1. Five years
The Halifax Examiner turns five years old today. On June 18, 2014, I made this site live and posted this video:
Look how young I was! [cries]
I had a pretty good idea where I wanted to take the Examiner, and I think it holds up:
Much of the content on the site will be free for anyone to view. This will include an early morning post every weekday, one-off opinion pieces, and links to other work. More substantial work that takes substantial effort on my part — investigative pieces, analysis, etc. — or that is produced by a freelancer will be behind a paywall.
The paywall is needed to keep this project viable. The Halifax Examiner has on-going costs for legal work and insurance, equipment, phone and internet, and expenses related to investigative work. As well, while I won’t get rich doing this, I need to make a living and pay freelancers.
This enterprise would not have lasted five years were it not for subscribers. You got us here.
And aren’t we all happy that the Examiner isn’t just about me? Good dog, even I get sick of reading Bousquet every day. So it’s fantastic that the Examiner has and continues to provide a platform for so many other writers — too many to list here. It’s my hope that in the near future we’ll be able to expand that offering still more.
Also, thanks to Iris, who pretty much runs the business side of this enterprise by herself; I don’t know what I’d do without her.
2. Centre Plan
Let’s step way back, to HRM By Design, the Andy Filmore-led planning exercise for downtown Halifax.
There was considerable citizen buy-in for HRM By Design. While the Heritage Trust (in retrospect, rightly) distrusted the process from the beginning, a lot of people thought that a good plan would go a long way to preserving heritage and historical buildings, and could maintain the “feel” of downtown. Everyone anticipated that new buildings will always go up, but if new construction is in scale with the rest of downtown, if the sight-lines down the streets to the harbour were maintained, if the small-block pedestrian-friendly character of downtown could be preserved, all good. The old Daily News gave the effort repeated front page coverage, and many thousands of people contributed many evenings of their valuable time to give their input, and they trusted the process.
Characteristically, I had a general annoyance about the whole thing. The sticky-note wielding planning students annoyed me. The buzzword-slinging bureaucrats annoyed me (I swear, if I hear “vibrant” tossed around one more time, I’m going to slap someone). The mealy-mouthed politicians annoyed me. I was annoyed that no one wanted to address the elephant in the room: the overwhelming political power of developers.
Still, my sense at the time was a general attitude among citizens prevailed: we could loosen the reins on developers a bit, let them build within a relatively tight envelope of “allowability” in the core downtown area, while giving them a more or less free run in the Cogswell interchange, building whatever schlock they wanted there. Important in all this was the creation of historic preservation districts, especially along South Barrington Street.
We could argue over the almost-finished product. My opinion is that it was reasonably good.
But between the almost-finished product and the actual approved-by-council HRM By Design, the whole thing was gutted.
Andy Filmore was clearly involved in a secret, undemocratic scheme to benefit Joe Ramia, citizen participation in HRM By Design be damned. So at the last moment planning rules within the plan were changed, with new exemptions put in place to allow for the Nova Centre. I wrote about this in detail in an article for The Coast, “The Convention Centre Tower Play,” in which I unfortunately buried the lede:
Through 2008, Joe Ramia had a fortunate run of luck with his Nova Centre proposal. A judge ordered the sale of the Midtown property to Ramia the day before he had to demonstrate ownership. The EOI evaluation team scored the competing Hardman proposal for a convention centre on the Cogswell Interchange higher, but failed to notify anyone about the scoring and didn’t move on to the next step in the process. The concept of using the Cogswell property as a land bank for downtown was adopted by bureaucrats without first being tested in the realm of public opinion. And, contradicting its public vote of just 10 months before, Halifax council secretly voted to deny Hardman the use of the Cogswell land for a convention centre, leaving Ramia with the sole viable convention centre proposal.
And so HRM By Design was amended just before it was passed by council. An exemption to the massing and height rules was allowed for the Nova Centre, and the small blocks were tossed out so Grafton Street could become a quasi-private Glory Hole through the development. The “feel” of the central downtown was ignored, and the Design and Review committee OKed a gigantic 1980s-era blue glass building with an annoying lighting scheme.
There’s no getting around the monstrosity in the centre of downtown. Ask the average citizen who took place in the HRM By Design process if this is what they thought they’d end up with, and you’ll get a resounding “no.”
