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Critical mass 

HRM by Design gives the city 10 ways to improve the downtown, but is the city listening?

On stage, inside Pier 21, Harold Madi takes his turn playing god.

"I'll do that again, watch the screen over here...annnd, pop!"

With one divine keystroke, buildings appear. Roads are re-routed. Skyscrapers rise from the footprint of the Cogswell interchange and the Halifax skyline is transformed.

If only it were that easy. Tonight, it's just a 3D model, and Halifax 2.0 only exists in the realm of PowerPoint. Madi and the rest of the team behind HRM by Design presented their vision for the downtown on Monday, to a packed house. More than 500 people attended Monday's public forum.

"Looks like we're reaching a standing-room only situation," noted city project manager Andy Fillmore, before launching into his presentation. "I'd ask the crowd to densify, if possible."

Essentially, it's the same thing Fillmore and the design team are asking of downtown Halifax. The push to revitalize downtown has been branded as "re-urbanization"—the "re" being an acknowledgement of just how many people have left the peninsula in recent years. Urban density—which downtown Halifax is in danger of losing—contributes to everything from public safety, to arts and culture, to the city's carbon footprint, and is something the city should strive to get back.

Currently, there are 1,500 people per square kilometre living on the peninsula, which is too low for a city of Halifax's size, according to the design team. The fight to keep downtown vital and growing—especially in the face of examples like the Chebucto Road Widening project—is a concern. At the very least, the downtown region is in danger of stagnating. Numbers are disputed but according to census data, Halifax's downtown experienced a 1.1 percent population growth between 2001 and 2006. Contrast that to Clayton Park West, with 34.4 percent growth.

A large portion of this week has been devoted to explaining the "10 big moves," relatively specific recommendations for the downtown area. Many are focused on the public realm—streetscape improvements for pedestrians, and recommending more capital investment in public spaces.

The examples presented on Monday were theoretical—visual scenarios designed to engage the audience. This week's presentations achieved a level of detail not seen before during HRM by Design forums.

For example, Jennifer Keeysmaat, lead consultant with the design team, took a moment on Monday to explain the concept of a Sackville Street promenade, framed by Market and Grafton.

"Here, we have a tremendous opportunity," says Keeysmaat, speaking in front of a colourful artist's rendition of the re-imagined space. "When these sites are developed, you can take over some of the building footprint space to create a strong and beautiful space that works with the cultural arts and entertainment district."

Other specific areas of the downtown landscape have also been identified as opportunities for change. Over the course of this week, the design team has presented the concepts of a new Halifax ferry terminal, stronger links between Historic Properties and the Granville Mall, an enhanced version of Cornwallis Park on the south end of Barrington, a cultural and entertainment centre on the waterfront—the list goes on.

Perhaps most notably, the project imagines a Halifax that relies on the destruction and rededication of the area around the Cogswell Interchange, turning the current system of concrete spaghetti into a destination for downtown skyscrapers. It's just one option, but such an arrangement, the team argues, would satisfy the viewplane by-law and provide much-needed new office space for the downtown core.

", we're looking at three stages...the removal of ramps and grade separations, a reconfigured street pattern...and finally putting in place the means for great signature landmark buildings," explains Keeysmaat.

"Hopefully," adds Madi, "this might be the kind of thing that helps inspire the city to get going on the destruction."

It's a sweeping vision—and there are certainly skeptics. According to Fillmore, one of the primary objectives of the HRM by Design forum has been to translate these ambitions into reality. Ultimately, it requires a overhaul on the way the city approaches downtown development projects, giving developers and councillors a predictable level of quality, without stifling creative design.

"As a result of HRM by Design, the team is introducing the concept of form-based codes," explains Fillmore—basically, a set of rules to dictate height, how far a building can be set back from the street, how it fits into the surrounding neighbourhood, etc.—"It's more concrete, very diagrammatic, and more reliable."

As another benefit, the hope is that form- based codes will put and end to drawn-out development disputes—like the ongoing Twisted Sisters saga—once the city has a template to guide downtown design.

Although many of the downtown proposals were met with public approval (there was an audible "cool!" from the crowd at a sketch of a reconfigured Cogswell Park), not everyone is satisfied. Heritage Trust president Phil Pacey sent out an email on Friday in protest.

"Toronto-based consultants are seeking preliminary public approval of between 11 and 19 high-rise buildings in the area between South Street and the Cogswell Street interchange and between South Park Street and the harbour," it reads.

"All options have problems. All options have high buildings that would not be allowed under the present Municipal Planning Strategy (MPS) policies."

Which brings it back to the folks who will be ultimately responsible for the implementation of HRM by Design: councillors. At Monday's public forum, councillors present were publicly acknowledged—Dawn Sloane, Jim Smith, Sue Uteck, Sheila Fougere, Bob Harvey and Debbie Hum were all on hand (it's not an official list—some councillors may have slipped in late, while others simply sent their regrets for missing the session). Mayor Kelly, who was invited to the session, was also a no-show.

There have been encouraging signs from council. In February this year, council doubled HRM by Design's budget, from $200,000 to $400,000. HRM by Design will present a final report in spring 2008.

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