The latest version of the proposed Willow Tree Tower. APL Properties Limited

Halifax City Council can be — even at its best of times — confusing, contradictory, confounding. Last week, council was not, even by its own modest standards, at its best.

Councillors were considering again/still/always a proposal from APL, an Armoyan development company, to erect a commercial-residential tower at the corner of Robie Street and Quinpool Road overlooking — some say overshadowing — the iconic Halifax Common.

You may remember this project: the one that began in 2014 as a developer’s dream of twin towers, one 22, the other 11 storeys, which staff nixed for being too tall, too big and too dense.

So the developer returned with — wait for it — a bigger, better idea:  a 28-storey tower paired with a 12-storey little-brother edifice.

Uh, OK…

But then APL amended that before council could consider it, proposing instead one 29-storey skyscraper.

Are you following the bouncing roof lines?

Anyway, the former council said yes, thank you very much. But then in 2016 the old council was replaced by the new council, which said no, thanks all the same. The new council championed a 20-storey version, which it said would better adhere with “planning principles set out in the draft Centre Plan.” (Don’t ask. It’s been “draft” forever.)

In January 2018, the no-longer new council sent its scaled-down 20-storey version to a public hearing, but the developer pre-empted discussion of that option by ambling back to the gambling table with yet another can’t-refuse offer: APL would see council’s 20 storeys and raise it five. And, oh yes, if council let the company have those five extra storeys, well, then APL would throw in 10 units of “affordable” housing among its 200 or so less affordable ones. Gratis, more or less. Mostly less.

So, council then instructed staff to consider the developer’s “density bonus” option and report back. Which it did last week. Staff still found APL’s proposal wanting. Stick with the 20-storey option, staff said.

So council — as is its wont — ignored the staff report and…

Headline writers tried, without much success, to capture what happened next. Willow Tree Tower proposal still up in the air, declared the Chronicle Herald; Even taller building under consideration for Robie and Quinpool, pronounced the CBC; Council trades Willow Tree height for (some) affordable housing, teased The Coast. Metro may have captured the meeting’s je-ne-sais-qua best: ‘The epitome of ad hocery:’ Halifax council sends taller Willow Tree development to new public hearing.

To be fair, Metro’s headline writer had cribbed its “ad hocery” line from Coun. Sam Austin who, in fact, had summed everything up even more succinctly in another comment to his fellow councillors. “Geez, it’s messy, folks.”

Indeed.

After a series of motions, Coun. Shawn Cleary introduced yet another one, this motion instructing staff to rewrite city bylaws so the developer would be required to set aside those 10 affordable units (the ones it was itself already proposing to set aside), install underground wiring and widen sections of the sidewalk around the building.

It appeared Cleary may have had an advance chat with APL’s Joaquim Stroink since his motion nicely mirrored the additional plus-pluses Stroink claimed the developer already had in mind. “We looked at [underground wiring and wider sidewalks] to see, ‘can we do them,’ and we feel we can do them at this time,” Stroink said.

Interesting.

So… APL is good with the deal. And council is good with the deal, having voted 14–2 in favour of Cleary’s motion.

But should we be good with the deal?

That’s a more complicated question.

One argument in favour of the deal is that it would create at least some affordable housing units. Despite council’s best intentions, Cleary pointed out, not one affordable housing unit has been built since the new council was sworn in in 2016.

And yet…

“If the Centre Plan was in place today,” mused Coun. Tim Outhit, “and the developer came to us and wanted to build 20 storeys, potentially what number of affordable units would be in that development? Is there a risk that… when the Centre Plan is passed we may actually have fewer affordable units by voting this path than waiting for the Centre Plan?”

Yup.

As Jacob Boon pointed out in The Coast, the draft Centre Plan does include a formula to calculate how much “public value” a developer should provide the city in exchange for being permitted to build bigger. Under that formula, APL should be providing $3.27 million worth of public benefit — or the equivalent of 36 affordable housing units.

Even if you toss in underground wiring and wider sidewalks, that’s a lot of affordable housing not being provided under the Cleary formula.

Cleary didn’t call for the maximum density bonusing formula, Metro reports “because he doesn’t think the math would work out for APL…”

Council continues to confound. Or not.

Stephen Kimber

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. I found it interesting that under the Centre Plan, even getting to 20 storeys would have involved density bonusing negotiations. And yet the staff-approved proposal for 20 storeys did not include any density bonusing payments. Why not? I understand that the CP will lay out a clear mechanism for this kind of negotiation, which we don’t have in place yet, but should that stop city staff from negotiating for something akin to what we will soon see in the Centre Plan? I mean, these are development agreements, and if city staff are going to model negotiations off the principles in the approved-but-not-yet-law Centre Plan (like maximum heights) then why can’t they bring other principles into play, like a formula for density bonusing. The only reason these 10 affordable spaces look so good is that we were about to approve 20 storeys with nothing extra. Why was that? If Outhit (and staff) are right, and the CP process would have netted much more, then why didn’t we negotiate for more as part of this process, even before the CP? I think that’s an important question considering this is just one of many developments getting through the process before the CP is a legal reality.

  2. Why can’t the city just say no to Armoyan and stop inventing ways to get around the established rules? No wonder there is such apathy towards the Centre Plan. The plan is powerless in the face of determines robber barons (developers) who know that they will eventually get their way.

  3. And the public’s interest and opposition continue to be ignored. A recent opinion poll conducted for the Willow Tree Group by Corporate Research Associates found 52% support 16-storeys or less (26% support 16-storeys; 22% support the current building height of 10-storeys). And only 15% want 20-storeys and 10% want 25-storeys.

    Existing regulations to protect the 2 & 3-storey neighbourhood’s multi-unit affordable housing and Halifax Common by limiting the size, height, mass, density etc. are being ignored. The developer and the Quinpool Mainstreet District Biz. Assn. misused HRM’s bogus on-line survey obtained under FOIPOP to claim the majority want more height but HRM staff has not corrected this. Recent public submissions totaled 1038 against and 333 for, but the Clerk’s office counted 851 cards signed by opponents as 1. The common public participate but who is looking out for the common good?

    1. What were the questions in the poll, how many people were polled and was the poll across the whole of HRM ?

  4. Shawn Clear’y goes so low’ ball
    (peeks up’ from un’der table)
    Dawn’s near’ing for the high’ wall.
    (Stroink’s back’ slap to ena’ble).

    A proud’ tradi’tion stateside:
    The ‘ram ya, fill more, kil’ly
    blocked door’ to pad’ the back’ side
    slapped on’ ‘ya, wil’ly nilly.