The public was heard last night on the proposed 20-storey (and still, somehow, possible 25-storey) tower at the northwest corner of the Willow Tree intersection in Halifax. Councillors spent about four hours hearing from the project developer and just over 40 people, with many more people filling up the gallery and an overflow viewing room at city hall.
Council will reconvene to discuss and decide on the matter sometime Wednesday morning.
Of those who spoke, just over three-quarters came out against the project, although what people were speaking in favour or in opposition to was slightly muddied by a persistent confusion over just how many stories were up for debate.
Adam McLean spoke on behalf of the proponents, George Armoyan-owned APL Properties. McLean made clear that despite the 20-storey maximum height specified in the recommendation in the staff report being considered by the public and council, he would be asking councillors to approve a 25-storey tower instead.
APL and Armoyan seem to be using the same strategy my six-year old uses when he really wants something: just keep asking.
City staff have been recommending a maximum height of 20 storeys since this tower was first proposed, because that’s the direction of the Centre Plan, the first draft of which is complete and ‘in review’ internally, due at council committee in February.
In September 2016, council overrode that recommendation (with councillors Watts, Nicholl, and Mason opposed) and allowed for a 29-storey tower to proceed. Six months later, after a motion from local community council, a newly elected city council reconsidered, and decided the tower proposal could proceed to public hearing but would need to max out at 20 storeys.
Then in November, Halifax’s CAO Jacques Dubé offered up an unsolicited council information report recommending that council split the difference and approve a 25-storey tower at the Willow Tree, in order to make the project financially viable for APL. Councillor Shawn Cleary moved for the additional five-story amendment, but the motion was defeated and council confirmed their intention to stick with 20-storeys.
Then last night in McLean’s presentation, APL put 25 storeys back on the table, with a promise to sign a contract with Housing Nova Scotia that would make 10 of the new approximately 175 new units in the theoretical 25-storey tower affordable for a period of 15 years.
At least one of the speakers in favour of the proposal was swayed by that promise. Former District 5 candidate Warren Wesson told council, “the affordable housing component justifies 25 storeys without blinking.“
Councillor David Hendsbee seemed to think there was room to negotiate more, asking if it would be possible to include one affordable unit per floor, effectively doubling, at a minimum, the offer from APL.
Other reasons cited by those in favour of either the staff-recommended 20-storey tower or the APL-requested 25-storey tower centred around the residential growth potential of the project. Former Starfish Properties VP for Nova Scotia Adam Conter told council, “we can’t continue to rely on our half-staffed planning department” to get developments through. Referencing the concerns of over effects to the Commons, he added, “parks don’t buy things at the [Quinpool Road-located] Trail Shop.”
The local planning community seemed split on the question. Some, along with a number of residents, cited the desire to move away from spot zoning style decisions, and to support the guidelines laid out in the impending Centre Plan, for consistency’s sake. Others, like Kourosh Rad, the organizer behind the recent Art of City Building conference, said that people would simply not notice the difference between a 20-storey tower and a 25-storey tower.
This is an argument supported by APL’s renderings, which make the difference between the two heights look innocuous despite the fact that one is 25 per cent taller than the other.
A good deal of discussion went to the question of project viability, cited by APL as the reason they need five extra stories on their tower. Because there’s already a fully-leased building on this rather tiny site, APL needs to factor in demolition and loss of revenue into their costs.
Retired Dalhousie economics professor Mike Bradfield pointed out that although APL may have paid too much for its site, that was likely based on speculating that it could get permission to build higher, which is not really council’s concern. “They think it’s a balloon, if you squeeze it in one place it expands somewhere else. But that’s not your function, to protect their balloon,” Bradfield told council.
Another healthy chunk of the hearing was devoted to shadows. The proposed tower’s shadow would pass over the Common and the Oval at certain times of day. Accountant and property developer Andrew Murphy asked, “what society would put shade on a park if it doesn’t have to?” Murphy said the site was so small that he was baffled as to why APL would select it. “The building is nice,” said Murphy, “but why would you put it there?”
Developer Danny Chedrawe said that while he thought all the shadow talk was bunk, he had a problem with the street level treatment for the site, saying that sidewalks should be much wider, and the street wall heights should be lower. “Instruct staff to go back and negotiate a better deal,” Chedrawe asked of council.
Many an opposed voice also took issue with the Centre Plan’s allowance for 20-storey height in the area, citing the desire for Parisian-style low- to mid-rise density instead. This will no doubt be something that comes up as the draft Centre Plan surfaces for public discussion in February or later this spring.
“Getting to 20 has already been a big compromise for many people,” said one woman, adding, “it’s getting hard to be engaged” in the public planning process.
One of the arguments advanced by APL in defence of the tower’s height is that the site is a landmark site, marking the entrance into the Quinpool Road centre. To that local arts manager Peggy Walt said, “To me a landmark building is a library or, dare I say it, a concert hall. It’s not really an apartment building.”
Council will reconvene at 9:30am on Wednesday to discuss an in camera matter, and then start their discussions on first reading of the proposed by-law amendments that would make a 20 or 25-storey tower possible at the Willow Tree. Stay tuned.