Wake up, Halifax. A new day, a new year is dawning, bringing with it a fresh opportunity to bulldoze the mistakes of the past and plan a better future. Time to turn dreams into reality.
Finally, after almost five decades clogging up the gateway to downtown Halifax, the Cogswell Interchange is coming down.
Later this year demolition work should begin to replace the failed overpass with a brand-new neighbourhood, built from scratch. It's a $64-million undertaking featuring three years of construction-related road closures, all to try and fix the biggest roadwork blunder in Halifax's history. No pressure, right?
John Spinelli is the one shouldering those expectations. Everyone's excited about what's to come, says the Cogswell Interchange project director, and everyone wants to get it right. Spinelli's job will be to maintain that goodwill once the roads start closing and traffic gets re-routed. It's no small task.
"You can't do a project like this without being somewhat invasive," he says. "So our job is to mitigate that and minimize—to the extent humanly possible—those disruptions."
Almost from the day it was complete there have been calls to tear down the Interchange. The municipality has commissioned several studies over the years on that very problem (see timeline, page 9). Finally, in 2014, HRM approved the Cogswell Lands Plan—a redevelopment strategy put together by Ekistics Planning and Design—and subsequently set to work ironing out the concrete details for what had been, up until then, an urban fantasy—the kind dreamed of by architecture students and newspaper columnists.
Under current plans, the Interchange will be demolished and replaced at ground-level with a redesigned roadway, featuring two new roundabouts at Cornwallis and Hollis Streets. Four new acres will open up for public use, along with six acres of developable property to be sold off by HRM. That last bit is crucial, because while better transportation, better living and more public spaces are important, we still need to pay for all this work. Despite all the momentum to redevelop the Cogswell Interchange, council still has to decide to pull the trigger.
And it might not. If the price for the land sale isn't enough for the redevelopment's yet-finalized costs, that's a no-go.
"You know what, yeah, if it comes back and says 'Actually, it's going to be $100 million and we're only going to be able to sell the land for $40 [million]—we're going to take a $60-million hit—we'd have to cancel it," says councillor Waye Mason. "The whole thing has been sold on a very conservative real estate estimate that said probably you can sell these lands for more money than it's going to cost to take the thing down."
Probably. Front-end expenses are being covered by a reserve fund council set up a couple years back, but the goal is to sell off the land and recoup new property taxes from whatever's built on the acreage in order to keep things cost-effective.
The timeline for those plans remains "more or less" on track, says Spinelli. Detailed design work and cost estimates are being assembled now (by WSP Canada), in hopes that a construction contract will be tendered and work will begin in the fall.
In the bitter cold of January, that demolition may seem far off. Not far enough, really, for a downtown already saddled with an over-delayed convention centre and commuters re-routed from the soon-to-be-completed Big Lift.
Right now the future work site is quiet, but a mountain of work is happening behind the scenes in conversations with city hall's business units, the Cogswell design team and area stakeholders. Delta Hotels, Crombie REIT, NSCAD, the Casino, the Port Authority, business districts both north and downtown and "virtually anyone along that corridor has a stake in this," says Spinelli.
There's also the problem of where to direct the 90,000 vehicles crossing over the Interchange every day. Initial plans to re-route transport trucks through narrow residential streets like Morris were met with hostility from nearby residents and some members of HRM's transportation standing committee.
Managing all of that comes down to communication. Spinelli says he's brought one of the municipality's traffic specialists onboard as a "sober second look" at everything the Cogswell design teams are planning and make sure the impact is as minimal as possible. Meanwhile, HRM's communications team is working on social media campaigns to alert residents about street closures and interruptions expected over the next few years.
"How we manage traffic during the three years of hard construction is really critical. Communication is a big part of that," says Spinelli. "Working with all of these groups is really a big part of what this project is about, so they know what to expect on a regular monthly type of basis."
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Traffic management was the raison d'être for the Cogswell Interchange when it was built 50 years ago. It was to be the entry point for a planned waterfront expressway, dubbed Harbour Drive—pushing into existence as a prerequisite for Scotia Square's construction and to handle traffic over the then-new old bridge. Universal opposition to the project's devastation of downtown heritage properties eventually forced city council to reverse its plans and cancel Harbour Drive outright. The expressway's greatest legacy in Halifax remains the organized resistance it sparked from citizen groups, strengthening Heritage Trust and the Ecology Action Centre, and later giving rise to the Waterfront Development Corporation.
It’s more than about just ripping down something that didn’t work. It’s got to be replaced with something that can work. —John Spinelli
The Cogswell Interchange, meanwhile, has sat there ever since, all useless and fugly. It's a tiny web of concrete roadways totally incongruent with every street and service surrounding it, cutting off the downtown from the city's north. An over-built and humbling testament to city planning from days gone by.
"The same people that designed Cogswell designed the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto," says Spinelli. "I've seen many cities across North America that have followed a very similar mindset. It's a recipe for urban blight, and they really don't work. The new, and I believe more correct methodology from city planning perspectives, is to create a downtown environment where people can live where they work, and work where they live."
Of course, that methodology is limited by what can replace the Interchange. Halifax will be eager to sell its new land lots to recoup costs, and any property buyer will want to turn a profit on what they end up developing. On the peninsula, that means high-density, mixed-use residential. New neighbourhood; same old development.
It doesn't have to be that uninspired, says Peggy Cameron, with the Willow Tree planning advocacy group. In fact, HRM doesn't have to replace the Interchange at all. "We don't even need to tear it down. We could just cover it all with grass and we could have a walkway between the Common to the waterfront," she says.
Cameron pictures a pedestrian-friendly walking route between the uptown and downtown like The High Line in New York. Instead of obliterating Cogswell and starting from scratch, she says, let's make lemonade from our Interchange lemons and try to imagine doing something truly unique. "Wouldn't it be great if we had an interstitial space project and said, 'It's a public space,'" she says. "Instead, our focus is on vertical suburbs. Giant toilets, and water going up and down."
"I've walked The High Line," counters Waye Mason. "It's beautiful. It cost hundreds of millions of dollars of some of the richest people in the world, in one of the richest cities in the world, donating that money."
In other words, there's fantasy and there's reality. And reality for the Halifax South Downtown councillor is that the Interchange has to come down. "Cogswell and all that development around there created a real barrier between the north end and downtown, and the north end and the waterfront," says Mason. "I can't agree with anyone who thinks there's redeeming qualities to that development. It's a little bit of orphan highway from a really, really bad plan."
Besides which, the wheels are already in motion. The street network is largely locked in, which is what all the other design elements will hang off of. While the public will still get some input into what fills the new public spaces, the developable land is the financial key to getting this whole project off the ground. Despite that, toppling Cogswell can't just be about cash, says Spinelli. What comes next needs to be thoughtful. It needs to be measured. It needs to be livable.
"If you sell all the land and only build high-rises on it, it doesn't build the kind of neighbourhood we want," he says. "However, if you just save it all for public land and parks, you've got lots of open space and no good living down there. You don't have the critical mass to develop an actual neighbourhood."
A neighbourhood without public space is no better than an overpass, and public space with no development isn't a neighbourhood. Building something with a life to it, that's the tricky part. Tearing things down is easy.
"If that's all we do, that's not enough," says Spinelli. "It's more than about just ripping down something that didn't work. It's got to be replaced with something that can work."