naturally though, most of the highrise developments are going to move North toward the interchange lands because that's where the land is. I'd be down with that, that way you could have a rising affect starting at PPP, and as you go more North, the buildings get taller, and that way you get a great view coming into the harbour, where a luck foad of our visitors are going to enter, and more people get a view of the best damned park in North America, from a lot more points in the city.

Ya I said it, I love Point Pleasant Park more than the Dartmouth commons and Shubie Park combined. (blasphemy!!!)

Last edited by reddog794; Apr 10, 2008 at 4:43 AM.
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Old Posted Apr 10, 2008, 12:28 PM
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I have not read the document, but if there is a blanket height limit, I would have to strongly disagree with that. There should be no height limit in the "height-friendly" zones. Let the market decide. We're gonna stymie the entire city because of the rampart bylaw? I'm ok with the view planes, but the rampart rule goes too far in my view.
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Old Posted Apr 10, 2008, 3:41 PM
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Well the rampart bylaw already exists, in practice restricting buildings to something in the 80-90 m range around the downtown (then other height limits are applied to that). It is not something new to HRM by Design and to be honest I don't think it's worth fighting at this point. It's a "sacred cow", along with the viewplanes.
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Old Posted Apr 11, 2008, 12:50 AM
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Well the rampart bylaw already exists, in practice restricting buildings to something in the 80-90 m range around the downtown (then other height limits are applied to that). It is not something new to HRM by Design and to be honest I don't think it's worth fighting at this point. It's a "sacred cow", along with the viewplanes.
Yah... I guess I had just forgotten about the rampart bylaw. The focus always seems to be more on the view planes. Still... 21 stories... wow. I mean... that's a really short, stubby building by most cities standards. I'm not saying I want Halifax to be full of massive skyscrapers... it's just the seemingly arbitrary nature of it that bother me. I'm ok with the view planes... but I think where height is allowed... the market should decide the height. But you're right... that's a battle that cannot be won.
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Old Posted Apr 11, 2008, 12:55 AM
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As far as Cogswell goes, though I've only read through most of Volume 1, they described the area as a future highrise district (20 or more storeys). If 20 or more storeys meant 21 and no taller, that would be absolutely ridiculous, so I have a feeling they're expecting taller than 21 on the Cogswell lands when they come up for development.

It's a crapload of material to read through.
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Old Posted Apr 11, 2008, 8:35 PM
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I've read through it all and my feeling now is one of overwhelming disappointment.

I could write a treatise on all the things in it that disappoint, but my overriding thought is that it reads like a planning school exercise. It takes pains to include every feel-good item that seems to be a mandatory part of planning theory, but which in practice makes little sense.

The document basically shunts the issue of tall buildings aside by prohibiting them almost everywhere downtown. The only area that can reach the 65M limit are 2 or 3 parcels that will be created once the Cogswell interchange is demolished. They draw the restoration of the traditional street network in that area, which, as I expected, leaves precious little room for anything much to be built. But then, the whole thing seems mired in the past.

It talks at length of the need to make downtown "pedestrian-friendly". It ignores the fact that the vast majority of downtown already is, at least as much as an area built on the side of a steep hill is likely to get. The only spot that is not is the interchange. Yet they go on about the need for "sidewalk bumpouts" at corners -- something you can see on Portland St in downtown Dartmouth, where they are a hazard to traffic and look just plain stupid -- along with the need to surface crosswalks in a different material. They show in their drawings those as being brick inlays like those that were put in back in the early 80s and were ripped out a decade or so later after being torn up by snowplows and being branded as "ankle-benders" in the press. They conveniently ignore the fact that the narrow streets with buildings built out to the sidewalk leave precious little room for wide sidewalks and bike lanes.

They condemn the automobile, as apparently all planners are trained to do, and forbid virtually any parking in most of the new developments they specify. While nobody wants vast parking lots covering the downtown, their disdain for virtually any parking raises serious questions as to the viability of many of their concepts. But a great many of their proposals are questionable; they call for a 4 or 5 storey condo or apartment development to be built on the Superstore parking lot while retaining the Superstore building behind it. How the hell Loblaws would allow that is not addressed. Similarly they discuss at length the need for bicycling provisions, even to the point of mandating bicycle parking at new developments. I will continue to maintain that bicycling will never be a significant form of commuter transport in a city like this given the hills and foul weather we cope with much of the year. But there it is, straight out of the planners handbook.

Despite the cries of the likes of Phil Pacey, the document reads like it kowtows to the heritage groups. It condemns downtown to a future of low-rise brick buildings for the most part. The design manual is particularly discouraging. It specifies finishes of mostly brick, and decrys attempts to make existing old buildings look like something other than 19th century relics. The disgust in the words of the authors as they describe the building housing Freak Lunchbox must be read to be believed. While it does say that faux-Victorian structures should be discouraged, the narrow parameters they define leave everything pretty much in that genre, perhaps without the ornamentation. Lovely. While leaving many broad questions unanswered, they nevertheless found the time to go into excrutiating detail about things like paint colors and finishes in other sections. Bizarre.

They have also wrapped up Barrington St pretty much as built. Everything from Duke St to SGR is considered historic and therefore untouchable. Good luck with that. They want it to basically be a museum.

As we digest what these documents tell us, one can only be disappointed that the vision of the authors was filtered through such narrow lenses. Despite the "10 Big Moves" they talk about, there really isn't much here to get excited about, and a whole lot to be disdainful of and discouraged by. They really aren't big moves at all. They are a prettifying exercise of what we currently have to work with and not much else. If everything they describe came to reality, we would have a nicer downtown. But would it be memorable or exciting or vibrant? I seriously doubt it. Sadly, though, with the effort, expense, and hype around this exercise, it seems certain that HRM will make it law. And that, in turn, will prevent anything truly big, either in size or in concept, from happening in the downtown for a very, very long time.
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