Residents who participated in Wednesday’s public meeting about a proposed Lower Sackville development said they’re concerned about impacts on traffic, sewer infrastructure, safety, flooding, and the health of the community’s lake.

The public information meeting was the first of two being held by municipal planning staff to seek public feedback on a proposal for the site at 70-80 First Lake Drive. The second meeting is tonight.

Before Wednesday night’s meeting began, HRM municipal planner Dean MacDougall addressed some pushback he’d received about a survey residents were encouraged to fill out.

“The feedback I heard was that…the questions in the survey didn’t hit what you wanted to talk about, and it wasn’t an opportunity to provide feedback outside of what the questions provided,” MacDougall said. 

“That was not the intent to make you feel that way. Tonight (Wednesday) and tomorrow night (Thursday) were always meant to be the main avenues of gathering feedback on the application. The survey was meant to supplement tonight’s meetings.”

A man in a red sweater and wearing dark blue pants speaks into a microphone as he stands in front of a screen projecting an image of a proposed development for First Lake Drive.
HRM planner Dean MacDougall addressing the Nov. 1, 2023 public information meeting about the development proposed for the site at 70-80 First Lake Drive. Credit: Yvette d'Entremont

As reported here last fall, Upland Studio applied on behalf of First Mutual Properties to amend an existing development agreement to allow the company to build three towers — six, 15, and 22 storeys tall – at the First Lake Drive site. The proposal included ground floor commercial and office space.

That application led to significant backlash. Some concerned residents created a petition, saying the proposed development was too tall for the area. 

‘Taking more time to consider what we do here’

In June, the developers revised their plans and instead proposed two six-storey buildings on a shared podium on the site. They’d comprise 77 residential units each, for a total of 154. 

Upland Studio’s development summary also mentions the creation of a new drive-through restaurant building within the Sobeys parking lot.

“We did have the intent to go with 800. We have the service capacity to provide 800 homes. But we were … faced with opposition against that. So we’ve listened and we’re taking more time just to consider what we do here,” First Mutual Properties executive vice president Ben Chaisson said in his opening remarks. 

“But in the short term, we have the ability to put 154 units and we can get out now, pending getting approval from community council. So we revised the project down to something that’s more palatable, to give more time for public engagement.”

About 40 people showed up to learn more about the proposal, ask questions, and provide feedback. No one spoke in favour of the development, although almost every speaker agreed that more housing is desperately needed. 

“I think everybody appreciates that housing is important,” resident Theresa Scratch said. “But it isn’t necessary to develop every square inch.”

Scratch expressed concerns about sanitary and stormwater sewer infrastructure, noting the study cited in the proposal may no longer be reflective of the site’s reality. She said high levels of human E. coli have since been identified in First Lake, directly across the street from the site.

As reported here in July, human waste was found to be the cause of high bacteria levels in First Lake. Halifax Water continues to investigate the cause.

First Lake E. coli counts remain ‘very high’

“Their initial comments indicated a reluctance to support any development beyond an equivalent that would be permitted by right,” Scratch said, pointing to a 2020 Halifax Water report calling the Sackville area’s sanitary and stormwater/sewer infrastructure an ‘ongoing concern.’ “So I’m not quite sure whether that study is sufficient.”

The health of First Lake and the impact further development could have on the water body was raised by several speakers. 

One of them was Janey Hughes, a local resident and chair of the Friends of First Lake water stewardship committee. Hughes said she’s “very concerned” about the potential impact the development could have on a lake that’s already suffering. 

Hughes said she actively tests First Lake for E. coli, and the counts remain “very high.” 

Brenda Piercey described the lake as a “beautiful, rich resource” and a source of enjoyment and joy for the community. She talked about white suckers that run down Sucker Brook and into the lake every spring, and the well-used trail system that even draws people from outside the community. 

“I know that there will be an impact with increased traffic, increased sewage,” Piercey said. “And the construction itself will affect the lake. And so that’s one of my big concerns with this whole development.”

Flooding

Louise Plasse also lives near the site of the proposed apartment buildings. She’s lived there for 37 years, and pointed to the increased flooding that occurs with every rainfall. 

Referencing the July historic flooding event, she asked if the developers knew what the First Lake site was like.

“You had to be down to see it. It was like Niagara Falls. Will they be taking care of this when it happens again?” Plasse asked. “And it will happen again, because we’re getting more water, (more rain).”

