Council wants Cogswell engagement, but only on its own terms

Redevelopment plans for the hated interchange are moving forward, despite concerns that HRM is prioritizing vehicles over people—again.

This unsightly land is being redeveloped to the tune of $64 million. - SAM KEAN
This unsightly land is being redeveloped to the tune of $64 million.

Public engagement's great, but leave the big decisions to us. That seems to be the lesson from planning staff as the city moves forward with a once-in-a-lifetime redevelopment project.

Halifax council voted Tuesday to proceed onto the next major steps in redeveloping the Cogswell Interchange, with an added amendment for some robust public engagement before the project gets its final approval.

“To be crystal clear, we need significant Central Library-level engagement here,” said deputy mayor Waye Mason after putting forward the amendment.

Council was less interested, however, in the public engagement already submitted by a consortium of 23 community groups, ranging from development firms to business districts and transit advocates. The collective had submitted a letter to HRM asking for more consultation and more flexibility in the road network design set to replace the hated interchange.

“When you have a road network already there, you really limit what you can do in terms of place-making,” Our HRM Alliance planner Jenny Lugar told reporters Tuesday. “In this scenario, pedestrians and active transportation and transit are still going to come last.”

The 60-percent design plan, as it currently stands, will see the failed downtown highway replaced with a completely redrawn street network, two multi-lane roundabouts, bike lanes, green spaces and 12 development parcels.

But Lugar says the new road network is still too focused on heavy trucks and commuter traffic. That’s anathema to the recently approved Integrated Mobility Plan, which mandates HRM put pedestrian-led design first.

Mayor Mike Savage told those critics he understands their concerns, but perfect is the enemy of better.

“There is no perfect,” said Savage. “There are degrees of better and there’re lots of people who think they know everything and they have all the answers.”

The despised interchange is a relic of urban renewal plans for a downtown expressway that never came to pass. Its existence has choked off the north end from the downtown for decades. Blowing the damn thing up and starting fresh has been the dream of urban planners practically since the day it went up.

That doesn't mean HRM should just accept the same kind of neighbourhood planning seen everywhere else in the city, says Lugar.

“You can be visionary and you can be like, ‘OK what do we want here and how are we going to accommodate that?’” she says. “If you don't open that discussion, you're really not changing anything. You're just sticking with the status quo.”

Project manager Donna Davis told council HRM is open to the idea of more public feedback as plans are finalized, but drew a line in the sand against opening up discussions on the road network.

“It is the fundamental underpinning of the entire project and it facilitated us being able to get to this point and complete the design,” Davis told council. “If we start to question basically the fundamental street network, we are looking at a major overhaul and a major redesign.”

Some councillors disagreed, arguing it was worth listening to the nearly two-dozen expert consultants who were volunteering their input.

“When you look at the 23 organizations that have signed this letter, on that list are people that we rely on for advice on a regular basis. In some cases, we pay these people top dollar for that advice,” said Middle/Upper Sackville–Beaver Bank–Lucasville councillor Lisa Blackburn. “So why would we not take their advice now? Just because we didn’t ask for it? I think they really have to be listened to and anything else would be incredibly arrogant on our part.”

Current timelines say construction on the interchange will begin in spring of next year with a tentative completion date of 2022—give or take a few months.

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