Inter-change of opinion

And Filmore once urged council to reject a proposal to tear down the Cogswell Interchange. Now he's leading the charge to raze it.

A new citizens’ group called the Strategic Urban Partnership has formed, and is pushing the the city to implement the planning goals established in HRM By Design—
including the demolition and redevelopment of the Cogswell Interchange. To that end, in May SUP is hosting The Cogswell Shake-Up, a public meeting where citizens will be asked what they think should be built on the Cogswell lands after the interchange is torn down.

But one of the founders of SUP is former city planner Andy Filmore, who less than five years ago wrote a secret memo to city council explaining why the city should not tear down the Interchange. ‘Sup with that?

The memo was written for a closed-door council meeting on December 9, 2008. At that meeting, council was considering two proposals from developers for construction of a new convention centre: Joe Ramia wanted to build it on the former Chronicle-Herald site on Argyle Street, while the Hardman Group wanted to tear down the Cogswell and build the convention centre there.

An evaluation team had rated Hardman’s proposal higher in a secret report to council, but bolstered by then-staffer Filmore’s advice, council secretly voted to keep the Interchange intact. (The Coast brought this council activity to light in 2010 with help from Freedom of Information laws.) By default, Ramia’s lower-scoring proposal prevailed.

Although a formal Development Agreement hasn’t been inked, excavation at the Argyle Street site is well underway, and convention centre construction will likely commence later this year.

In 2010, Filmore told The Coast that “there’s so much densification to be done in the central downtown before we open up other areas for development that it simply doesn’t make sense” to tear down the interchange.

Since Filmore uttered those words, none of the empty lots downtown have been infilled with new development (although some existing buildings have been torn down and redeveloped), so why the change in opinion? Is the Coswell a “land bank,” or not?

“There is no contradiction in anything I have said, in what HRM is doing, or what the SUP has planned,” says Filmore in response to our questions. “The only things that have changed is that downtown development is underway, four years have passed since HRM By Design was adopted, and HRM has initiated the master plan called for by the HRM By Design. I love it when a plan comes together!”

Here is Filmore's complete explanation, sent via email:

I do not think the current energy around the Cogswell Interchange is any way contradictory to the HRMbyDesign Downtown Halifax Plan, and my position remains unchanged. There are two main points to make here:

First, HRMbyDesign identifies the Cogswell area as a land bank to be "drawn upon" (redeveloped) sometime in the mid- to long- term of the Plan's life. As HRMbyDesign is a 25 year plan, the mid-term begins about 8 years from its 2009 adoption, or 2017 - a scant 4 years from today. The intent of pushing this redevelopment out into the future like that was, as you've pointed out, to give the central downtown an opportunity to begin to infill its missing teeth before new development lands are brought online. The plan says,

Once infill development on vacant sites in the central downtown is underway in the short to mid term, the Cogswell Interchange will be transformed in the mid to long term into a new mixed-use precinct functioning as the northern gateway into the downtown, and will feature a restored surface street grid. Visitors arriving at the transit terminals will immediately feel welcomed and connected to downtown Halifax as a result of the enhancement of these gateways. Much greater emphasis will be placed on walking, cycling and transit in the downtown.

I think everyone can agree that in the past two years, after several decades of slow or no growth, downtown development has indeed restarted. There has been more permit and construction activity downtown since the HRMbyDesign's adoption than in the twenty years that preceded it, and more applications for development are on their way. So the development of vacant and under utilized sites envisioned by the Plan is plainly underway.

Second, HRMbyDesign call for the immediate creation of a Cogswell Interchange Area Masterplan (see Policy 50), which is the work currently being undertaken by HRM:

Before the redevelopment potential of the Cogswell Interchange area is realized, the vacant and under-utilized sites in the other downtown precincts should commence. Additionally, a detailed Cogswell Interchange Area Masterplan should be undertaken. These two important steps will ensure that the livability of the central downtown will improve in the short term, and that when redevelopment of the Cogswell area does begin in the mid to long term, it will follow a rational plan that yields optimal functionality and vibrancy.

All of these step—writing and approving a Masterplan, removing the interchange, creating new urban infrastructure, reconstructing a grid of streets, preparing and marketing the new development parcels, bringing them to market in carefully planned phases to ensure maximum profit for taxpayers —all of these things time; likely many years. Before any Cogswell land is ready to be redeveloped we will be well into the mid- and perhaps even long-term time frame envisioned by the 25 year HRMbyDesign plan.

Therefore everything is going according to (the Downtown) Plan. There is no contradiction here, and the only thing that has changed is that downtown development is underway, that four years have passed since HRMbyDesign was adopted, and HRM has initiated the Masterplan called for by the Plan.

I'd like to finish by speaking from the perspective of the Strategic Urban Partnership (SUP).

As a community-based, largely volunteer driven body, SUP has nothing to do with the timing of the Cogswell Masterplan work that is now underway - that process is driven solely by HRM. However the SUP, in partnership with the Office of the Mayor, is responding to this good news by holding the "Cogswell Shakeup" on May 16, 6-8:30pm, at the Harbourfront Marriott. The goal of the Shakeup is to complement HRM's excellent technical work with some dreaming and imagining by the city's residents about what may be next for that area. We hope to bring some excitement, energy and community input to what is one of the city's greatest redevelopment opportunities ever.

Successful city-building is both an art and a science. HRM is managing the science piece with the technical work it is currently doing. The SUP is providing the art piece with the Cogswell Shakeup event. The outcomes of both of these pieces will be delivered to Halifax Regional Council to help them in their decision-making about what comes next at Cogswell. It is a wonderful collaboration.

So everything is going according to (the Downtown) Plan. There is no contradiction in anything I have said, in what HRM is doing, or what the SUP has planned. The only things that have changed is that downtown development is underway, four years have passed since HRMbyDesign was adopted, and HRM has initiated the Masterplan called for by the HRMbyDesign.

I love it when a plan comes together!

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