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HRM By Design goes to Halifax council for approval 

Urban dreams: Downtown planning initiative hopes to capture the positive vision of a modern city, but real estate consultant Mike Turner says don’t expect much in the way of new development

"Halifax was unique, before we got into this, in not having an urban design plan---urban design has been emerging as a serious discipline in the last 20 or so years," says Andy Filmore, manager of the $405,000 HRM By Design planning initiative.

This Tuesday, June 2, culminating three years of highly charged debate, dozens of meetings and a three-day long public hearing, regional council will vote on the bylaws and regulatory changes that make up the downtown portion of HRM By Design.

"I should actually say re-emerging," Fil-more continues. "Back in the grand era of public works, what people called this was civic design. We built beautiful roads and bridges and infrastructure that we admire today as great works of our culture. And we've lost all that---we started building highly engineered structures and so forth."

Such opinions were at one time the purview of the radical fringe---perhaps first given coherent form in 1993 with James Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere---but are now solidly in the mainstream. I can find nobody locally who disagrees with the general premise: We used to build things right. Cities were densely populated, their streets and sidewalks focusing on people walking and shopping, the buildings themselves attractive, the parks delightful and all of it brought together in a coherent, defining whole.

For a number of reasons---the arrival of the automobile and suburbanization, and what Kunstler calls "cartoon architecture" that mocks the idea of beauty, among others---the way we used to build cities fell out of fashion sometime between the 1940s and '60s. With very few exceptions, nobody much likes anything that was built from the '70s through the '90s.

In the most recent decade or two, however, cities have come to face the real costs of extending services to suburbs, and we've come to understand the environmental costs of sprawl. There's been a renewed focus on city centres, and people have adopted a new social ethic; suburbs are out, replaced by the idea of what urban theorist Richard Florida calls "the creative class"---a roving band of artists and tech workers who, because their employment is not tied to the geography of traditional manufacturing, can live anywhere they choose. The creative class, says Florida, wants dynamic urban living, with lots of cultural institutions and a distinctive sense of place.

Across North America, cities are attempting to turn themselves into those desired urban centres by focusing on design and architecture, and on support for cultural institutions, the idea being that cities that match the new urban ethic will in turn attract more of the creative class, becoming still more desirable.

Downtown Halifax saw some horrific building in the 1960s and '70s, including the Maritime Centre, Scotia Square and Cogswell Interchange, and culminating in the now-universally condemned plan for a waterfront expressway called Harbour Drive.

Heritage groups ultimately prevailed in stopping Harbour Drive from being built, and the city began to promote its unique historic identity, which in turn became the engine of one of our main industries, tourism.

Since then, the battle between heritage and new construction has taken on a public identity much larger than its reality.

To be sure, heritage groups have in fact opposed many downtown developments---most notably the Twisted Sisters, Midtown Tavern and Waterside Centre proposals---but with mixed results.

In part to address the public perception of heritage preservation impending growth, many of the details of HRM By Design, and a great deal of the public debate around it, are focused on the one hand on heritage conservation districts and incentives for preservation and, on the other hand, on streamlining the development approval process and taking away rights of appeal by citizen groups.

These debates are interesting but irresolvable---both sides are right. Differing opinions, for example, on what new building heights are allowed presently and what HRM By Design allows depend on which set of bureaucratic assumptions you work with; does "allowed presently" mean "as a right," or "by development agreement"? Each answer results in a different set of conclusions.

But those who have looked at the underlying economics of downtown development say debates over heritage are beside the point.

"It is a red herring to suggest that the lack of downtown office development since the 1980s is the result of opposition from heritage groups," writes Mike Turner, a real estate consultant hired by the city to predict the future growth potential of downtown, in his quarterly newsletter. "Admittedly anything that increases cost retards development, but their [heritage groups'] efforts have not constrained office growth to any measurable degree."

Rather, says Turner, the stagnation in downtown Halifax is explained entirely by the economic reality of development.

"The harsh reality is that demand no longer exists to warrant development, and, as a result, tenants are unwilling to pay the rents necessary to spur new projects at prices which reflect the developer's current opportunity cost," he explains.

In dollar terms, office rents would have to increase about half again above present rates before they inspire much in the way of new development. It's true, says Turner, that vacancy rates are at historic lows downtown, but that's only because, adjusted for inflation, rents are at record lows, presenting a bargain for leaseholders. The low vacancy rate is not pushing rents up, indicating that firms aren't much interested in locating downtown.

Turner blasts the provincial economic development agency, Nova Scotia Business Inc., for declaring that there is demand for two million square feet of new office space downtown. "Based on our conversations with property owners, developers and brokers active in Downtown Halifax, and information provided by NSBI, we calculate that such demand is probably in the region of 50,000 square feet," says Turner---just 2.5 percent of NSBI's claims, and considerably less than the 80,000 square feet that will become available in the relatively small Waterside Centre development.

In a previous era, professional offices congregated in downtown districts in order to avail themselves of each other's services, but nowadays, most businesses can put their back offices out in suburban business parks, where rents are cheaper, and connect with all the associated businesses via the internet.

Turner says such economies make it unlikely much new office space will be constructed downtown. Instead, look for hotel and residential development, both of which are dependent on that "creative class" looking for a city with a distinctive identity.

"Therefore," he concludes, "it is in the community's best interests, economic as well as social, that they protect and nurture the downtown's built heritage. The current divisive debate over what shall prevail, heritage or high rise, completely misses the point. Without the former, the creative class would be lacking to support the latter. In our view, HRM By Design is worthless unless city council exhibits leadership and enacts a strategy to promote heritage restoration and conservation."

With that, Turner is laying out an argument roughly parallel to that of offered by the Ecology Action Centre and GPI Atlantic, both of which argue that HRM By Design is generally a step in the right direction in concept, but may not achieve its stated goals unless council adopts concrete policies to address the broader concerns of energy efficiency and sustainability. The groups differ in that while Turner supports passage of HRM By Design followed by meaningful protection for heritage conservation, EAC and GPI oppose passage of the plan until meaningful energy efficiency and transportation strategies are in place.

Either way, the rush to implement HRM By Design appears to be rooted in the hope that it will usher in new office development downtown. But Turner, the man charged with seeing whether there's any realistic expectation that that hope will be realized, says it won't.

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