Halfax's downtown: Troubled or booming?

To a casual observer, downtown Halifax has never looked better.
Several building cranes loom over the skyline. Excavators have dug a pit several blocks in size for the foundation of the proposed Nova Convention Centre. The new Central Library is taking shape and work on the $90-million Waterside Centre is well underway.
But it took only the closure of one popular bar to cast doubt on all the shiny new construction in the city centre. After 10 years of business, Pogue Fado shut its doors, citing cash flow problems.
The failure of the bar immediately triggered a number of stories and columns in the local newspapers about the “survival of the fittest in downtown Halifax,” and unearthed a litany of historic complaints about carrying out development in the city centre.
The Irish pub sat in a building owned by developer Jeff Webber. The 130-year-old edifice is a prime piece of downtown real estate, but it’s now going remain to vacant, according to Webber, who owns AR Webber Properties Limited, a Halifax firm that deals in everything from owning and managing small strip centres to building condominiums.
Webber feeling handcuffed
At first glance, it doesn’t seem to make much sense to leave a choice spot in the city core empty, but Webber insists he has no option. He would like to redevelop his building into condos, but blames the hold-up on “the heritage Nazis,” who won’t let him retain the façade and replace the existing building behind it. “The heritage people don’t, in my opinion, seem to be for anything. They’re just against everything.”
Zealous preservationists aren’t the only challenge when it comes to redevelopment in the Halifax core. Webber has a $6-million insurance claim on the building dating back to Hurricane Juan in 2003. The insurer is obliged to rebuild the aging structure up to “today’s code,” but Webber says no one seems to be able to agree on what constitutes the building codes in the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM).
“I think a lot of things need to change at HRM,” Webber says. “I don’t know whether it’s bottom-up or top-down, but they need to stop paying attention to the anti-everything people and start paying attention to people who want to take some risks and make something happen.”
Webber says development opportunities are so limited and frustrating in the city centre that Halifax builders are choosing to invest in Moncton, N.B., a two-and-a-half hour drive from Halifax. He says the Hub City, as Moncton is known, asks developers how it can help them rather than trying to block development.
The Value of Investing in Canadian Downtowns, a 2012 report from the Canadian Urban Institute, showed that of the 10 Canadian cities studied, Halifax had the least amount of investment in its downtown at $34 million. In comparison, downtown Fredericton in neighbouring New Brunswick poured $84 million into its civic core.
The same report noted that the 98-hectare city centre is battling a decline in office space. Between 2004 and 2010, office space grew three per cent downtown compared to nine per cent city-wide, actually resulting in a two per cent loss in downtown office space growth to suburban development over the same time period.
“The decline will need to be reversed if downtown Halifax wishes to retain its dominant position as the commercial centre of HRM,” the report states.
Residential density increasing
At the same time, residential density in the core is increasing, which is vital to the downtown’s success. Between 1996 and 2006, the number of downtown dwellings grew by 25 per cent compared to 18 per cent across the city.
Paul MacKinnon, executive director of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, agrees that residential percentage growth is high, but adds that, “We’re talking about such small numbers, you get a new building going up and it affects things.”
Even so, MacKinnon says the city has “turned the corner after decades of being stagnant,” and is experiencing an increase in construction not seen in over 30 years. However, he agrees that at the “ground level,” retailers in particular are suffering from an increased trend in online purchasing.
According to MacKinnon, a number of stores failed and closed up shop after a poor Christmas season. “We certainly see a new loss in terms of traditional retail.”
MacKinnon contends that developers taking business elsewhere is “sour grapes” and “antiquated.” He says before HRMbyDesign – the planning process that now governs city development – was put in place, city council approved developments on an individual basis and that polices were vague and sometimes ever contradictory.
Now, MacKinnon says that it’s probably true that it’s not easy to develop every block of downtown any way a developer might like, but that the new clarity has helped overall.
“Developers may have individual poor experiences, but certainly development hasn’t been stymied.”
What is certain is the nature of the city centre is changing. “The future of the urban core is going to be based on people living close to downtown or in downtown,” MacKinnon says. “There’s no question there’s going to be a shift.”
Already rents are rising in anticipation of the current development that’s taking place in the city centre, MacKinnon says. As for the loss of popular bars like Pogue Fado and various retail, MacKinnon believe different uses will come to the downtown.
“I think we’re seeing a bit of a shift. People are adapting to different trends.”

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