People stand over a table pointing at a colourful map. They're indoors, but the sun is shining in the windows. In the foreground there's a poster board reading, "CENTRE PLAN, PURPOSE — WHAT IS PACKAGE B?" with a cut off description underneath.
People give feedback at a public consultation session on the Centre Plan in Dartmouth in March 2020. — Photo: Zane Woodford

One of the speakers at Tuesday night’s public hearing was just nine years old when the idea of the Centre Plan was born.

And although that speaker, 24-year-old Caden Hebb, asked councillors to further delay the plan, they unanimously passed Centre Plan Package B, the second half of the plan that promises to transform the urban Halifax and Dartmouth in the coming years.

The plan rezones all of peninsular Halifax, and urban Dartmouth, generally consisting of the area within the Circumferential Highway. The idea is to add thousands of units in that area, the regional centre, where there are already services like water, sewer, roads and transit. It also disposes of the outdated and inconsistent planning rules that have long drowned HRM’s planning department in one-off development agreements and unpredictable approval processes.

“There was no clarity on what sort of development we wanted where, and it turned every single project proposal into a neighbourhood by neighbourhood fight over every one of them. It sucked up resources, and I don’t think it produced very good outcomes for community or for developer,” Coun. Sam Austin said before Tuesday’s vote.

“With the Centre Plan, with the stitching together here of the second half of it onto Package A, we have closed the door on that era.”

A map showing the Centre Plan area with colour-coded zones denoting the types of buildings permitted. — Screenshot/HRM

Tuesday’s vote is the end of a process that started in 2006, when the municipality’s Regional Plan identified a need to push HRM’s population growth back to its core. The next version of the Regional Plan, passed in 2014, officially starting the march toward the Centre Plan, and in 2016, the municipality got to work on public consultation.

Then came years of delays, and finally, municipal planners decided to split the plan in two. In 2019, council passed the first half, focused on higher growth areas called centres, corridors, higher-order residential areas, and future growth nodes.

Package B, which came to council for second reading and public hearing Tuesday night, handles everything else, and primarily the city’s established residential neighbourhoods. It also makes some changes to design requirements in Package A, and rezones some specific Package A properties.

Thirteen people spoke during the public hearing on Tuesday, including a few who asked the municipality to hit pause on the plan, like Hebb, who was speaking on behalf of Development Options Halifax. That group tabled a petition at council with more than 500 digital signatures.

Hebb said the petition called on the municipality to lower height limits, require carbon accounting with development proposals, and delay the adoption of Centre Plan Package B.

We ask that council take an active role in preventing the unnecessary release of further greenhouse gases and to consider options that will protect the health and well being of the next seven generations,” Hebb said.

But most speakers were in favour of the plan and seeking a few tweaks.

Eugene Pieczonka was one of a few architects who spoke, and asked council to consider amending some new design rules in the plan.

I’m speaking to you tonight because I really love this city. As architects we are the front line workers who must design buildings that conform with the Centre Plan. Hopefully our professional opinion matters. The Centre Plan is our toolbox. It’s a good toolbox. It could be better. And what we decide now is going to directly impact if our city meets its true potential, so let’s please get it right,” Pieczonka said.

Pieczonka, a partner at Lydon Lynch Architects, argued that the design rules around towers in Package A produced better results than those in Package B. The latter discourages stepped designs where the tower gets narrower as it rises in favour of straight towers protruding from podiums, Pieczonka said.

Coun. Waye Mason addressed those concerns in a three-part amendment, seeking a staff report after the adoption of the plan to look at a few specific zoning changes, along with those tower design guidelines.

In all, Mason said he felt the municipality had the plan right.

“I feel like we’ve achieved our goal of finding a balance on development and in the regional centre with this plan,” Mason said.

“There’s a lot of nuance and there’s a lot of sensitivity that’s gone into protecting the character of what’s important in Halifax while also enabling significant development in the centres, corridors and higher order residential areas, and that’s what’s important.”

