The latest version of the proposed Willow Tree Tower. (credit: APL Properties Limited)

Last week’s lopsided Halifax city council decision to decide not to decide — for now — how to respond to APL Property’s proposal to erect a taller-than-OK 25-storey tower at the corner of Quinpool Road and Robie Streets was interesting for all sorts of reasons.

Before we wander into that thicket, however, a little history.

Back in 2014, APL — operated by Armco Capital, real estate developer George Armoyan’s family company — pitched a mixed commercial-residential high-rise for the site overlooking the Halifax Common. The property, which it had owned for 20 years, is currently home to an 11-storey office tower and a parking garage. At first, the company said it wanted to replace those structures with twin towers: one 22 storeys, the other 11.

Drawings flew back and forth between developer and city staff, proposals were exchanged, revised proposals proposed, and the developer eventually came up with a plan for a single 29-storey tower.

Our previous city council said yes, of course, thank you very much.

But the 2016 new council brooms — mindful of the reality city staff had opposed the project, which was nine storeys higher than the maximum allowable under in the city’s in-development Centre Plan — rescinded that yes, lopped the extra floors off APL’s proposal and sent a 20-storey version forward to a public hearing.

That was what citizens were supposed to discuss during a public hearing last Monday.

Instead, APL suddenly offered up its own new last-minute alternative alternative.

Twenty storeys would not only be too “understated” for the “landmark” location, the company argued, but it also wouldn’t allow APL a reasonable enough return on its investment.

In exchange for allowing it to add five more storeys to the structure, the company generously offered to sprinkle 10 units of affordable housing among its 200 or so pricier ones.

That wasn’t really a major concession. As Tim Bousquet put it in a next-day Morning File:

The “affordable housing” offer from APL is a joke. The offer is 10 units for a 15-year limit. Housing Nova Scotia hasn’t contracted for them, and doesn’t know what the proposal is about. The city can’t contract for public housing, so we’re left with this vague notion of a few below-market rental units for a few years. That’s nothing to base a development approval on.

Hold that thought.

Councillors quickly leaped at the company-proffered lifeline and appeared to find much merit in APL’s 25-storeys.

David Hendsbee, who never met a downtown development he didn’t like, could have been reading from an APL script: “This site is one of the prime opportunities on the peninsula, and if not here, then where can we put a tall building?”

“If we don’t inject huge numbers of people into these areas,” Coun. Shawn Cleary chimed in, “we’re doing those neighbourhoods, and all services and businesses around them, a disservice.”

Despite the fact a clear majority of citizens who spoke at the public hearing opposed APL’s 25-storey pitch, Cleary introduced a motion to put off a decision until March so staff can come up with a report on APL’s 25-storey-for-10-public-housing-units offer.

Councillors happily agreed: 16–1.


One could be uncharitable and recall CBC’s March 2017 investigation into who paid for last year’s municipal election campaigns: “Developers, real estate companies and construction firms donated 17 per cent of all money raised by candidates during Halifax’s last municipal election,” the CBC reported. Its database, in fact, shows Armco spread close to $5,000 among the campaigns of current councillors Hendsbee, Mancini, Whitman, Walker and Streatch (though not, it should be noted, Cleary. But, as Tim points out, Cleary served as current APL spokesperson Joachim Stroink’s campaign co-chair during his 2013 run for the provincial legislature. Halifax is indeed a small political world.)

Since Halifax doesn’t have its own lobbyists registry, we don’t know who met with which councillors and officials— and what was said — in the lead up to last week’s council vote.

But here’s something we do know. The Armoyans have a long history of riding roughshod over both public authorities and the public — not to mention ignoring its own promises to both. I did a quick search of the electronic database of the old Halifax Daily News, which closely monitored the Armoyans’ early years in the development business.

A few representative headlines: “Armoyan moves in with bulldozer but no permit…” “St. Margaret’s parents wary of Armoyan..” “Developer raises anger — again…” Armoyan fined $10,000…” Death of a greenbelt…”

Or consider the newspaper’s January 1996 greatest hits compilation of the company’s first decade in the local development business. It’s worth reading in full:

  • “July 1986: The Town of Bedford and an Armoyan company ended up in court after citizens of Golf Links Road complained about a deal the two reached giving the company control of a wooded area held by the town as parkland. A judge ruled the deal legal. The company went ahead with its development now known as Admiral Cove. One of the residents… sued Armoyan for destruction of trees on his property adjoining the area. He won damages several years later.

