It was all but a done deal, with construction on the site well underway, but the developers replacing the Mills Brothers building on Spring Garden got the official rubber stamp on Thursday.
The city’s Design Review Committee, which approves development proposals in downtown Halifax, met virtually to consider the application for the block along Spring Garden Road, between Birmingham and Queen streets. The owner is Mills Company Holdings Ltd., owned by Mickey MacDonald, Colin MacDonald, Danny Chedrawe, and Mounir Haddad.
The developers tore down the old tudor-style Mills Brothers building late last year, excavated the site, and according to the city planner on the file, Paul Sampson, they’ve started building the underground parking levels.
Designed by DSRA Architecture and Zeidler Architecture Inc., with WSP Inc. submitting the application, Mills Company Holdings calls the new building “The Mills.”
It’s eight storeys tall, with 216 residential units (144 one-bedroom and 72 two-bedroom). Floor plans indicate 13 of the units are barrier-free — six two-bedroom and seven one-bedroom units.
On the ground floor, there’s 24,400 square feet of ground floor commercial space. There are two levels of underground parking with about 160 spots (12 of which are accessible, based on floor plans) and 118 bicycle parking spots. There’s a “pedestrian promenade” linking Birmingham to Queen, lined with patios on one side and townhouse-style units on the other.
To access extra height accounted for in municipal planning documents, six metres, the developer is burying electrical and communications infrastructure in front of the building. Regional council will ultimately be asked to approve a density bonus agreement to that effect.
Westwood Developments, Chedrawe’s company, is also paying the municipality $85,000 to delay part of its Spring Garden Road streetscaping project to accommodate the development, as the Halifax Examiner reported here.
There are no plans for affordable housing or payments in lieu of affordable housing as part of this development.
The developers requested five variances from the design guidelines in the city’s Downtown Halifax Land-use Bylaw related to streetwall widths and heights and upper-storey setbacks and stepbacks.
Sampson, the planner, recommended in favour of all five variances, and the development generally.
“Staff advise that the proposed development of a 8-storey mixed-use building meets the objectives and guidelines of the Design Manual. It is, therefore, recommended that the substantive site plan approval application be approved,” Sampson wrote in the report to the committee.
Sampson told the committee on Thursday that the results of the wind study for the development were some of the best he’d seen downtown.
The committee was generally in favour of the variances, although one member, Dalhousie University architecture professor Cristina Verissimo, believed the design was too reliant on glass, which she argued is unsustainable and a privacy issue for future residents. Verissimo argued the developer should mix up the materials and reduce the height of the streetwall along Spring Garden Road.
Verissimo was essentially told that the committee had no power to make those sorts of recommendations.
That would become a theme during Thursday’s meeting, causing multiple committee members to question why the committee even exists.
Committee members question point of committee
The big issue for a few members was the proposed public benefit for the project, the undergrounding of electric and communications wires.
Julian Gonzalez, an engineer, questioned the value of the arrangement, given the municipality is burying that infrastructure on the rest of the street anyway.
Sarah MacDonald, a professional fundraiser, said she understood the committee was limited in the kinds of public benefits it could recommend, but she would’ve preferred affordable housing, which is an option under the Downtown Halifax Land-use Bylaw.
Rob LeBlanc said the underground wiring is a “great outcome,” and he’d heard the developers were doing HRM a favour by using some of their land to make it happen. At any rate, he argued it would be hard for the developer to change the public benefit at this point.
“These discussions happen very early in a design process, because you have to accommodate, whether it’s public art or affordable housing, it’s really hard to go back and change things at a late date,” he said. “I’m very comfortable with this recommendation for public benefit.”
MacDonald took issue with that statement.
“It can be pretty frustrating when we’re having a conversation, basically to Rob’s point saying, ‘It’s really hard to change the thing that we’re deciding on today.’ So then why would it even be put in front of us as a group to decide on?” she asked.
“It’s just kind of a bizarre situation where, if the argument is that it would be difficult to change, then why are we voting on it in the first place and why would we make a recommendation one way or the other to council in the first place? I really struggle with comments like that because it makes me feel like I’ve just wasted two hours of my time.”
Committee chair Marilee Sulewski asked about the value of the density bonus agreement, and Sampson said it doesn’t matter.
“The numbers haven’t been provided. I’m sure they easily could provide them, but it’s kind of irrelevant at this point because it’s the category we’re more concerned about because the committee basically makes a recommendation on the category, not the number,” Sampson said.
MacDonald said the committee should have more information about the density bonus options and the value of the undergrounding.
“The whole point of having committees like this one is to review the information and agree or disagree and put forward motions or not. And if we don’t have that information, then we’re left to just trust staff and that defeats the purpose of even having the committee, in my mind,” MacDonald said.
Marcel Tarnogorksi, an architect, echoed MacDonald’s comments.
“It’s frustrating to prepare for this meeting and sit through two hours and just be like, ‘OK the footings are in the ground already.’ Like why are we here?” he said.
Tarnogorksi was referring to an earlier question he’d asked: whether there are permits open on the site, and why they’re commenting on a site that’s already under construction.
Sampson didn’t know. A quick search by the Examiner of the city’s open data on building permits doesn’t show any permits, other than for demolition and encroachment, for the addresses associated with the property.
It’s something Chedrawe’s done before. Westwood started building its Richmond Yards project in the north end before receiving approval from council in April.
Despite the members’ concerns, the Mills development received all necessary approvals.
The four-part motion was split into two parts. First the committee voted on parts one to three, approving the qualitative elements of the proposal, the variances, and the wind study. Verissimo said she abstained on that vote, which isn’t an option under the municipality’s procedures. Her vote will be counted as a no. Everyone else voted yes.
The committee voted separately to recommend that regional council accept underground wiring as the public benefit for the project. Like Verissimo, MacDonald said she abstained from the vote, which is not an option under the municipality’s procedures. Her vote will be counted as a no. Every other member voted yes.