A group of people sit on grey plastic chairs in a large room with red brick pillars. They're facing the front of the room, where a man is speaking into a microphone and pointing to a large development plan projected on a white screen.
About 40 people attended a Nov. 1, 2023 meeting at Sackville High School about a development planned for First Lake Drive. Credit: Yvette d'Entremont

Concerns raised about traffic study

Traffic concerns were also raised by several speakers. Some wondered about the drive-in proposed for the other end of the site. The opposite end of the lot already houses a Tim Hortons drive-through, and they worried about increased traffic at both exits. 

Others noted that First Lake Drive “is becoming a parking lot,” and speeding along the roadway remains an ongoing concern. They feared the addition of 154 new units would cause further chaos.  

Local resident James Green said he’d carefully read the traffic report accompanying the proposal. He believes the figures are inaccurate, as they were taken during a pandemic lockdown and don’t convey the current realities.

“The datum point they pick is March 2022,” Green said. “If you look at the lockdown numbers for COVID, we were moving from 25% to 50% open, which meant we were 75% shut down.”

Andrew Roof also expressed concerns about the traffic study used in the development application. 

“I looked through that and it just didn’t add up. The exit out of the (Sackville) arena (across the street) was not even shown,” Roof said. 

“The arena’s full every single night, literally packed from one end to the other.”

Pedestrian safety

Issues around pedestrian safety were also raised. Roof said large numbers of students from the nearby junior and senior high schools frequently walk to the Sobeys located on the site during their lunch hour. 

There are no crosswalks with lights on First Lake Drive. In addition, he said overhanging brush isn’t being cut, which impacts visibility. 

“Hopefully if we stick with this, we’ll have some better pedestrian walkways. So I guess my recommendations would be try to work with the community and improve that,” Roof said. 

“Try to add some ways to contain the water that comes down that parking lot, whether it’s more grasslands, things like that, that can contain some of the runoff that’s going into the lake right now.”

Affordable housing needed

The subject of affordable housing was also raised.

One resident (who didn’t identify herself) said it was essential to consider the development proposal in the context of public housing being delivered to Sackville. 

“To do all this planning in exclusion of looking at that, I think, is to our detriment and to the future of the community’s detriment. We’re planning for the next few years, the next decade,” she said. 

“This should be generational planning…A lot of us have been here for our entire lives. So for a developer to come in and see this is an opportunity for revenue for them, it does not bring anything of value to the community. This will not be affordable housing.”

Lorne Piercey said the development isn’t a “great fit” for the community. He said while he and everyone understands the need for housing, what’s actually required is housing that’s affordable. 

“If I was a developer, I’m not going to build two six-storey buildings of affordable housing,” Piercey said. “So it meets a need of (accommodating) the needs of people, but it doesn’t meet the needs of the market. It addresses what the market is. Which is high rents.”

‘More empowerment to developers with less oversight’

Beyond issues of sewer, water, and infrastructure, Piercey also expressed concerns about provincial and municipal governments giving developers a “laissez faire, blank check.” 

“I’m concerned that the quick and easy way to address housing is to give more empowerment to developers with less oversight. And that’s a major concern for me. I think these two six-storey buildings are the thin edge of the wedge,” Piercey said. 

“I think it’s a way, I feel, to open up the door so that they can build a much taller building … Unfortunately, any increases that are required in infrastructure are not borne by the developer. For developers, profit is sacrosanct. It’s untouchable. We have to pay for that through our taxes. And it’s not fair.”

Privacy concerns for existing residents

The proposed apartment buildings would also directly impact the privacy of some residents. One man said he’d end up with 18 balconies looking into his backyard. His wife asked if the developers were going to help safeguard their privacy by planting trees and hedges.

Chaisson said his company recognizes the huge need for housing as well as the issues and concerns raised by the community. He said they’ve faced a great deal of pushback on creating multi family homes on the First Lake Drive site, and the community feedback is what led them to revise their proposal from 800 units to 154. 

Although the 800-unit development would’ve included some affordable housing, Chaisson said it isn’t possible with the much smaller revised proposal. 

“Whether this gets even moved forward, we don’t know yet. We’re trying to help the tenant situation, which is starting to become very dire in our opinion. And this site is very opportunistic,” Chaisson said. 

“With the (Staples) call centre, there used to be 800 people that worked in that call centre every day…They had 650 designated parking spots. So with regards to traffic, you need to keep that in consideration, that there was 600 cars flowing in and out of there every day.”

Tonight’s public information meeting on the proposed development takes place at 7pm in the Sackville High School cafeteria. People are asked to sign up (here) as space is limited.

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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