  • May 1988: The Armoyan Group was fined $20,000 for violating a Supreme Court order not to touch a greenbelt between its Bedford Hills project and a neighboring development. The greenbelt was the result of an April 1985 agreement between the Bedford Village Residents association and Armoyan. When Vrege Armoyan, George’s brother, threatened to cut down the trees in an unrelated dispute in 1986, the residents got an injunction. Armoyan violated the order when he bulldozed masses of trees down to make a water line.

  • February 1989: In a controversial decision, Bedford town councillors rezoned 48 lots in the Bedford Hills subdivision (an Armoyan project) to accommodate semi-detached homes. The rezoning had been denied the previous year. The lots were located in an existing neighborhood of single family homes.

  • January 1992: Sackville residents were angered when a pedestrian path on Stokil Drive was not extended to Armcrest Estates Subdivision. The Armoyan Group’s original plans showed the completion of the path, but it was removed by agreement with Halifax County.

  • December 1993: The Armoyan Group cut trees, built a road, cut curbs and installed water lines in Glengarry estates in Timberlea, assuming the work would be approved. It wasn’t. A few days before a public hearing on the development, Timberlea residents found turkeys on their doorsteps courtesy of the Armoyan Group.

  • June 1994: Dozens of trees were felled by The Armoyan Group on land in Millwood in Lower Sackville before the land was officially transferred to it by the Department of Housing and Consumer Affairs. A month later, Halifax County approved Armoyan’s proposal to build single-family homes on reduced size lots on the land even though its planning and development department recommended against it.

  • July 1995: The Armoyan Group began developing the initial phase of a 112-unit Craigburn Drive subdivision in Sackville, even though Halifax County council has not yet approved the subdivision.”

In fairness, the Armoyans of 2017 are not the Armoyans of 20 years ago. They have become much bigger, much more successful, much more public relations conscious.

But can councillors trust them to put the citizens’ interests first? No. That isn’t their job. That’s the job of city council. It will be interesting to see if they’re ready for that challenge.

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. When I watched the public hearing at city hall I thought the councilors were doing PR work on behalf of this developer. People are genuinely concerned about sunlight being blocked by the tower and wind gusts making it uncomfortable to walk around there. And some of the councilors were just goofy in claiming they knew from playing ball in the park that this would be no big deal.

  2. It is unsettling to see how easily the public can be duped by both Council and the developer. With APL putting their 25 story deal on the table people forgot they were supposed to be arguing for or against 20. Council didn’t help by constantly telling the public that APL wasn’t breaking any rules!!! The affordable housing ….simply smoke and mirrors to further confuse the public …and I guess the Councillors. Quinpool needs the right kind of livable density and the public needs to better understand the bafflegab developers and Council throw at us. Councillors abrogated their responsibility to the public by deferring. We all know the probable result. BTY I guess the see through building is to avoid shadows on the commons. Surprised they didn’t throw that into the mix.

  3. Too bad the other news papers don’t pick up on the Armoyan’s dirty deeds listed here. It might wake up a few hundred thousand people including a few City councillors.

    Personally all I can say is that it is very sad to see what is planned for my old neighbourhood in the Quinpool area. Why does it have to be the area destroyed for high density living that no one wants. Save that for the Cogswell interchange.

    I’m so glad I escaped the carnage but I feel sorry for my old neighbours. Just the blasting alone is enough to drive anyone out of the area.

  4. Not to mention the warehouse and staff he provided to help the campaign to provide clothes and household goods for the Syrian refugees.
    The donations are of no concern unless you also worry about the Jim Spatz donation to the 2016 Waye Mason campaign, and the money donated to his campaign by. opponents of the APL development. My donations to the campaigns of Mason and Lindell Smith were too small to appear on the disclosure documents

  5. Anything above twenty stories becomes gravy. As an APL official once explained, it’s all about the elevator shaft which is a major part of project cost. But if you go up more than twenty the extra cost drops by a lot.

  6. Nobody discusses what will happen next to the rest of the block along Robie Street. Will we have a wall there, not only the tower at Willow Tree? What is the plan for that segment? Anybody knows?