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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

This week at city council: Death by a thousand cuts

How Halifax council makes lots of tiny rational decisions that add up to one whopper of bad policy-making.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 31, 2013 at 5:07 PM

Compared to most of this year's meetings, yesterday's Halifax council meeting tackled some substantive issues. The meeting was a great example of our elected reps and the actual power-wielders among city staff—what the philosopher John Ralston Saul would refer to as the "managerial class"—making a series of completely rational decisions, each and every one of them defendable, if debatable, but which add up to a collective policy failure of the first order.

Ralston Saul used as one of his many examples Robert McNamara, the former president of Ford Motor Company, who was made US Defense Secretary in order to "rationalize" US military operations. McNamara was the architect of the Vietnam War who deemed the war necessary in the first place to prevent the domino-like fall of Southeast Asian countries to the Soviet Union. As the war proceeded badly for the US, McNamara argued for repeated increases in troop numbers and for broadening the war. Each of those steps was completely rational when viewed within the limited scope of the decision-maker, but in total they led to a disastrous loss for the US, the death of three million people, including 58,000 US soldiers, widespread political dissent at home and the accurate understanding of the US as a terrorist nation, leading other nations to drift into the Soviet orbit for protection.

Bringing Timberlea sewage to downtown Halifax

Back here in Halifax, a basic problem has arisen because as part of the 2006 regional plan, council approved "future growth areas" in the Timberlea area that, when developed, will far exceed the capacity of the sewage plant in Timberlea.

Specifically, the Beechville Lakeside Timberlea Wastewater Treatment Facility is now at near-capacity of 4,545 m3/day. But now working its way through the bureaucratic approval process is the “Brunello Estates” development, which will ultimately include a golf course, some commercial building and 3,200 residential units. When it is fully built, Brunello will produce 3,600 m3/day of sewage on its own.

This is how we do development in HRM: We approve "growth areas" without regard to the infrastructure capacity of that growth, and then freak out and spend a bunch of money to deal with the reality of inadequate infrastructure when the development materializes.

"In 2007," notes the staff report to council, "HRM communicated to the developer that '...HRM commits to Nine Mile River Investments Limited (now Brunello Estates) that it will have access when required, in accordance with our usual practices to provide municipal sewage treatment.'”

In other words: the developer won't have to pay a penny to solve this problem.

So, what to do with all that sewage? One option would be to expand the Timberlea sewage plant, but that would cost an unimaginable amount of money—at least, city staff wouldn't say how much it would cost, exactly, excepting that it would be so expensive that we can't even contemplate how expensive it would be. Moreover, I'm told that discharges from the Timberlea plant already account for half the flow of Nine Mile River, so it may not even be possible to expand capacity of the plant, at any cost.

Instead, city and Halifax Water staff have decided the best solution is to ship the Brunello sewage to the peninsula, to be treated at the downtown sewage plant. There are, says the staff report, a couple of ways to get Halifax sewage downtown. One way would be to tie into the pumping station in Fairview, which was built to deal with the sewage in Bayers Lake Industrial Park. This would require "a major reconstruction of the Bayers Lake Pumping Station, replacement of the Bayers Lake forcemain system (approximately 1.3 km), and the replacement of a significant portion (approximately 1.8 km) of the Northwest Interceptor Sewer located on Rosedale Avenue, Willet Street, Main Street, Berts Drive, Evans Avenue, Dawn Street and Titus Avenue." In short, tearing up nearly the entirety of Fairview.

The second route would be to install a simple gravity-fed pipe under the length of the Chain of Lakes Trail, connecting the Lakeside pumping station another giant pipe called the Bedford Highway Interceptor Sewer, a portion of which sits under Joseph Howe Drive. From there the sewage would go to an existing tunnel that reaches from near the Fairfax terminal all the way to the Duffus Street pumping station on The Narrows, where it will be pumped back up to the surface and then into a "Big Pipe" that travels under Barrington Street all the way the sewage treatment plant near the Cogswell Interchange. Here's a map of the Chain of Lakes Trail component discussed by council:

screen_shot_2013-07-31_at_2.53.21_pm.png

Interestingly, or perhaps tellingly, the staff report does not give a total cost for either routing, merely noting that "[a]ssuming a 20 year time horizon, the net present value of the gravity system along the Chain of Lakes Trail is predicted to cost approximately $9M less than providing capacity via the route through Fairview."

It took prodding by councillor Jennifer Watts before a staffer finally gave a vague total cost amount: "$20 to $25 million." The staffer didn't say how a total cost figure can have a range of $5 million, a 20 percent margin of error, and yet the comparison cost is $9 million—not $4 to $9 million, but $9 million— but we'll leave that aside for the moment.

Note that at each decision point in the process, council has made the "rational" decision. The regional plan included growth areas in Timberlea because we need to plan for growth, and the total growth targets for all of HRM include 50 percent of it going to suburban development. Brunello Estates must be approved for development because the area is included in the growth area. Sewage service must be provided to Brunello Estates because, looking at the previous council approval of growth areas, a staffer promised that it would. Given all the options of handling that sewage, the most "rational" in terms of cost is to tear up 7.25 kilometres of a recreation trail and put a pipe under it, connecting to the Halifax system.

All very rational, and yet all very wrong.