And the rest of downtown has suffered. The South Barrington Historic District wasn’t implemented quickly enough, and so now there are demolitions of heritage buildings planned along the street. The YMCA was given another exemption to height and massing regulations because the place is the playpen for the rich white men who run this town, so whatever they want. And: Queen’s Marque.
Remember that HRM By Design was supposed to save downtown.
HRM By Design was to be the first step in a planning process for the rest of the municipality. The next step was to be the Centre Plan, which was to revamp planning rules for the rest of the peninsula and Dartmouth inside the Circumferential Highway (including the Lake Banook site Austin is worried about).
I was told by many a politician that, whatever the faults of HRM By Design, the Centre Plan “would get it right.”
According to a staff report, on “October 4, 2011 Regional Council initiated Centre Plan.” That was seven-and-a-half years ago. I distinctly remember that councillors were saying the Centre Plan would be adopted in 2014, and then before the October 2016 municipal elections.
The election came and went with no Centre Plan, and in December 2016, a slew of properties — 18 of them — were proposed to be exempted from the “coming soon! promise!” Centre Plan rules by “grandfathering” their pre-Centre Plan zoning conditions.
Then in August 2017, chief planner Bob Bjerke was abruptly fired, apparently for actually trying to implement the Centre Plan. As Erica Butler wrote 17 months ago, in November 2017:
In his three and a half years on the job, Bjerke made an impact. He created a five-year strategic plan to “modernize” the planning department, and was halfway through implementing it. He revived the process to create a Regional Centre Plan, now council-approved and waiting to be translated into an actual municipal by-law.
So now we don’t have enough staff to write the bylaws, but we do have enough staff to fast-track a report about a proposed stadium for Anthony Leblanc.
All this delay, delay, delay has served its purpose. Lots of developments — the 16-storey hotel on Lake Banook among them — can get through on the old as-a-right rules that haven’t been updated because the Centre Plan hasn’t been adopted.
And that’s before we even worry our heads about whether, should the Centre Plan ever be adopted, it will be, you know, worthwhile. Council has already signalled that whenever a favoured developer comes along — say, George Armoyan with the Willow Tree development — the planning rules can be set aside, exemptions granted, absurd trade-offs for non-existent “affordable housing” granted.
Tell me why I should give a damn about the Centre Plan? Or about planning generally?
It’s a fool’s game.
As if to demonstrate the point, council will hold the Centre Plan discussion at its Council of the Whole meeting, which starts at 10am. This will involve a lot of grandstanding and back-patting, which I expect will go on until after lunch. Then, councillors will reconvene to hold a regular council meeting, at which there are agendized several development projects that are moving forward outside the Centre Plan guidelines — that is, adoption of the Centre Plan was purposefully delayed so long precisely so these projects (and others) could move forward without bothering about the Centre Plan.
The first is the Dexel Development, the one with the giant birds up above, proposed for the corner of Spring Garden Road and Robie Street. Council today will give the project first reading and set a public hearing, but it’s a foregone conclusion that it will be approved as soon as the public hearing timelines can be met.
The Dexel project includes two towers, of 30 and 20 storeys. The proposed Centre Plan height limits for the Spring Garden corridor are 16 to 20 storeys. Reading through the staff report recommending approval and justifying that approval despite the Centre Plan is a lesson in bureaucratic gobbledygook. “Centre Plan” is mentioned 73 times in the report, but never coherently; and report writer Tyson Simms’s pretzeled prose attempts to suggest that the proposal kind of does fit under the Centre Plan even though it clearly does not.
The second development council will deal with is the Rouvalis family’s proposal for the same block as the Dexel project, also with two towers — a 26-storey tower facing Robie Street and a 20-storey tower facing college street. Along the way, a bunch of heritage houses will be moved around to make room for the towers.
As with the Dexel project, the Rouvalis project would have violated the Centre Plan, had the Centre Plan been adopted.
Council will give the project first reading and schedule a public hearing, but again, ultimate approval is a foregone conclusion.
The third project to be considered by council today is another Dexel project, an eight-storey building to be constructed on the site of the Quinpool Road McDonald’s. This project also would not be allowed under the Centre Plan rules.
Council will go to supper, then come back for two scheduled public hearings.
