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Dexel develops front porch blues 

One of Halifax's most distinctive, yet dilapidated, buildings at Hollis and Morris, may soon face the wrecking ball.

The 19th century apartment building with the distinctive wraparound veranda on the corner of Hollis at Morris Streets may be headed for demolition.

Dexel Developments Ltd, owner of the site, has a proposal with the city to redevelop the property, including two adjacent buildings of similar design.

The proposal calls for a single 10-storey complex with 83 dwelling units, underground parking and ground floor retail.

Presently, the building's High Victorian Italianate architecture is obscured by flaking paint along railings and deteriorating wood shingles, while the Mansard (bell-shaped) roofing on the Hollis side houses is weather-worn.

Louis Lawen of Dexel insists it is just not possible to restore the current site. "We started in the renovation business," says Lawen. "Typically people who do new buildings have no clue about renovation, but the building for 50 years basically has had no capital investment."

Dawn Sloane, the district's councillor, says she told Lawen when they first met in 2001 that she hoped he would save the building. "I think it's a wonderful and unique piece of architecture in our city," says Sloane, while acknowledging that "it's in complete disrepair."

Preservation, though, is only one side of the equation. HRM planner Luc Ouelett explains that the current buildings are not registered heritage properties, and the proposed building does not protrude through the required view plane to the harbour from Citadel Hill.

Local business owner Victor Syperek, who once lived in the building, praises the W Suites on the former YWCA Barrington site, another recent Dexel development. But asked about the Hollis/Morris proposal, Syperek admits "I don't know why people can't go out and build something amazing."

Syperek has concerns not only with the proposed development, which he wishes was "more likeable," but with a flaw in the system that allows mediocrity to replace the "architectural gems" of the past.

"I wish the city had the guts to lay down a law, then if you build that's what you follow. That's the problem. People buy land figuring they can bully City Hall by promising taxes and a few concessions here and there."

Sloane agrees that the bar has to be set higher and stresses that's what HRM by Design is all about: "Making sure good design is adopted as a standard, especially downtown because that is our flagship."

HRM by Design---the much-discussed regional urban design plan awaiting provincial amendments that the Province recently deferred until its fall sitting---focuses not only on environmental aspects of the buildings and on pedestrians and street vitality, but on buildings' aesthetics as well. "Unfortunately in the past, standards have slipped so badly that even second-rate stuff was called high-end development," Sloane adds.

According to Lawen, the Hollis/Morris proposal is designed to fit into the existing character of the area without imitating the past. He says an earlier plan included a Mansard-style roof which didn't seem congruent with the type and form of buildings called for by HRM by Design: " doesn't do justice to these older buildings were built at a certain time with certain materials at a certain scale."

The proposed development, says Lawen, includes the use of geothermal energy and a control system programmed to regulate lighting, ventilation and heating to minimize energy use. He admits Dexel has not applied for Leader in Energy and Environmental Design (or LEED) certification in the past, but says he will be looking into the requirements.

"Lots of people mention different things in the buildings they're proposing, we're actually doing them."

When it comes to the question of mediocrity, Lawen refers to his track record: "Our history will easily point to the fact that all our developments have been well accepted into communities."

The question is what is considered acceptable for the future of the city. Is "amazing" too high of a standard to which to aspire?

According to Syperek there's one final conclusion to all buildings in Halifax: "Could be worse."

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