A rendering of Southwest Properties’ proposal for the Cunard Block on Lower Water Street. — Zeidler Partnership Architects
A rendering of Southwest Properties’ proposal for the Cunard Block on Lower Water Street. — Zeidler Partnership Architects

After a long presentation and a longer debate, regional council decided Southwest Properties’ 16-storey proposal for the waterfront was just too big and strayed too far from the rules.

The city’s design review committee approved the plans in July. As the Examiner reported the next day:

The site is known as the Cunard lot — located on the waterfront along Lower Water Street between Morris and Bishop streets, next to Southwest’s Bishop’s Landing condo development. It’s currently a parking lot. Southwest would lease the land from Develop Nova Scotia, formerly known as Waterfront Development Corporation.

Southwest is proposing a 16-storey building with more than 250 one- or two-bedroom residential units, 90,000 square feet of commercial space and 229 indoor parking spaces.

In a staff report, planner Jennifer Chapman advised the design review committee that the building is too big for the site.

The proposal does not conform to five sections of the downtown Halifax land-use bylaw. Among those, the building is too wide and too deep, its mechanical penthouse takes up too much of the roof area, and its balconies cover too much of the face.

Chapman recommended against the proposal, but the committee voted in favour of it, allowing several variances to the land-use bylaw for the area.

In August, the municipality received nearly two dozen appeals of the committee’s decision. Earlier this month, municipal spokesperson Maggie-Jane Spray told the Examiner there were 23. That number was down to 22 when the staff report — including the appeals — landed at council on Tuesday.

A rendering of Southwest Properties’ proposal for the Cunard Block on Lower Water Street. — Zeidler Partnership Architects
A rendering of Southwest Properties’ proposal for the Cunard Block on Lower Water Street. — Zeidler Partnership Architects

The appellants all appear to be residents of the condominium building next door, Waterfront Place. They filed detailed appeals to the municipality, and they banded together to make a presentation to council, with 14 of them each using their five minutes to advance a few slides of a long deck.

“As appellants, we intend to demonstrate that the right choice is to accept the appeal,” Waterfront Place condo owner Jeanne Cruikshank told council.

“This appeal is not NIMBYism,” fellow Waterfront Place resident Fran Payne told council.

“As an owner across the street at Waterfront Place, I naturally dread the loss of a beautiful view, the loss of sunlight, increased traffic, noise and the impact of wind, which will make walking more difficult … We want the waterfront to be enjoyed by all Nova Scotians and the many tourists who visit here each year.”

A former vice-chair of the design review committee, Ted Farquhar, even spoke on behalf of some residents.

“I care about the rules of HRM By Design and I want to see them respected. In this case, they weren’t respected and this project cannot go ahead,” Farquhar told council.

You might look at this and say, ‘I’m tired. I’m tired of looking at an empty parking lot. Let’s just get something built.’ And I’m sorry, it doesn’t work that way. As you know, there are rules in place from HRM By Design that have to be followed, and if there’s a delay in this empty parking lot sticking around for a lot longer, it’s because the applicant put forward a project that didn’t follow the rules.”

After that presentation, Southwest chairman and CEO Jim Spatz made his own, reminding council of his company’s record — the recently-complete Curve building at South Park and Sackville streets, the Maple on Hollis Street — both of which required design review committee-approved variances to go ahead.

“Municipal development guidelines are important, but don’t fit every project or every site,” Spatz said. “Sometimes variances are needed to create better outcomes, which is specifically permitted in municipal policy.”

Of course, the design review committee has approved numerous projects that don’t follow those rules — the approval of Skye Halifax last November, for instance.

But during debate, Coun. Waye Mason argued the variances Southwest was looking for here weren’t the garden-variety variances common in Halifax planning.

“It’s beyond the scope of what a variance normally is,” Mason said of the fact that the tower is 40% wider than allowed under HRM By Design.

“A variance is usually not that significant and usually is dealing with a specific hardship of the site.”

The other variance he took issue with meant there was no retail space planned for most of the Lower Water Street frontage, with the developer arguing the slope of the street made it difficult.

“I don’t think that should be varied. I don’t think that should be varied anywhere,” Mason said.

“Halifax is defined by its hills. If we say you don’t have to do this on hills, it’s not going to happen anywhere. That’s a hill that I think we need to die on.”

Coun. Bill Karsten was one of six councillors — along with Mayor Mike Savage and councillors Steve Streatch, David Hendsbee, Stephen Adams, and Matt Whitman — who disagreed with Mason.

“I’m going to vote against the motion that’s on the floor right now which subsequently is a vote against the appeal, simply put, because it’s my opinion this will be another jewel in the downtown of Halifax,” Karsten said.

After the motion to allow the appeal passed, Mason put forward an alternative, workshopped with legal and planning staff, to allow the proposal if the developer made the changes needed to comply with the more problematic variances, like the tower width. That motion passed.

“The developer and Develop Nova Scotia may still come back with additional different requests for variances, or they may come at it with a clean slate and want to redesign the whole thing. That is their option. They have the right to do both those things. It doesn’t mean this is the end of that conversation,” Mason said.

“What it does mean is that council said, clearly, ‘There’s a couple of things that cannot be varied at this point and this is not what we’re interested in.’”

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. Thanks Zane Woodford for laying out the facts to date. Good for Ted Farquhar calling out a sham when it’s obvious and Coun. Wayne Mason for calling out sprawling width infractions. Really disappointed that Steve Streatch, my district councillor, Matt Whitman and Mayor Savage are on board to break development rules in order to accommodate Southwest’s flagrant abuse of the same. Coun. Bill Karsten’s idea of a “jewel in Halifax” is kinda funny. Water Street needs to at least see some water.

  2. I rented in Waterfront Place for years, and it will certainly be a shame for those residents to lose their view. but… that’s what happens sometimes. I hope this comes back and sticks to the rules of HRM by Design, otherwise what is the point of having design rules? Waterfront Place residents are going to lose their view either way though.

  3. Perhaps this case will put a much needed spotlight on the so called Design Review Committee – who they are, are they prone to developer pressure, conflicts of interest.

    That anyone could view this monstrosity on the waterfront as anything but an abomination speaks to incompetence or worse. Good on council for the reversal.

  4. I hope they listen to their neighbours concerns on the impact of their quality of life with this project.
    And……. What’s the requirement for AffordAbility for housing for this project? Condos or rentals? Is there any attention to creative solutions to make *affordable* units available similar to the project announced on the Bedford Hiway in August? https://www.halifaxexaminer.ca/city-hall/using-unique-arrangement-community-council-approves-bedford-apartment-building-with-affordable-accessible-units/
    This project could be great IF they can be unique, creative and part of the solution to the critical housing realities here.