At this point, let's just look at the immediate issue of sewage. (We'll discuss still larger issues momentarily.) On its face, it's absurd to send sewage from the far-flung suburbs of Timberlea to downtown Halifax. It's doubly absurd when we consider that it's council policy, as outlined in the very same regional plan that allows the Timberlea development, to increase density on the peninsula. That means lots of residential houses and lots of office buildings, all producing lots of sewage.

Where's that sewage going to go? Well, explained staff, we're going to build a pumping station near the Armdale Roundabout, which will take peninsula sewage and ship it to the Herring Cove sewage plant.

This is nuts. We're playing whack-a-mole with sewage. And it costs a whole lot of money. Staff wouldn't even guess at the cost of the Armdale pumping station, but it's certainly in the tens of millions of dollars. The costs of the Chain of Lakes Trail pipe and the Armdale pumping station—let's call it $35 million, as a minimum guess—will be borne entirely by rate payers. That is: all of us. None of that $35 million was factored into any capital cost contribution arrangement—the developer of Brunello Estates will pay nothing for this Rube Goldberg sewage conveyance contrivance—and the costs were not included in any analysis of creating the growth areas in the regional plan in the first place.

Some people have said there are better ways than the "Big Pipe" approach to sewage—where all the sewage is sent to a Big Pipe that goes to a sewage plant. Instead, there are innovative approaches to handling sewage on site, with treatment and disposal via septic fields. Maybe. But we're not doing that, for whatever reason. Instead, we're all paying higher water bills to accommodate the construction of 3,200 homes and a golf course in Timberlea.

Let's very quickly review three other issues council dealt with, in order to show how they tie together.

Spirit House

The evening portion of the council meeting consisted of a public hearing on the proposed Spirit House development at the corner of Windsor and Willow Streets. This was put forward by St. John's United Church, which like most churches finds itself with a too-large building for a dwindling congregation. The church's solution was to build a seven-storey residential building on the site, as low-income housing for seniors, which besides addressing fiscal issues of the church would also go some way in terms of its social mission.

Long story short, council heard the public input, then voted to deny the changes in planning and building codes that would be necessary for the development to proceed.

This was a classic land use conflict repeated in every city in the world: new developments are deemed too large, producing too much traffic, blocking too much sun, creating too much wind, by neighbours who feel they bought their properties with a certain expectation as spelled out in existing planning codes. On the other hand, well, density. And low-income housing, which is arguably the single most important issue facing the urban area.

All of these cases will be judgment calls. Again, council proceeded in a logical, even reasonable, fashion. And yet....

Bonus density for...parking

Another council decision involved the "Mary Ann" development across from the new library. As that development was making its way through the planning process, the developers were given the "bonus density" called for by HRM By Design—the building could be somewhat higher than allowed for under HRM By Design's height limits, if in return the development included low-income housing.

Problem is, the low-income housing side of that deal can't be met due to problems related to provincial policy too complex to relay here. But having made the promise of bonus density, the city felt obligated to meet its end of the deal. So, the bonus is now being given in the name of additional parking provided by the developer—not for residents of the project, but on-site hourly parking provided to people driving to nearby destinations like the new library.

It is, of course, a completely rational decision: a promise was made, a promise must be kept.

And sure, we're supposedly building a more transit-oriented city, but we'll need to build more parking spaces, especially with the....

Bayers Road widening to take another house?

Also on the agenda yesterday was an unsolicited offer from a homeowner on Bayers Road, who wants the city to buy the house. As background, the city has already made two other "opportunity purchases" along the road, preparing for the widening of Bayers Road, part of the billion-dollar 102 highway expansion project.

Council ran out of time to deal with the proposal yesterday, punting it to next week's meeting. But if past council decisions are any indication, the suburban councillors will out-vote the peninsula councillors and approve the purchase, as they have approved all the planning related to the widening.

Once again, it's a logical, rational decision-making tree. Once the Bayers Road widening is in the regional plan, it is consistent to vote for every step along the way, just as once you've committed to the Vietnam War, it only makes sense to send more troops.

It's death by a thousand cuts. None of council's actions yesterday, by themselves, are terribly destructive.

Collectively, however, the decisions amount to Business As Usual: continued car-dependent sprawl in the suburbs, pulling the leg out of some urban developments completely, while approving others so long as they, too, are car dependent, serving the feedback loop of the Bayers Road/102 widening project.

Here's the thing. If we're not going to stand up and say no, we may as well give up on our supposed commitment to the dense urban core and effective transit. And "saying no" isn't making nice pretty plans and giving pretty speeches. "Saying no" means, well, saying no, to concrete proposals. It means reversing course, taking the commitment away from suburban sprawl and re-focusing it on urban, transit-friendly development.

Reversing course means past plans, past approvals, must be reversed, not accommodated until the next pretty plan come along, which likewise must be accommodated.

Reversing course means leaving a ridiculously overpriced underpass, part of the old system of suburban sprawl, half-finished, a monument to the stupidity of the past. Reversing course means buying out a developer who had been unwisely promised sewer service at any cost. Reversing course means abandoning planning for an ill-advised, 1970s-style highway system and joining the international movement for tearing down highways and doubling down on transit. Reversing course means acknowledging that increasing urban density necessarily means impacting existing residents in ways they may not like. Reversing course means stop sending more troops to an unwinnable war.

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