HRM development’s critical masses

Outspoken planning watchers consider the city’s direction.

HRM development’s critical masses
"There was literally a generation of Haligonians who never saw a construction crane downtown," says former HRM By Design sparkplug, current MP for Halifax, Andy Fillmore.

The sound of drills, the sight of construction cranes and the annoyance of closed sidewalks: This scene is familiar to anyone who's spent time in Halifax lately. It's getting hard to walk anywhere in the urban core without seeing some sort of high-rise construction.

There's plenty of speculation about the cause of all this building, ranging from local demographic changes to international investment plays to developers racing to beat limitations the Centre Plan may impose. But whatever the cause(s), the city is evolving fast, so we turned to some of the city's most prominent critics for their perspective on what it means for future Halifax.

Frank Palermo is an associate professor at Dalhousie University's school of architecture and planning. The idea of a reinvigorated downtown is the type of thing he lives for, but it doesn't mean that he's on board with the way HRM has been managing the development.

"In the process [of development] there's this energy, and because of that there's very little regard for history and the quality of places that already exist, and what the scale of the new development is relative to the streetscapes that we're going to create," says Palermo. He says there isn't enough emphasis being put on planning developments so that they fit into the fabric of Halifax. "The future of the city is incredibly important and it's important today."

Sometimes it feels like we're building a whole new city on the ruins the old one. Sounds like progress, right? "What's fascinating about that is there was literally a generation of Haligonians who never saw a construction crane downtown," says Halifax MP Andy Fillmore. "And now, of course, construction is happening everywhere. Everywhere you look, there are cranes in the sky."

Fillmore spent years as manager of urban design for the municipality, and worked on the HRM By Design plan. He attributes the building boom to By Design's updated policies, because the old rules made it difficult for developers to attain permits: "Instead of building a city, we were just having lawsuits. Meanwhile all of the building was happening in the suburbs creating sprawl."

With By Design and its Centre Plan phase for the core (see "Centre Plan takes centre stage"), city planners want to see space utilized more efficiently, especially along underdeveloped busy streets. But one of the most divisive parts of the discussion on development in Halifax is about the city's heritage, as many of the city's oldest buildings are in neighbourhoods with high property values and locations either in or nearby downtown.

Peggy Cameron, with the organization Friends of the Halifax Common, says HRM isn't doing enough to make sure the city is developed in a positive way. "What we have in Halifax is authentic and it's not a matter of heritage, it's a matter of character and the urban fabric of Halifax. It's the streetscapes that make us distinctively different from Toronto or other Canadian cities," she says. "To be optimistic, we're a small enough city that we could be doing something in a very innovative way."

Alan Ruffman is a geologist and an adjunct professor at Dalhousie University. He's been an outspoken voice against controversial developments as far back at the early 1970s, when he first moved to Halifax and became part of the citizens group that stopped Harbour Drive, a giant waterfront freeway. "When they built Scotia Square and the Cogswell Interchange, the streetscape we had there disappeared," says Ruffman. "Had we decided that we were going to have an old town and look like London or Quebec City, we would have more of the kind of city that people come to see."

The Centre Plan is organized around seven themes. In its ideal form, the plan will enable the people of Halifax to decide how important a theme like Culture & Heritage is compared to Housing or Jobs & Economic Development, and those decisions will guide the city of Halifax for the foreseeable future. And given that Ruffman says planning is as misdirected now as when he arrived in Halifax, the city sure needs the help.

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