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Death of a vision 

Thousands of regular people believed in HRM By Design, but for bureaucrats, politicians and developers, it was all a sham.

Competing visions of downtown came clashing up against each other last month when United Gulf Developments dropped a development application at city offices for a parcel of land at the corner of Sackville and Hollis Streets.

United Gulf, which couldn't get financing for its two 27-storey "Twisted Sisters" project on the same site, has decided that a much larger project with two 48-storey towers is somehow viable. The development industry has its own financial logic, I guess.

"The design celebrates Halifax's status as the centre of Atlantic Canada, while beckoning the world with our progressive ideals for the future," boasts United Gulf's website, and this younger, better-looking Sisters project, promising the tallest erections in the city, immediately appealed to the masturbatory fantasies of the type of people who have visions of Halifax as Skyscraper City, with a skyline interchangeable with that of New York or Calgary or Sao Paulo.

But whatever you think of Younger, Better-Looking Sisters, there's no doubt that the proposal conflicts with another vision of the city, the one laid out in HRM By Design.

Let me back up a bit. The entire point of HRM By Design was to take the politics out of the development process. Some parameters in terms of height, design and setbacks were written into the planning code, and in return, any project that fell within those parameters would be fast-tracked for approval. There wouldn't be a lengthy public hearing process, and council's ultimate approval was to be pro forma, not really up for debate. Many thousands of people came out to the visioning meetings to determine the parameters, and there was broad, if not total, agreement on the final terms. Everyone patted themselves on the back, and the final plan won a bunch of awards. Yay, us!

In theory, HRM By Design was a good idea. But practice is something else. First, the finalized HRM By Design documents grandfathered in four projects ---the original Twisted Sisters project, the Roy Building, the Discovery Centre and City Centre Atlantic---and an absurd last-minute loophole allowed the convention centre. The Roy and Discovery projects, which have since been approved, tear the essence out of the heart of the HRM By Design compromise ---the Barrington Street Historic District.

And the convention centre demonstrates the fatal flaw of HRM By Design: Despite promises to the contrary, politics aren't removed from the planning process. Any developer with enough connections can get any project approved, no matter how dog-awful the design.

There has always been a way around HRM By Design, which is for developers to simply take a project directly to council and through the public hearing process, just like before HRM By Design existed. This is what United Gulf is now doing with Younger, Better-Looking Sisters, and if council approves it, there's no reason not to expect every other future developer to go this route.

As for projects fitting under HRM By Design, we've had three---the Sam the Record Man rebuild now under construction, a TD Bank retrofit and the new Chickenburger on Queen Street.

So, we have three relatively minor projects that fit under HRM By Design, but five that don't. And four of the five majorly conflict with HRM By Design ---orders of magnitude conflicting: humongous buildings that completely obliterate the vision of HRM By Design. Besides that, if most projects moving forward don't even attempt to meet the terms of HRM By Design, what was the point of it?

In retrospect, we now see that HRM By Design was a sham. No one had any intention of abiding by it. City staff wrote huge loopholes into the plan, developers don't give two shits about it and prepare applications contrary to HRM By Design, and city council approves all the contrary applications and grandfather clauses that appear before it. HRM By Design is dead. The awards will look good on someone's wall, but will have no reflection on the streets of Halifax.

Oh, and those thousands of people who spent many hours contributing to the visioning processes, who wrote earnest emails, who believed that Halifax could set a new direction for development? Suckers.

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