Bridging heritage, development gap
Project's leader confident plan can satisfy both sides - but process won't be painless
The Daily News
Nobody ever said settling the decades-old conflict between developers and heritage enthusiasts in downtown Halifax was going to be easy.
Tonight, HRM by Design will unveil its blueprint, detailing - among other suggestions - proposed height limitations for every site from Cogswell to Inglis Street and South Park Street to the waterfront. It should come as no surprise that in the weeks leading up to the public meeting, both sides have registered their discontent.
Fearing the onslaught of high-rises in the downtown core, groups such as the Nova Scotia Heritage Trust and the Old South End Neighbourhood Watch hosted a meeting of their own to highlight the importance of "human-scale development."
Meanwhile, Stephen Lund, the president and CEO of Nova Scotia Business Inc., spoke out against what he perceived to be severe height limitations in prime locations, which could discourage developers from building the Class A office space the city so desperately needs.
According to Andy Fillmore, HRM by Design's project manager - and informal peacemaker - a good compromise can't be painless.
"This project is about creating change, and if we don't feel a little bit of pain, then we're not changing," he said.
Of utmost importance, Fillmore says, is the realization that setting definitive height guidelines will mean a new era of development in downtown Halifax.
"The message that we heard loud and clear from developers ... is restrict our heights, protect the heritage, but just tell us what the rules of the game are in a way that we can understand them. And I think that's exactly what we've done," Fillmore said.
When the public gets its first glimpse of the proposed height framework, it will see why the team has had to tread lightly. No fewer than 12 viewplanes from Citadel Hill to the harbour generally limit heights to about 95 feet, or nine commercial storeys, on many downtown plots. In addition, HRM by Design is endorsing the Barrington Street Heritage Conservation District, which demands a buffer zone with lower heights.
What remains are existing tall buildings, lots that fall outside of the viewplanes and near existing tall buildings, and the Cogswell Interchange, where building height would be limited only by the Citadel ramparts bylaw, capping development at about 20 storeys.
Fillmore said the refined plan primarily reflects the third development scenario presented in September, which called for maximum density where possible, and got the most public praise. The team divided downtown into four areas, based on existing character, and determined it could accommodate about 14 million square feet of development, which is significantly more than the 13 million it had initially estimated.
Although HRM by Design has yet to formally subject the facts and figures to public scrutiny, those with their ears to the ground have already voiced concerns the team will most likely have to contend with.
Ross Cantwell, a real-estate consultant for Colliers International, said it's unlikely a developer would be able to assemble the tenants to construct a large office tower on any single lot.
"When they set these spaces aside and say, 'Yep, that's all we need to accommodate our office demands,' I don't buy it," he said.
Phil Pacey, president of the Nova Scotia Heritage Trust, took particular aim at the sites earmarked for height.
"There are buildings proposed in this scenario which would block views of Halifax Harbour from Citadel Hill," he said.
Lund, who has been briefed on the plan in response to his recent criticism, says the jury is still out.
"At the end of the day, we need to have a strong, vibrant downtown, and I'm not convinced that the current plan in place will allow us to do that. But it's not a done deal, so we'll see what happens," he said.
Despite their trepidation, Fillmore said he hopes to convey the message the plan is "a win for everybody."
"It's a win for heritage, it's a win for those who would have more development downtown. It's a win for those who would live downtown, work downtown," he said.
Besides, the issue of height restriction is just one piece of HRM by Design's plan for a vibrant, livable, walkable downtown, he said.
Tonight's public meeting will be held at the World Trade and Convention Centre, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
HRM BY DESIGN
l Feb. 12, 2008: HRM by Design team will present the raw data from the downtown forum and tonight's public meeting, including the preferred development scenario and the 10 Big Moves, to council for incremental approval.
- April 15, 2008: The team's final report will be presented to council for approval, including a set of policies that support the recommendations. Before all the recommendations can become policy, the team will also have to propose several changes to the Municipal Government Act.
- Fall 2008: The new planning regime will be in place.
- Rachel Mendleson
l HRM by Design is the regional centre urban design study mandated by the Regional Plan. Since last summer, the team has been conducting extensive public consultation to determine how to cure the development and urban-sprawl woes ailing the regional centre, meaning the peninsula and Dartmouth within the Circumferential Highway.
- The HRM by Design team is headed in part by project manager Andy Fillmore, and consultants from the Toronto-based Office for Urbanism. There is also a steering and volunteer committee, known as the Urban Design Task Force, which is made up of local architects, councillors, planners, professors and residents.
- In early September, about 600 people attended HRM by Design's downtown forum, and weighed in on three development scenarios and 10 Big Moves for downtown Halifax. According to Fillmore, public opinion heavily favoured the third scenario, which called for maximum densities where possible.
- Following the forum, five members of the Urban Design Task Force formed the Downtown Working Group to convert the substantial amount of feedback into suggestions to improve the preferred development scenario.
10 BIG MOVES FOR DOWNTOWN HALIFAX - REVISED
HRM by Design project manager Andy Fillmore says the debate surrounding height restrictions is only one aspect of a much larger vision. Since the downtown forum, the team has been working to revise its 10 Big Moves, which Fillmore says, encapsulate the "quest for good urbanism" - what the project is essentially about.
l 1. 5,000 new downtown residents and three million square feet of office space in the next 15 years: This target is up from the one million square feet of office space in the next 10 years proposed in September.
- 2. A protected and vibrant historic heart: After toying with the idea of designatIng what it calls Area 2, which stretches from George Street to Spring Garden Road, a blanket heritage district, the team has decided to go back to seven heritage districts with varying requirements.
- 3. Integrating the Cogswell and Cornwallis Park gateways.
- 4. Defined and distinct downtown precincts: Following the downtown forum, the team considered abandoning the concept of precincts, but decided they played an important role in defining the character of given areas.
- 5. A variety of new, improved open space anchors and connections.
- 6. Great streets that support a culture of walking.
- 7. Remediating the quality of existing buildings and structures.
- 8. Reinforcing visual connectivity and civic pride: On the recommendation of the downtown working group, the team decided to lower the heights of proposed waterfront buildings to enhance connectivity to the harbour.
- 9. New developments designed to be well-mannered and pedestrian-friendly.
- 10. A repaired and enhanced downtown skyline: The skyline of the city will now be determined by the maximum heights framework, to be presented at tonight's meeting.
- Rachel Mendleson