It is called HRMbyDesign, but a better name for Halifax’s newly adopted urban-design and consultation process might be ‘View from the Ramparts.’
Adopted last year by the Halifax Regional Municipality, the new process sets out clear rules for development of the Halifax downtown. The clearest rule of all: don’t muck up the sightlines from the historic Citadel, a 150-year-old British fort on a hill with a commanding view of the harbor.
“A lot of this stems from protecting view planes from Halifax Citadel,” said Kenzie MacDonald, Managing Director of Avison Young’s Halifax office. “There are literally these 3-D pies, these wedges that come out from the ramparts, and the other restriction is that the building can’t be as tall so that you can see it from inside the fort.”
The guidelines also restrict designs in the Barrington Street Historical district and streets adjacent to what is described as Halifax’s historic main street.
Historical restrictions aside, MacDonald considers HRMbyDesign useful and somewhat overdue, noting that prior to its implementation, design and planning was considered on a case by case basis with little or no consistency.
First Tests Already
Despite its recent vintage, HRMbyDesign is already being put to the test, Avison Young notes in its current spring and summer newsletter.
The first building to be judged by the new design standards is the proposed Skye Halifax development on Granville Street – a 48-storey, wavy twin-tower condominium development which would include hotel rooms, restaurants and retail space and would make it the tallest building in the city.
The current tallest building in the city is the 33-storey, early-Seventies Fenwick Tower. The apartment building is currently undergoing refurbishment and a planned re-skinning. “Not only is it the tallest building in the city it is the ugliest,” observed MacDonald.
At 150 metres tall – far above the 66 metres limited imposed by HRMbyDesign, United Gulf Developments Ltd.’s Skye Halifax project appears to be an easy call for city staff and politicians alike. A Halifax city staff report presented to council recommended that the project be rejected. Halifax city council, however, dismissed the report and the HRMbyDesign guidelines with councillors voting to move the project to the next step in the development-approval process.
The developer wants to build above the height restriction by invoking the “public good” exception clause that is part of HRMbyDesign. Skye Halifax has some councillors and citizens groups up in arms.
The next in the process is a public hearing on the twin tower proposal, which is something of a sequel for United Gulf Developments in that it previously had a downtown development proposal for two smaller towers dubbed the “Twisted Sisters” that was approved but had lapsed.
“This is the re-application, Skye Halifax is round two and [United Gulf] is really asking for the world,” says MacDonald. “As most developers he is probably asking for the world and hoping to settle somewhere above what he should have had if he followed the rules but less than he is asking for.”
The Avison Young executive believes that the city is treading carefully because of another proposed development, the YMCA/CBC redevelopment located downtown at Sackville and South Park Streets. The YMCA project near the bottom of Citadel Hill too asks to exceed the maximum height allowed by the city but would likely fare better under the public good argument.
“With the YMCA project coming a week later, that one does have merit and I don’t think they wanted to say `No’ to the first one knowing that they were going to say `Yes’ to the second one,” said MacDonald. “With the YMCA development there is a huge public piece, a new 60,000 square foot YMCA that will be part of the new development that really enhances the entire neighborhood. The YMCA does provide a recreational public benefit and so for that reason it is assumed that they could stretch the rules a little bit.”
Too Early to Deem a Failure
While HRMbyDesign has had a rocky introduction, Avison Young expects the development guidelines to be a long-term success. “A lot of thought went into it,” said MacDonald. “It is not perfect but it has given much more consideration to the historic nature of the city.”
The new design guidelines do have quirks that are unique to Halifax, he added. “Things like density have disappeared for the most part. That don’t care how many units you put in whereas before there was a crazy formula for downtown. As long as your envelope fits within this box, what you put in it, as long as it meets housing codes, they don’t care how big or small your units are.”
To preserve the historic nature of the city and its old town streetscapes, new buildings will feature step backs from the street and other mandated design features. “It is a much better document than we had before,” concluded the Avison Young executive. “As people get used to it and see the benefits of it, it will certainly benefit the city going forward.”
Halifax needs more people living and working in its downtown as it has suffered through its own version of urban sprawl in recent years. “You do want to maintain the historic nature and feel of the downtown but at the same time it can’t come at the cost of developing density. Halifax sprawl is different than Toronto sprawl but we are still losing people to the suburbs.”