07 Sep Approving 29 Stories for Quinpool Building is a Slap in the Face to Local Residents and Process
Yesterday, Halifax Council voted 11-4 to reject the recommendation of Halifax planners to give Armco a height limit of 20 stories at the corner of Quinpool and Robie, and instead gave the developer 29 stories.
There are at least five problems with this vote.
First, Halifax has voted against a reasonable balance. From a purely public-interest point of view, there is benefit in having a tall building on Quinpool—which could use the new local customers—and Robie—which is a major transit corridor. But, a tall building there casts a long shadow into the Halifax Commons, one of our best-used public spaces. As a winter city, we must maximize the sunlight in our public spaces and should not give that light away lightly. A height limit of 20 stories would have struck a much more reasonable balance.
Second, Council is doing a bad job negotiating on behalf of the public. Once the Centre Plan is complete, we will be able to use Bonus Zoning to extract money for every square foot of new height to be used to nearby public amenities. In other words, we will be able to say, “In exchange for the public letting you earn more, you need to give the public something in return.”
As it stands, Council voted to give Armco millions of dollars in extra development rights without securing a piece of that benefit for those who have to live with the wind and shadow. For those who believe the 29 story proposal was a negotiating tactic and that the developer expected to receive less, Council’s acceptance of the absolute highest number is particularly frustrating. The fact that most Councillors who voted to make this extra contribution of building rights receive electoral donations themselves from developers does not smell good. Many Haligonians perceive this to be a conflict of interest.
Third, Council has exculpated bullying as a tactic. Armco initially proposed a building height of 22 stories back in 2014. When staff suggested it was too high, the developer came back with 28 stories. For Council to say “Sure” is an insult to public process. As Councillor Watts said at the time, “It’s unusual, to have concerns listed … and have a proposal come back that does not address those concerns. I’ve not seen that before.” So how does Council respond? By giving them a yes anyways.
Fourth, we only get so much growth per year, and we are better off to distribute that growth amongst many developments, large and small, rather than to concentrate it all in just a few towers. Our growth rate in the Regional Centre is higher now than it has been in years because more people want to live in the core, which is fantastic, but our growth rate is not yet at New York or Calgary levels. Some tall buildings may be necessary and in some locations, a 29 story building may be appropriate, but we are not so desperate that we need to let them cast shadows over our major parks.
Fifth, this decision undermines public confidence in planning. As with the Wellington decision, local residents, the local Councillor, city staff, and the planning advisory committee were all against the proposed height, but Council voted to pass it anyway. City staff are telling residents that under the Centre Plan, height limits will be respected. The more that Council disregards planning staff’s recommendations, the harder that is to believe. We don’t want to lose that public trust.
Clearly, this building will not destroy Halifax, and other elements of the development, such as the first few floors, are well-designed. But the building’s height fails to strike the right balance for the public. If we continue to make decisions with such disregard for process and local concern, we will only stoke an antagonistic relationship between the public and developers. With good process, clear rules, and consistent decision-making—in a system where developers can make solid returns and the public can be happy with outcomes—we would all be better off.
Frankly, we need some new Councillors. I am accepting no donations from developers this election in an attempt to restore public confidence. If you think that’s a good idea, I hope you will support my campaign. This is ridiculous and needs to stop.