Mayor Peter Kelly was in Melbourne for the Commonwealth Games last March, part of a large fact-finding team from Halifax. Yet, important as the Games will be to the city if our bid for the 2014 edition is successful, Kelly also had urgent business to attend to back home. He cut his Australia trip short in order to be at the council meeting that decided on the controversial “Twisted Towers” development. However, such effort might have been in vain. Not only did council approve the 27-storey towers for downtown—despite Kelly’s vote against—but the city’s process for deciding was arguably flawed. A Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge is deciding now if the city has to start from scratch.
Justice Suzanne Hood heard the case last Thursday, December 7, and Friday in the courts building beside Historic Properties. The Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia and Howard Epstein charged the city with a handful of problems related to the development approval process. Ron Pink represented Epstein and Heritage Trust; on the other side, Karen Brown represented the city and Robert Grant spoke for United Gulf Developments Ltd. Although I’m not necessarily opposed to the towers, I appreciate this case, which deals with the perception council’s in thrall to developers.
The two days in court focused a lot of attention on a wind study done to gauge the towers’ effect on wind patterns, and the allegation that people didn’t have proper access to the study before the public hearings about the towers. The elephant in the room is that councillors probably make up their minds long before the public gets a chance to speak, but to their credit Brown and Grant didn’t mention it.
As soon as the hearing ended on Friday, I walked the few blocks to the corner of Hollis and Sackville Streets to look at the United Gulf site. It’s an average vacant lot surrounded by a chain-link fence, with no indication of the land’s soaring architectural ambitions. While I was standing there, Pink happened to walk by on his way from court. His office is in the Bank of Canada building, facing the site on Hollis. Without much prodding, Pink started talking about the wind study.
He turned toward Sackville Street and gestured up the hill. The sidewalk along the United Gulf property is currently wide and open, but dealing with the wind caused by the towers will change that. In Pink’s reading, the study calls for a canopy coming down from the building over the sidewalk, plus a windscreen that stands on the sidewalk. This is what the public didn’t know, he says, as I picture the wind blockers taking away the view up the street. The tone of his voice says “Can you believe the city wouldn’t mention it?”
When Pink continued on his way to his office, I mulled over the wind-study arguments. Halifax lawyer Brown’s line is that anyone who asked for the study received a copy, thus it was publicly available. Pink contends that making people ask for information is an impediment—in a truly open process the study would have been free for the taking. The fine difference between asking and taking is one of the things justice Hood has to decide, assuming Brown is right. But what if getting the study is harder than calling up to ask?
I decided to find out, right there on the corner Friday morning. Within a couple calls I was talking to city planner Paul Sampson, whose name came up often during the two days of hearings. He said I could have a copy of the wind study, and that he would call the developer to get it for me. I thanked him. A little while later he called back to say United Gulf had no extra copies, and since he can generate a copy as fast as them, mine would be coming from his office after all. However, with the weekend coming and Sampson having a holiday scheduled for Monday, it wouldn’t be until Tuesday. I thanked him again.
Now it’s Wednesday afternoon, five days after I asked for the study. I still don’t have it. Regardless of what it says, the delay is enough to plant a seed of doubt. I’m getting a nagging feeling the city has something to hide.
Send me your nagging feelings about the Twisted Towers: email@example.com
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