The first public hearing is for a proposed five-storey building on Agricola Street, across the street from Pro-Dent building (four existing houses will be torn down). WMFares Architects had originally proposed a six-storey building on the site, but reduced it a floor in order to sort-of squeak through on the Centre Plan rules (arguably, it still doesn’t, but I’ll let others debate that). I’m only including it here because the architectural rendering is so weird; you really have to work at it to suck the soul out of Agricola Street, but here it is.
The second public hearing is for the eight-storey-plus-penthouse building proposed for Wellington Street. I won’t give the full recount here how the community council and the councillor for the area, Waye Mason, both opposed the project, but suburban councillors are forcing approval in any event. It too violates the Centre Plan.
So to recap: council will today laud themselves for adopting the Centre Plan and then advance four, possibly five, projects that would have contravened the Centre Plan had it previously been adopted.
And it won’t end here. History has taught us that even after the Centre Plan is adopted and all the grandfathered and exempted properties are developed, just as soon as a favoured developer comes along with another project that violates the Centre Plan, the Centre Plan will be ignored and the project approved. This has happened again and again and again and again; there’s zero reason to believe it won’t happen with the Centre Plan as well.
I was planning on attending today’s meeting in order to document the atrocities, but I’ve been called away on a different, unrelated project that requires all my attention. That’s probably just as well.
3. Stubborn Goat
“An official with the Crown corporation that oversees the tendering process for a Halifax waterfront beer garden gave a reference letter to the winning bidder, and was also involved in scoring parts of the bids for the lucrative contract,” reports
The $366,573.75 tender was awarded in February to the Stubborn Goat Beer Garden, renewing a three-year deal that allows it to continue renting prime waterfront space for the beer garden from Develop Nova Scotia.
During the tendering process, John MacKenzie, Develop Nova Scotia’s property manager, wrote a reference letter for the Stubborn Goat, according to records obtained by CBC News through an access-to-information request.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama is coming to town. Seventy-five bucks, yo.
Someone should ask him about his administration’s failure to bail out homeowners and refusal to criminally prosecute bankers, his prosecutions of journalists, and the illegal and immoral drone attacks, but probably everyone is thinking about how wearing a tan suit was once considered scandalous.
5. PEN Canada
I was interviewed by PEN Canada.
Halifax Regional Council (Tuesday, 10am, City Hall) — see #2 above.
Commemoration Task Force – Public Engagement Session (Tuesday, 6pm, Nantucket Room, former Dartmouth Sportsplex — more info here.
Committee of the Whole Continuation – if required (Wednesday, 1pm, City Hall) — in case today’s Centre Plan discussion goes on too long.
Public Information Meeting – Case 21982 (Wednesday, 6:30pm, Dartmouth North Community Centre) — a small rezone at 20 Sea King Drive (near Albro Lake). More info here.
Veterans Affairs (Tuesday, 2pm, One Government Place) — Trish Dominie from the Halifax & Region Military Family Resource Centre at Shearwater will speak.
No public meetings.
The structure of yeast Ddi2 reveals its role in an oxidative/chemical stress response pathway (Wednesday, 4pm, Theatre B, Tupper Medical Building) — Stanley Moore from the University of Saskatchewan will speak.
International Conference on Religion and Film (Wednesday to Friday, various locations on and off campus) — more info on the conference and registration here. Free film screenings starting Friday, 3pm at Halifax Central Library.
In the harbour
09:15: Grandeur of the Seas, cruise ship with up to 2,446 passengers, arrives at Pier 22 from Bar Harbor, on a nine-day, roundtrip cruise out of Baltimore
11:30: JSP Levante, cargo ship, sails from Pier 31 for sea
18:30: Grandeur of the Seas sails for Baltimore
I was going to go on about how growth in GDP doesn’t mean much if we’re not also considering the distribution of that wealth, but I ran out of time. (You can find the related news articles.)
This is why I say snarky things like “if we do X, we’re all going to be rich!” That is, government subsidies (to golf course owners, to ferry operators, to convention centre developers, to shipyards, to…) are always sold as projects that will improve the economy, and many of them likely do get reflected in a growth in GDP — but if the newly created wealth lands entirely in the laps of a handful of already wealthy and connected people and has no effect whatsoever on the lives of a regular people, who cares?
We gotta get smarter about this stuff.
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