Council also passed an amendment from Coun. David Hendsbee asking staff to look into the effect of the adoption of Package B on property owners who had approved plans under Package A but had yet to pull building permits. Due to changes between the two packages, their developments may not still be in line with the plan, as one developer told councillors. Another part of Hendsbee’s amendment will look at rezoning a couple’s property in west end Halifax to allow for more development rights.

And council passed an amendment from Austin that would allow for bigger towers on the Mic Mac Mall site, which will eventually be redeveloped with office and residential buildings.

None of the amendments delays the plan.

After the vote at council, the plan now awaits the provincial government’s official stamp of approval. That can take up to a month, and then developers can submit applications under the plan.

Zane Woodford

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. Almost 2 years ago when HRM council held a public hearing re the Centre Plan, and included a map of Dartmouth showing proposed zonings, I pointed out that the map was erroneous. The map showed inaccurate boundaries of the Dartmouth Common. Council went ahead and approved the documents and staff said they could fix the mistake later. In subsequent planning meetings that I attended they had corrected the mistake. I saw no need to attend the meeting last night. Now I look at a map under ‘Attachment B Schedule 2 : Zone boundaries’ and once again the staff have put before the public an inaccurate map showing incorrect boundaries of the Dartmouth Common and adjacent to public housing.

  2. It is worthwhile noting that if this plan and other current policies of HRM applied to the waterfront, the new Art Gallery of Nova Scotia would not be permitted to be built in the red zone for impacts of climate change and sea level rise. Another example of so many loopholes in any kind of planning strategy.

  3. Step-backs are an example of a ‘design element’ that add to CO2 emissions Upfront or embodied carbon from more carbon intensive materials, and increased materials waste. Operational carbon from the thermal bridging that increases temperature gains/losses. Mini version of the many carbon emission problems associated with taller buildings (over 6-storeys) and then of course unnecessary waste of materials from demolitions. Centre Plan enshrines HRM’s right to get it wrong on emissions and affordability crisis.

    1. True that !
      The newly released report by Development Options Halifax, “Buildings for the Climate Crisis” clearly details the very negative result of destroying low height neighbourhoods to put population into skyscrapers. Lower height buildings win out on all sides- they “can be built more quickly and at less cost so developers can earn back more on their investment faster and citizens can have more housing options sooner.” [ p. 5 Development Options Report]”

      …..But you need to READ THE REPORT to know that… and I would doubt any on Council did read this report. In fact when a curious citizen asked how many had actually read The Centre Plan itself- only 7 raised their hands. OMG.

      Also the kid was cute from DOH, but you don’t being a water pistol to a gun fight. Development Options should have sent the largest, unsmiling, brawny dude they could find so they were heard, respected, and feared.

  4. I guess HRM’s plan for affordable housing is to legislate it through inclusionary zoning. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in the centre plan area, given the cost push on housing from un-costed design rules, high land prices and rising development charges, especially regional development charges.

    HRM seems unwilling to incentivize affordable housing. Its approach to the density reserve fund doesn’t lend much capacity for a non-profit housing sector besieged by challenges to secure enough support to attract CMHC’s preferred financing rates via the Co-Investment Fund, which is typically proposed for non-profit housing projects.

    Given the on-going “not our mandate” charge from members of Council, I would be hard-pressed to suggest HRM start incentivizing the private sector to build affordable housing. But 3 of my municipal clients elsewhere in Atlantic Canada are doing just that: exploring waiving property taxes and using cash incentives matched to the number of affordable units being built by the private sector. Urban planning has a direct impact on housing supply and housing affordability. A robust approach to affordable housing would include carrots and sticks, but the carrots are lacking in HRM.

    I’m not optimistic about affordable housing in the Centre Plan.

    1. Good take on this. I find very little in the centre plan about which to be optimistic, Development in Halifax is still run by developers and no doubt they will continue to find ways around any useful provisions of the plan.