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The grey area 

Toronto's CN Tower lost its title as world's tallest free-standing structure last Thursday, with the announcement that construction of the Burj Dubai had reached 555.3 metres. The developers behind the Burj are keeping their planned finishing point secret, but said besting the CN Tower (553.5 metres) is just a milestone on the way to world's tallest supported structure (currently a 628.8-metre TV antenna in North Dakota) and beyond. While the massive Dubai erection betrays an obvious symbolism, it also shows what can happen when a city is active and positive about development. Dubai is a Chicago of the 21st-century, a place that has become a sensation by staking its identity on architectural marvels such as the Al Arab hotel and Palm Island. Dubai—a place so very unlike Halifax.

The Burj Dubai began construction in 2004, the same year an ambitious highrise project was started in Halifax by United Gulf Developments. And three years later—coincidentally on the same day last week the big news about the Burj came out—there was a major announcement about United Gulf: the plans for the "Twisted Sisters" towers cleared their latest legal hurdle. Now there's practically nothing standing in the way of building the towers. Except another appeal.

United Gulf has been facing intense scrutiny since it bought the former Texpark site on Granville Street in 2004. People are justifiably protective of this key piece of downtown, and passion only increased after drawings of the Twisted Sisters were unveiled and, in 2005, the plans went through the public hearing process. The pair of curvy gleaming buildings represents the future—a subject Haligonians are deeply divided about.

After city council finally approved the 27-storey towers in March, 2006, groups including the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia launched two legal challenges. One challenge, dealing with specifics of council's process, was decided in United Gulf's favour last February by the provincial Supreme Court. The other involved Heritage Trust appealing council's decision to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board.

The Heritage Trust said the towers violate the city's Municipal Planning Strategy and so council never should have given approval. The Utility and Review Board strongly disagreed with the Heritage Trust in Thursday's ruling and the trust is deciding whether to appeal that decision—it has 30 days—but otherwise the towers are a go.

Heritage Trust's case centred on a glaring grey area of the MPS, which deals with building downtown in relation to Citadel Hill. Section 6.3 of the MPS says "The City shall maintain or recreate a sensitive and complimentary setting for Citadel Hill by controlling the height of new development in its vicinity to reflect the historic and traditional scale of development." But what is the vicinity? It's patently the streets bordering the hill. It's probably two blocks away (part of why the Midtown tower was squashed). A witness who appeared before the URB said it's basically from Point Pleasant Park to the Macdonald Bridge.

And for that matter, what is complementary? The Heritage Trust says it means new buildings should "mimic" old ones—leading to that horrible faux-heritage look of so much Halifax construction. In artistic terms, complementary colours look very different, but go together well. The scope of the URB's task was not to decide if the Twisted Sisters is a good development and should be allowed, the board could only focus on council's reading of the MPS. By approving the Sisters, council decided that Granville Street is not in the "vicinity" of the Hill, and that United Gulf's design fits in with downtown's mish-mash of building styles. The MPS can be interpreted widely, and the Board ruled council's decision is within the valid range. Council could have rejected the Sisters just as easily.

Such latitude in the MPS suggests these rules are too loose, a criticism the URB decision takes pains to make. The ongoing HRM By Design project aims to create a new, form-based scheme to guide development, which should limit ongoing problems. But that's a concern for the future.

The Twisted Sisters will be an instant landmark in Halifax: discuss by emailing editor@thecoast.ca.

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Vol 25, No 47
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